NASA has announced the winners of its 2024 funding for pioneering concepts in space exploration. Highlights include a fixed-wing plane to soar over Mars, a swarm of tiny probes to explore nearby star systems, and a set of telescopic dishes with a baseline the size of the Solar System.
NASA Innovative Advanced Concept (NIAC) grants give money to projects that are not ready to be implemented, but might one day prove transformational. The Phase I stage involves relatively small amounts of money for blue-sky projects, encouraging scientists and engineers to dream big by putting some detail on ideas that are currently little more than notepad sketches.
The majority of past Phase I grants have yet to get much further. Some may just be ahead of their time, but most will probably prove more suited to the pages of science fiction than practical applications. On the other hand, some past awardees have graduated to the larger sums available in later phases. An even smaller number are now being built or have already been implemented. The Ingenuity helicopter, which has done so much to expand our knowledge of Mars, is a NIAC alumnus.
This year’s headline-grabber among the 13 Phase I winners takes Ingenuity one step further. Dr Ge-Cheng Zha of the Coflow Jet company has proposed the Mars Aerial and Ground Intelligent Explorer (MAGGIE), a plan for a fixed-wing airplane covered in solar panels for much longer flights. At one percent of air pressure at sea level, the Martian atmosphere does not provide a lot of lift. Nevertheless, it has been enough to get Ingenuity airborne and making 71 hops totaling 17 kilometers (10.6 miles)
Zha hopes to leave that in the Martian dust. By making MAGGIE very light, using enormous wings compared to its body, and banks of propellers, he believes it will be possible to fly 16,000 kilometers (10,000 miles) each Martian year. The combination of this range and the low altitude would allow MAGGIE to study the weak Martian magnetic fields to explore the history of the planet’s core, track the source of methane releases, and map subsurface ice.
“It is the first concept to enable ongoing exploration of this region of Mars and would provide a substantial leap in capability for NASA’s exploration of the Red Planet,” Zha wrote in his pitch.
Ambitious as it is, MAGGIE has nothing on Dr Thomas Eubanks of Space Initiative’s idea for a swarm of probes to study Proxima Centauri b. Eubanks builds on an idea that has been around for a while, creating a powerful laser that can accelerate very light solar sails to around 20 percent of the speed of light and direct them to a nearby star system. One challenge for this scheme is that the probes would have to carry so little weight they might struggle to send their messages home. Eubanks proposes to have the probes work together to produce signals far more powerful than any could produce alone.
Most importantly, these would be strong enough to be detectable from Earth, or in orbit nearby. In order to achieve this, the probes would self-organize like a flock of starlings into a lens shape. The probes would be launched in a long chain, with the latter ones given a slightly greater push so they can catch the forerunners. Some probes might fail to launch, be damaged on the journey, or suffer internal failure. However, once the immensely powerful launching laser is built, the cost of adding probes to the swarm would be minor, allowing multiple redundancies.
Others thinking big include Dr Lynn Rothschild of NASA’s Ames Research Center who hopes to detoxify Mars to make it suitable for humans - which could be uncomfortable for any existing life, if it exists. Meanwhile, Dr Ryan Sprenger of Fauna Bio Inc wants to study zero-gravity hibernation, hopefully as a stepping stone to sending people to the stars in suspended animation.
Later phases are announced separately.