Paragon to Develop Aerobot for Exploring Venus, System for Collecting Ice on Moon with NASA Funding

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Paragon Space Development Corporation will continue development of an aerobot for exploring Venus form the air and a system to extract ice from the lunar regolith with the help of a pair of NASA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II awards.

The Mechanical-compression Aerobot for extended Range Venus ExpLoration (MARVEL) would be an autonomous robotic balloon vehicle capable of carrying scientific payloads through the Venusian atmosphere. Paragon has teamed with Thin Red Line Aerospace to develop MARVEL.

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Probing for Life in the Icy Crusts of Ocean Worlds

During 2019 field tests near Greenland’s Summit Station, a high-elevation remote observing station, the WATSON instrument is put through its paces to seek out signs of life, or biosignatures, 360 feet (110 meters) down a borehole. The winch that holds the drill pokes out the top of the drill tent. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A technique for scanning Mars rocks for microscopic fossils of ancient life is also being developed to hunt for microbes in the deep ice of Enceladus, Titan, and Europa.

PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — Long before NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down on the Red Planet on Feb. 18, one of its highest-level mission goals was already established: to seek out signs of ancient life on the Martian surface. In fact, the techniques used by one of the science instruments  aboard the rover could have applications on Saturn’s moons  Enceladus and Titan as well Jupiter’s moon Europa.

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COVID-19 Delays to Cost NASA $3 Billion

High-resolution illustration of the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope against a starry background. (Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will cost NASA an estimated $3 billion due to program delays, according to a report from the space agency’s Office of Inspector General.

The report focused on the pandemic’s impact on 30 major programs and project with life-cycle costs of at least $250 million.

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SwRI Researcher Theorizes Worlds with Underground Oceans May be More Conducive to Life than Worlds with Surface Oceans like Earth

Interior water ocean worlds like Saturn’s moon, Enceladus, are prevalent throughout the universe. New research from Southwest Research Institute suggests that layers of rock and ice may shield life within such oceans, protecting it from impacts, radiation and other hazards and concealing it from detection. Layers of rock and ice may therefore shield and protect life residing in them, and also sequester them from threats and detection. (Credits: Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Southwest Research Institute)

SAN ANTONIO, Texas, March 16, 2021 (Southwest Research Institute PR) — One of the most profound discoveries in planetary science over the past 25 years is that worlds with oceans beneath layers of rock and ice are common in our solar system. Such worlds include the icy satellites of the giant planets, like Europa, Titan and Enceladus, and distant planets like Pluto.

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Using Micro-robots to Search for Alien Life on Ocean Moons

SWIM concept of operations, including lander / ocean-access cryobot (Left) and deployed micro-swimmers (Right) with independent propulsion, sensing and two-way ultrasound communication to the cryobot mothercraft. (Credits: Ethan Schaler)

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Phase I Award
Funding: up to $125,000
Study Period: 9 months

SWIM — Sensing with Independent Micro-swimmers
Ethan Schaler
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Pasadena, Calif.

The next decades of space exploration will focus on Ocean Worlds – especially Enceladus, Europa, and Titan – whose liquid oceans beneath kilometers of icy crust are some of the most likely locations beyond Earth to harbor life. To access these aquatic environments, NASA is developing and maturing numerous ocean-access mission concepts, including the Scientific Exploration Subsurface Access Mechanism for Europa (SESAME) class of thermo-mechanical drilling robots.

We propose developing SWIM – Sensing with Independent Micro-swimmers – dramatically expand the capabilities of SESAME-class ocean-access robotic missions and significantly increase their likelihood of detecting evidence of habitability / biomarkers / life.

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Returning a Sample From Titan Using In-Situ Propellants

Visualization of sample return launch from Titan. (Credits: Steven Oleson)

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Phase I Award
Funding: up to $125,000
Study Period: 9 months

A Titan Sample Return Using In-Situ Propellants
Steven Oleson
NASA Glenn Research Center
Cleveland, Ohio

A Titan Sample Return Using In-Situ Propellants is a proposed Titan sample return mission using in-situ volatile propellants available on its surface. This approach for Titan is very different from all conventional in-situ resource utilization concepts, and will accomplish a return of great science value toward planetary science, astrobiology, and understanding the origin of life, that is an order of magnitude more difficult (in distance and ∆V) than other sample return missions.

2021 Phase I Selections

About NIAC

The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program nurtures visionary ideas that could transform future NASA missions with the creation of breakthroughs — radically better or entirely new aerospace concepts — while engaging America’s innovators and entrepreneurs as partners in the journey.

The program seeks innovations from diverse and non-traditional sources and NIAC projects study innovative, technically credible, advanced concepts that could one day “change the possible” in aerospace. If you’re interested in submitting a proposal to NIAC, please see our “Apply to NIAC” link (https://www.nasa.gov/content/apply-to-niac) for information about the status of our current NASA Research Announcement (NRA). For descriptions of current NIAC projects, please refer to our ”NIAC Studies” link (https://www.nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/niac/NIAC_funded_studies.html).

To find out more, see nasa.gov/niac or contact us at hq-niac@mail.nasa.gov.

