NASA Invests In Radical Game-Changing Concepts For Exploration

Artist's concept of some of the Phase I winners of the 2016 NIAC program. Credit: NASA

Every year, the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program puts out the call to the general public, hoping to find better or entirely new aerospace architectures, systems, or mission ideas. As part of the Space Technology Mission Directorate, this program has been in operation since 1998, serving as a high-level entry point to entrepreneurs, innovators and researchers who want to contribute to human space exploration.

This year, thirteen concepts were chosen for Phase I of the NIAC program, ranging from reprogrammed microorganisms for Mars, a two-dimensional spacecraft that could de-orbit space debris, an analog rover for extreme environments, a robot that turn asteroids into spacecraft, and a next-generation exoplanet hunter. These proposals were awarded $100,000 each for a nine month period to assess the feasibility of their concept.

Of the thirteen proposals, four came from NASA’s own Jet Propulsion Laboratory, with the remainder coming either from other NASA bodies, private research institutions, universities and aerospace companies from around the country. Taken as a whole, these ideas serve to illustrate of the kinds of missions NASA intends to purse in the coming years, as well as the cutting-edge technology they hope to leverage to make them happen.

As Jason Derleth, the Program Executive of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program, told Universe Today via email:
“The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program is one of NASA’s early stage technology development programs. At NIAC, we concentrate on mission studies that demonstrate the benefit of new technologies that are on the very edge of science fiction, but while still remaining firmly rooted in science fact.”

Those proposals that are deemed feasible will be eligible to apply for a Phase II award, which consists of up to $500,000 of additional funding and two more years of concept development. And as with previous years, those concepts that were selected for Phase I were highly representative of NASA’s research and exploration goals, which include missions beyond Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) to near-Earth asteroids, Mars, Venus, and the outer Solar System.

“All 13 of these new NIAC studies are innovative, interesting, and groundbreaking in their own fields,” said Derleth. “There are a mix of NASA researchers, universities, and industry-led studies, all chosen by a process meant to identify and fund the ones with the most impact to our efforts to push the envelope in aerospace technology.”

For example, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s submissions included a mission that would send a probe back to Venus to explore its atmosphere in greater depth. Known as the Venus Interior Probe Using In-situ Power and Propulsion (VIP-INSPR), this small solar-powered craft would use hydrogen harvested from Venus’ atmosphere – which would be isolated through electrolysis – for altitude control at high altitudes (in a balloon), and as a back-up power source at lower altitudes.

Within Venus’ atmosphere, solar power is no longer a viable option (due to low solar intensity) and primary batteries tend to survive for only an hour or two. What’s more, radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) – like those that powered the Voyager missions – were dismissed as inefficient for the purposes of a Venus probe.

VIP-INSPR will address these problems by refilling hydrogen on one end of its structure and providing power on the other, thus enabling sustained exploration of the Venusian atmosphere. This is a creative solution to addressing the challenge of keeping a probe powered as it enters Venus’ thick atmosphere, and is sure to have applications beyond the exploration of just Venus.

Similarly, another concept from the JPL involves sending a next-generation rover to Venus, known as the Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE). This rover seeks to build on the accomplishments of the Soviet Venera and Vega programs, which were the only missions to ever successfully land rovers on Venus’ hostile surface.

Unfortunately, those probes that successfully landed only survived for 23 to 127 minutes before their electronics failed and they could no longer send back information. But by using an entirely mechanical design and a hardened metal structure, the AREE could survive for weeks or months, long enough to collect and return valuable long-term scientific data.

In essence, they proposed reverting back to an ancient concept, using analog gears instead of electronics to enable exploration of the most extreme environment within the Solar System. Beyond Venus, such a probe would also be useful in such hostile environments as Mercury, Jupiter’s radiation belt, and the interior of gas giants, within volcanoes, and perhaps even the mantle of Earth.

