Managing a space agency requires being constantly at the forefront of science and technology, so for the last 18 years NASA has invested in cutting-edge projects that make up the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.
For 2016, NASA has selected 13 projects for the NIAC Phase I, which will test pioneering technologies for planetary exploration and long-distance astronomy. Each project will receive about $100,000 for nine months to support the initial definition and feasibility of these concepts.
“The latest NIAC selections include a number of concepts for planetary and robotic exploration,” said Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington, in a statement. “NASA continues to value early stage concept studies for our future missions.”
The projects vary in scope and breadth. Among them are two interesting ideas for icy moon exploration. The first, called NIMPH, focuses on a tiny lander that would collect a surface sample, convert materials into propellant, and lift off from Europa (or another icy moon) to then fly back to Earth. The second idea takes a page out of Jules Verne's book and focuses on a tethered rover that would climb down a cryovolcano and deploy a submarine to explore Enceladus or Europa's subsurface ocean.
The rest of Phase I concepts have a good share of innovative technologies. There’s TANDEM, a new lightweight landing system; a curious concept called Brane Craft, an ultra-thin spacecraft that could be used to remove orbital debris at a fraction of the current cost; and Project RAMA, which would turn asteroids into automatic spaceships and move them out of dangerous orbits, or take them closer to Earth to be mined.
Artist’s depiction of the TANDEM concept. Included is the deployable heat shield and tensegrity structure for high-risk landing zones during extreme environmental missions. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Planets are also on the target list. Venus has only been explored by a handful of probes due to its surface temperature, which is high enough to melt electronics. For this reason, scientists are looking into AREE, a mechanical lander that would collect samples and send them back using transport balloons. Another venus-focused project is VIP-INSPR, which would explore how to generate power on Venus using its toxic atmosphere.
NASA’s Journey to Mars could also come to benefit from some of these projects. There’s a project focused on planning the most cost-efficient way for crew and cargo to get to Mars, and another looking for a way to harness microorganisms to use the Martian environment to recycle and print electronics.
The New Horizons and Dawn missions have also brought focus to the smaller but numerous objects in the Solar System. A laser-armed probe could be employed to study the composition of smaller objects from orbit, while electrically charged gliders could use atmospheric plasma to fly around comets and asteroids. In addition, Pluto could receive an orbiter and lander powered by nuclear fusion.
The final project looks at the echo from the periodic oscillation of stars due to gravitational interactions with their planets. This technique could provide continent-level imaging of exoplanets, and it would be more cost effective than current imaging technologies.
“The 2016 NIAC Phase I competition was fierce, as usual. All of the final candidates were outstanding, and limiting the choice to what fit in our budget was difficult,” said Jason Derleth, NIAC program executive, in the statement. “We hope each new study will push boundaries and explore new approaches – that’s what makes NIAC unique.”