Aerojet Rocketdyne Receives Contract for up to Two More MMRTGS for Future Deep Space Exploration Missions

Artist’s concept of NASA’s Perseverance Rover. Perseverance’s power source, a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG) provided by Aerojet Rocketdyne, is visible at the aft end of the rover. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

LOS ANGELES, Calif., Feb. 12, 2021 – Aerojet Rocketdyne recently received a contract award to deliver up to two Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (MMRTG) to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for use in future planetary science missions. MMRTGs are radioisotope power systems that have been used as reliable electrical power sources on multiple deep space missions, including NASA’s Perseverance Rover, which will land on Mars on Feb. 18.

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NASA Scientists Discover ‘Weird’ Molecule in Titan’s Atmosphere

The moon Titan in infrared. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Stéphane Le Mouélic, University of Nantes, Virginia Pasek, University of Arizona)

by Lonnie Shekhtman
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Greenbelt, Md. — NASA scientists identified a molecule in Titan’s atmosphere that has never been detected in any other atmosphere. In fact, many chemists have probably barely heard of it or know how to pronounce it: cyclopropenylidene, or C3H2. Scientists say that this simple carbon-based molecule may be a precursor to more complex compounds that could form or feed possible life on Titan.

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Dragonfly Launch Moved to 2027

Dragonfly flying over the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan.

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — Dragonfly is a NASA mission that delivers a rotorcraft to Saturn’s moon Titan to advance our search for the building blocks of life. While Dragonfly was originally scheduled to launch in 2026, NASA has requested the Dragonfly team pursue their alternative launch readiness date in 2027. No changes will be needed to the mission architecture to accommodate this new date, and launching at a later date will not affect Dragonfly’s science return or capabilities once at Titan. 

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IG Audit: NASA Planetary Program Faces Major Financial, Managerial Challenges

Dragonfly flying over the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan.

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA’s Planetary Science Division (PSD) faces a series of managerial, financial and personnel challenges as it prepares to conduct a series of ever more ambitious missions to the moon and planets, according to a new audit by the space agency’s Office of Inspector General (IG).

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Evidence for Volcanic Craters on Saturn’s Moon Titan

This image compares nested, multi-collapse craters on Titan (upper left), Mars (upper right), and two on Earth (below). (Credit: Planetary Science Institute)

TUCSON, Ariz. (PSI PR) — Volcano-like features seen in polar regions of Saturn’s moon Titan by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft could be evidence of explosive eruptions that may continue today, according to a new paper by Planetary Science Institute Senior Scientist Charles A. Wood and coauthor Jani Radebaugh of Brigham Young University.

Morphological features such as nested collapses, elevated ramparts, halos, and islands indicate that some of the abundant small depressions in the north polar region of Titan are volcanic collapse craters, according to “Morphologic Evidence for Volcanic Craters near Titan’s North Polar Region” (https://doi.org/10.1029/2019JE006036) that appears in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets. A few similar depressions occur near the south pole of Titan. 

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Are Planets with Oceans Common in the Galaxy? It’s Likely, NASA Scientists Find

This illustration shows NASA’s Cassini spacecraft flying through plumes on Enceladus in October 2015. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

by Lonnie Shekhtman
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Greenbelt, Md. (NASA PR) — Several years ago, planetary scientist Lynnae Quick began to wonder whether any of the more than 4,000 known exoplanets, or planets beyond our solar system, might resemble some of the watery moons around Jupiter and Saturn.

Though some of these moons don’t have atmospheres and are covered in ice, they are still among the top targets in NASA’s search for life beyond Earth. Saturn’s moon Enceladus and Jupiter’s moon Europa, which scientists classify as “ocean worlds,” are good examples.

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Dragonfly to Explore the Icy, Exotic World of Titan

Artist rendering of Dragonfly on Titan’s surface. (Credit: Johns Hopkins APL)

by Kevin Wilcox
NASA APPEL Knowledge Services

On January 14, 2005, a spacecraft about 9 feet wide, with a mass of about 700 pounds entered the atmosphere of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Over the next two and a half hours, the Huygens probe, as the spacecraft was known, would report data from its descent through the thick atmosphere of Titan to the orbiting Cassini spacecraft above, and back to Earth. It also returned an image and data from the surface.

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Astrobotic, Carnegie Mellon Selected for NASA Award for Cooperative Rovers

Astrobotic is one of 14 companies selected for NASA’s Tipping Point solicitation. This illustration depicts CubeRover, an ultra-light, modular and scalable commercial rover.(Credit: Astrobotic/Carnegie Mellon University)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA has selected Astrobotic Technology and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) for funding to continue development of technologies to enable groups of rovers to cooperatively explore the surface of other worlds.

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NASA Selects Flying Mission to Study Titan for Origins, Signs of Life

Dragonfly flying over the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan.

WASHINGTON (NASA PR)  — NASA has announced that our next destination in the solar system is the unique, richly organic world Titan. Advancing our search for the building blocks of life, the Dragonfly mission will fly multiple sorties to sample and examine sites around Saturn’s icy moon.

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