Then there is the Icy-moon Cryovolcano Explorer (ICE), another JPL submission which, it is hoped, will one-day explore icy, volcanically-active environments like Europa and Enceladus. The concept of an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) is something that has been explored a lot in recent years, but the task of getting such a vehicle to Jupiter or Saturn and beneath the surface of one of their moons presents many challenges.

The ICE team addresses these by designing a surface-to-subsurface robotic system that consists of three modules. The first is the Surface Module (SM), which will remain on the surface after the craft has landed, providing power and communications with Earth. Meanwhile, the Descent Module (DM) will use a combination of roving, climbing, rappelling and hopping to descend into a volcanic vent. Once it reaches the subsurface ocean, it will launch the AUV module, which will explore the subsurface ocean environment and seek out any signs of life.

Last, but not least, the JPL also proposed the Electostatic-Glider (E-Glider) for this year’s NIAC program. This proposal calls for the creation of an active, electrostatically-powered spacecraft to explore airless bodies. Basically, near the surface of comets, asteroids and the Moon, the environment is both airless and full of electrically-charged dust, due to the Sun’s photoelectric bombardment.

A glider equipped with a pair of thin, charged appendages could therefore use the interactions with these particles to create electrostatic lift and propel itself around the body. These appendages are also articulated to direct the levitation force in the whatever direction is most convenient for propulsion and maneuvering. It would also be able to land by simply retracing these appendages (or possibly using thrusters or an anchor).

https://youtu.be/0eC4A2PXM-U

Beyond NASA, other concepts that made the cut include the Tension Adjustable Novel Deployable Entry Mechanism (TANDEM). In a novel approach, the TANDEM consists of a tensegrity frame with a semi-rigid deployable heat shield composed of 3-D woven carbon-cloth. The same infrastructure is used for every part of the mission, with the shield providing protection during entry, and the frame providing locomotion on the surface.

By reusing the same infrastructure, TANDEM seeks to be the most efficient system ever proposed. The use of tensegrity robotics, which is a largely unexplored concept at present, also provides numerous potential benefits during entry and descent. These include the ability to adjust its shape to achieve an optimal landing, and the ability to reorient itself and charge its aerodynamic center if it gets overturned.

What’s more, conventional tensegrity locomotion depends largely on the actuation of outer cables, which requires mechanical devices in each strut to reel in the cables. However, such a system can prove impractical when used in extreme environments, since it requires that each strut be protected from the environment. This can make the vehicle overly-heavy and contribute to higher launch costs.

The TANDEM, in contrast, relies on only inner cable actuation, which allows the locomotion mechanisms to be housed in the central payload module. Taken together, this means that the TANDEM concept can allow for landings in new locations (opening up the possibility for new missions), can traverse significantly rougher terrain than existing rovers, and provide a higher level of reliability, safety and cost-effectiveness to surface missions.

From the private sector, Made In Space was awarded a Phase I grant for their concept of Reconstituting Asteroids into Mechanical Automata (RAMA). In brief, this concept boils down to using analog computers and mechanisms to convert asteroids into enormous, autonomous mechanical spacecraft, which is likely to have applications when it comes to diverting Potentially-Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs) from Earth, or bringing NEOs closer to Earth to be studied.

The concept was designed with recent developments in additive manufacturing (3-D printing) and in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) in mind. The mission would consist of a series of technically simple robotic components being sent to an asteroid, which would then convert elements of it into very basic parts of spacecraft subsystems – such as guidance, navigation and control (GNC) systems, propulsion, and avionics.

Such a proposal offers cost-saving measures since it eliminates the need to launch all spacecraft subsystems into space. It also offers an affordable and scalable way for NASA to realize future mission concepts, such as the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), the New Frontiers Comet Surface Sample Return, and other Near Earth Object (NEO) applications. If all goes according to plan, Made In Space believes that it will be able to create a space mission that utilizes 3-D printing and ISRU within 20 to 30 years.

