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NASA Awards Money to Far-Out Mission Concepts

Nancy Atkinson
Tristan Dubin
January 23, 20249:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)

If you’re interested in out-of-the-box ideas for future space technology, look no further than the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. NIAC has been around in various iterations since 1998, but NASA just announced 13 new innovative space technology concepts that will receive seed money to help get these pioneering but early-stage ideas off the drawing board.

Some of the concepts are new ideas for missions, such as a winged vertical takeoff and landing craft for Mars or a daring sample return mission to Venus. Others are new ways of dealing with persistent problems, such as a new concept for a nuclear rocket engine; others are completely new ideas, with some in the category that sound so crazy, that they just might work.  

“The diversity of this year’s Phase I projects – from quantum sensors observing Earth’s atmosphere to a coordinated swarm of spacecraft communicating from the next star – is a testament to the truly innovative community reached by NIAC,” said Mike LaPointe, NIAC program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington D.C, in a press release announcing the new awards. “The NIAC awards highlight NASA’s commitment to continue pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.”

The 13 new awardees, called fellows, will receive NIAC’s Phase I funding, consisting of a maximum of $175,000 in grants to evaluate their technologies, which could enable tomorrow’s space missions. Fellows have nine months to explore the overall feasibility and viability of their concepts. 

If the ideas prove to be viable, fellows are eligible to compete for further NIAC funding. Phase II awards provide two years of research at a total funding level of up to $600k, to further develop the concepts, and identify potential challenges, while exploring opportunities to bring these concepts to life, either within or outside of NASA. Very few NIAC proposals have ever made it to Phase III, which provides for two years of further fleshing out the concepts, at a total funding level of up to $2 million.

Since all NIAC studies are in the early stages of conceptual development, they are not considered official NASA missions. But one day, they could be. 

“The daring missions NASA undertakes for the benefit of humanity all begin as just an idea, and NIAC is responsible for inspiring many of those ideas,” said NASA Associate Administrator Jim Free. “The Ingenuity helicopter flying on Mars and instruments on the MarCO deep space CubeSats can trace their lineage back to NIAC, proving there is a path from creative idea to mission success. And, while not all these concepts will fly, NASA and our partners worldwide can learn from fresh approaches and may eventually use technologies advanced by NIAC.”

One of the more eye-catching new proposals is the one highlighted above by Mike LaPointe, a swarm of tiny spacecraft that could send images back to Earth from the nearest-known potentially habitable exoplanet, Proxima Centauri b, located at only 4.2 light years from the Earth. The proposal was submitted by Thomas Eubanks, the chief scientist at Space Initiatives, Inc, a space start-up that designs small, 50-gram femtosatellites for use in low Earth orbit. 

But the concept for the Proxima Centauri swarm would incorporate even smaller spacecraft: thousands of gram-scale interstellar probes with solar sails that would be propelled by lasers, enabling them to reach relativistic speeds. In his proposal, Eubanks wrote that this is “likely to be the only technology capable of reaching another star this century.”  Once at Proxima Centauri, the tiny probes would work together to generate an optical signal strong enough to transmit images. 

“Our team determined in our work over the last 3 years that only a large swarm of many probes acting in unison can generate an optical signal strong enough to cross the immense distance back to Earth,” Eubanks wrote in his proposal. 

Those distances provide huge challenges. “The 8-year round-trip time lag eliminates any practical control by Earth, therefore the swarm must possess an extraordinary degree of autonomy, for example, to prioritize which data is returned to Earth. Thus, the reader will see that coordinating the swarming of individuals into an effective whole is the dominant challenge for our representative mission to Proxima Centauri b.”

Eubanks and his colleagues believe they can have the technology for such a mission available by 2075. 

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The Venus sample return mission proposal comes from long-time NASA innovator and scientist Geoffrey Landis from the Glenn Research Center. Landis has previously come up with ideas for colonizing Earth’s sister planet with cities floating in the planet’s cloud tops, and exploring Venus by airship or windsail.  Since the surface of Venus is one of the most hostile environments to explore in the solar system, Landis’ latest idea involves a spacecraft strong enough to withstand the immense atmospheric pressures and temperatures to gather and return a sample from the surface of the planet. The concept merges innovations in high-temperature surface systems and solar aircraft with a state-of-the-art carbon monoxide rocket that can create propellant from Venus’ hellish atmosphere. 

Another concept awarded funding for the 2024 Phase I proposals is a way to detoxify water and ice found on Mars for use by future human explorers. While Mars appears to have plenty of subsurface water ice that could sustain a Martian colony, unfortunately, the ice is contaminated by toxic perchlorates. Not only is it toxic for human consumption, perchlorates “are potent oxidizers that cause equipment corrosion … even at low concentrations,” writes fellow Lynn Rothschild from NASA’s Ames Research Center. The detoxification system Rothschild has designed is not so much mechanical as biological. It incorporates a spaceflight-proven strain of bacteria capable of consuming and removing toxins. Rothschild says that, unlike traditional water purification approaches, this would eliminate the perchlorates rather than filtering them to dump somewhere nearby.

“The system will be launched as inert, dried spores stable at room temperature for years,” Rothschild writes. “Upon arrival at Mars, spores will be rehydrated and grown in a bioreactor that meets planetary protection standards. Martian water will be processed by the bioreactor to accomplish perchlorate reduction. Processed water can then be used or further purified as required.”

Other concepts selected to receive 2024 NIAC Phase 1 grants include a network of telescopes on the moon, a microgravity hibernation laboratory for use on the International Space Station, and lightweight fiber-based satellite antennas for use on small satellites.  

You can find additional details for each of the 13 avant-garde concepts on the NIAC website.

Nancy Atkinson
Tristan Dubin
January 23, 20249:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)