Every year, NASA releases some exciting concepts for future space exploration that it has selected for further study. And this year we’re treated to a wide array of concepts for interplanetary and interstellar missions.
The program is called NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC). People can propose ideas for future missions to NASA, and if they’re picked in Phase I they will get about $125,000 for nine months of study. Those then picked for Phase II study get up to £500,000 for two-year studies.
“The program gives fellows the opportunity and funding to explore visionary aerospace concepts that we appraise and potentially fold into our early stage technology portfolio,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, in a statement.
There are 22 proposals in total (15 for Phase I and seven for Phase II), so we won’t run through them all here. But there are a few in particular that caught our eye. The full list of proposals is here.
One Phase I award is a Pluto lander that would use the dwarf planet’s thin but wide atmosphere to reach the surface, and then “hop” across the ground. Developed by Benjamin Goldman of the Global Aerospace Corporation, the lander would take advantage of Pluto’s low gravity (about one-twelfth of our planet’s) to jump several kilometers at a time, and investigate areas of interest. It could arrive at Pluto in 10 to 15 years.
The Pluto Hop, Skip, and Jump lander. Benjamin Goldman
Sticking with Pluto, there’s a Phase II study from Stephanie Thomas of Princeton Satellite Systems that would use a Direct Fusion Drive (DFD) to enter a spacecraft into orbit around the dwarf planet. This fusion reactor, which Thomas says could “revolutionize interplanetary travel”, is currently in development at Princeton.
Its high thrust could supposedly reach Pluto in just four years, compared to the decade it took New Horizons to get there. The probe would then remain in orbit to study Pluto, and also release a lander.
Elsewhere we’ve got a probe that would float above the surface of the Martian moon Phobos, to provide more data on it ahead of possible landings there in the future. Another proposes a new telescope to search for asteroids that could spark a “gold rush” in space. And there’s an idea for an artificial gravity device for human missions to Mars, using a “Turbolift” to give explorers the sensation of being on a trampoline to prevent bone and muscle loss while in space.
One of our favorite proposals would look into the possibility of using the Sun as a massive gravitational lens to image a habitable exoplanet. If placed at the right point, a telescope could see the light from a distant exoplanet bent and magnified by our Sun, and it might be possible to use it to get a detailed look. Slava Turyshev of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) put forward the idea.
A proposal with a similar goal from Chris Mann of Nanohmics would attempt to image exoplanets by using “stellar echoes”. Stars can fluctuate in intensity from nanoseconds to days, and these fluctuations can echo off planetary bodies. This Phase II study would produce a roadmap for a demonstration of the idea, which could supposedly see detail on exoplanets down to a continent level.
Artist's impression of stellar echoes. Chris Mann
Another interesting idea comes from Jonathan Sauder of JPL, who receives a Phase II award for his steampunk Venus rover. Called the Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE), the rover would aim to survive the intense temperature and pressure on Venus by using mostly mechanical components, rather than electronics.
“AREE combines steampunk with space exploration to enable science measurements unachievable with today’s space technology,” said Sauder in his proposal.
The Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE). Jonathan Sauder
To become a reality, most of these projects will need at least 10 years of development. But there is precedent for success, with Jason Derleth, Program Executive for NIAC, telling IFLScience that some technology developed for NIAC has flown in space. "The technologies are early in development, though, and have changed a great deal as they progress towards flight," he noted.
"The best example is the SPHERES experiment on the ISS [International Space Station]. That experiment, by Dr David Miller of MIT, had some of his NIAC concept built into it.
"A good example of a study that has moved along the path to flight is Dr Marco Pavone's "Hedgehog" rover for low gravity environments. It is close to ready for a mission to pick it up if there is sufficient interest."
Whether any of these latest proposals become a reality remains to be seen. But they provide a pretty interesting glimpse at what might be possible in the future.