Another interesting concept is the Direct Fusion Drive (DFD), which was proposed by Princeton Satellite Systems Inc. Based on the Princeton Field-Reversed Configuration (PFRC) fusion reactor, which is under development at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, this mission would involve sending a 1000 kg lander to Pluto within 4 to 6 years. By comparison, the New Horizons space probe took roughly 9 years to reach Pluto and didn’t have the necessary fuel to slow down or make a landing.

NASA’s Ames Research Center also proposed a mission that would rely on bioprinting and an end-to-end recycling system to turn Mars’ own atmosphere into replacement electronics. Under the guidance of Dr. Lynn Rothschild, this revolutionary idea calls for small living cells to be printed out in a gel which will then consume resources (like the local atmosphere) and excrete metals, or plastics, or other useful materials.

With this kind of technology, the mass of missions could be significantly reduced, and replacement electronics could be created on-site to address failures or breakdowns. This proposal will not only enhance the likelihood of mission success, but could also have immediate applications to environmental issues here on Earth (not the least of which is the problem of e-waste).

The other winning proposals can be read about here, and include a probe that will analyze the molecular composition of “cold targets” in the Solar System (such as asteroids, comets, planets and moons), a 2-dimensional brane craft that could merge with orbital debris to deorbit it, and the Nano Icy Moons Propellant Harvester (NIMPH) – a proposed Europa mission that would involve Cubesat-sized microlanders harvesting water from the moon’s interior ocean.

There is also the NASA Kennedy Space Center’s Mars Molniya Orbit Atmospheric Resource Mining craft, which would use resources in Mars orbit to make travel to the Red Planet more affordable for future missions. And last, but not least, there was the exoplanet-hunter proposed by Nanohmics Inc., which would use a technique known as stellar echo imaging to provide more detailed imaging of exoplanets than existing techniques.

All in all, this year’s Phase I awards represent a good smattering of the research goals NASA intends to pursue in the coming years. These include, bu are not limited to, studying NEOs, returning to Venus, more missions to Mars and Pluto, and exploring the exotic environments of the outer Solar System. Only time will tell which missions will move from science fiction into the realm of science fact, and which ones will have to be put aside for later consideration.

https://youtu.be/1cXrpSdcTEg

Further Reading: NASA, NIAC 2016 Phase I Selections

The post NASA Invests In Radical Game-Changing Concepts For Exploration appeared first on Universe Today.

Moonbase by 2022 For $10 Billion, Says NASA

Based on a series of articles that were recently made available to the public, NASA predicts it could build a base on the Moon by 2022, and for cheaper than expected. Credit: NASA

Returning to the Moon has been the fevered dream of many scientists and astronauts. Ever since the Apollo Program culminated with the first astronauts setting foot on the Moon on July 20th, 1969, we have been looking for ways to go back to the Moon… and to stay there. In that time, multiple proposals have been drafted and considered. But in every case, these plans failed, despite the brave words and bold pledges made.

However, in a workshop that took place in August of 2014, representatives from NASA met with Harvard geneticist George Church, Peter Diamandis from the X Prize Foundation and other parties invested in space exploration to discuss low-cost options for returning to the Moon. The papers, which were recently made available in a special issue of New Space, describe how a settlement could be built on the Moon by 2022, and for the comparatively low cost of $10 billion.

Put simply, there are many benefits to establishing a base on the Moon. In addition to providing refueling stations that would shave billions off of future space missions – especially to Mars, which are planned for the 2030s – they would provide unique opportunities for scientific research and the testing of new technologies. But plans to build one have consistently been hampered by two key assumptions.

The first is that funding is the largest hurdle to overcome, which is understandable given the past 50 years of space mission costs. To put it in perspective, the Apollo Program would cost taxpayers approximately $150 billion in today’s dollars. Meanwhile, NASA’s annual budget for 2015 was approximately $18 billion, while its 2016 is projected to reach $19.3 billion. In the days when space exploration is not a matter of national security, money is sure to be more scarce.

