From a super pink moon, to the BepiColombo fly-by – the month of April is full of celestial sights. Whilst looking up at the sky to witness these events, you may be wondering what will we invent next to help explore the vastness of space? Perhaps a telescope in a lunar crater that can measure signals that can’t be detected on Earth, or even some hopping probes that can determine the gravity field of small Solar System bodies. Well, thanks to NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, some of these ideas may actually become a reality.
Earlier this week the NIAC program announced this year’s batch of innovative aerospace studies to receive funding. Encompassing areas such as space travel and robotics, concepts are selected that could one day “Change the Possible” in aerospace. Whether it be a revolutionary update to existing technologies, or the creation of a brand new one, the NIAC program aims to nurture these breakthrough ideas through several phases of funding; ranging from a $125,000 9-month study (Phase 1) to a $2 million 2-year one (Phase 3).
Judging by the 23 studies selected for 2020, some teams have really thought outside the box. Here are a few of our favorites:
Lunar Crater Radio Telescope (LCRT) on the Far-Side of the Moon
Free from the ionosphere and other bits of radio noise that surround Earth, a radio telescope on the far side of the Moon could detect ultra-low wavelengths (between 10 and 50 meters/33 and 164 feet) which have yet to be explored by humans. The telescope, proposed by Saptarshi Bandyopadhyay, a Robotics Technologist at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, would be 1 kilometer (0.62 miles) wide and sit inside a yet-to-be-determined crater on the Moon’s far side. If the project becomes a reality, the LCRT would become the largest filled-aperture radio telescope in the Solar System.
Perhaps one of the more topical concepts, Lynn Rothschild, a Research Scientist at NASA Ames Research Center, has proposed a way to produce treatments for diseases that humans may face in space. By pre-programming space hardy cells to produce “protein drugs” when added to less than a milliliter of sterile medium, many medical conditions and emergencies that astronauts may likely face, such as hemorrhages, bone loss or infections, could be treated. Rothschild’s proposal to generate “on-site” pharmaceuticals in space, would bypass the problems of drug degradation due to time or radiation during space travel.
No, NASA has not funded a new psychoactive substance. “Gravity Poppers” are small hopping probes, developed by Benjamin Hockman, also a Robotics Technologist at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Deployed onto the surface of small bodies throughout the Solar System, the periodic collapse and “pop” of the probes could be tracked to help determine the gravity field and internal structure of the body.
Other concepts that received funding, such as an autonomous umbilical handling system to allow more effective astronaut exploration, and a renewable, liquid, storage stable rocket propellant that can be produced and burned on Mars, can be found here.