The second assumption is that a presidential mandate to “return to the Moon to stay” is all that is needed overcome this problem and make the necessary budgets available. But despite repeated attempts, no mandate for renewed lunar or space exploration has resolved the issue. In short, space exploration is hampered by conventional thinking that assumes massive budgets are needed and that administrations simply need to make them available.

In truth, a number of advances that have been made in recent years are allowing for missions that would cost significantly less. This, and how a lunar base could be a benefit to space exploration and humanity, were the topics of discussion at the 2014 workshop. As NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay – who edited the New Space journal series – told Universe Today via email, one of the key benefits of a cost-effective base on the Moon is that it will bring other missions into the realm of affordability.

“I am interested in a long term research base on Mars – not just a short term human landing,” he said. “Establishing a research base on the Moon shows that we know how to do that and can do it in a sustainable way. We have to get away from the current situation where costs are so high that a base on the Moon, a human mission to Mars, and a human mission to an asteroid are all mutually exclusive. If we can drive the costs down by 10x or more then we can do them all.”

Central to this are several key changes that have taken place over the past decade. These include the development of the space launch business, which has led to an overall reduction in the cost of individual launches. The emergence of the NewSpace industry – i.e. a general term for various private commercial aerospace ventures – is another, which has been taking recent advances in technology and finding applications for them in space.

According to McKay, these and other technological developments will help resolve the budget issue. “Beyond the launch costs, they key to driving down the costs for a base on the Moon is to make use of technologies for sustainability being developed on Earth. My favorite examples are 3D printing, electric-cars, autonomous robots, and recycling toilets (like the blue diversion toilet).”

Alexandra Hall, the former Senior Director of the X Prize Foundation and one of the series’ main authors, also expressed the importance of emerging technologies in making this lunar base functional. As she told Universe Today via email, these will have significant benefits here on Earth, especially in the coming decades where rises in population will coincide with diminishing resources.

“The advances in life support and closed loop living necessary for sustaining life for long periods on the Moon will undoubtedly provide positive spin offs that benefit both the environment and our ability to live with changing climate and diminishing resources,” she said. “If we can figure out how to build structures with what’s already on the Moon, we can use that technology to help us create infrastructure and shelter solutions out of in-situ materials on Earth. If we can use rock that’s right there, perhaps we can avoid shipping asphalt and bricks across the world!”

https://youtu.be/fjKGcVzqCjk

Another important aspect of making a lunar base cost-effective was the potential for international partnerships, as well as those between the private and public sectors. As Hall explained it:

“While there will be commercial markets for the eventual fruits of our lunar exploration endeavors, the initial markets are likely to be dominated by governments. The private sector is best able to respond in ways that provide cost effective and competitive solutions when governments specify and commit to long term exploration goals. I believe that a Google Lunar XPRIZE win will flush out other private and commercial partners for pursuing a permanent settlement on the Moon, that could eclipse the need for significant government participation. Once a small company demonstrates that it is actually possible to get to the Moon and be productive, that allows others to start to plan new business and endeavors.”

As for where this base will go and what it will do, that is described in the preface article, “Toward a Low-Cost Lunar Settlement“. In essence, the proposed lunar base would exist at one of the poles and would be modeled on the U.S. Antarctic Station at the South Pole. It would be operated by NASA or an international consortium and house a crew of about 10 people, a mix of staff and field scientists that would be rotated three times a year.

Activities on the base, which would be assisted by autonomous and remotely-operated robotic devices, would center on supporting field research, mainly by graduate students doing thesis work. Another key activity for the residents would be testing technologies and program precedents which could be put to use on Mars, where NASA hopes to be sending astronauts in the coming decades.

Several times over in the series, it is stressed that this can be done for the relatively low cost of $10 billion. This overall assessments is outlined in the paper titled “A Summary of the Economic Assessment and Systems Analysis of an Evolvable Lunar Architecture That Leverages Commercial Space Capabilities and Public–Private Partner“. As it concludes:

“Based on the experience of recent NASA program innovations, such as the COTS program, a human return to the Moon may not be as expensive as previously thought. The United States could lead a return of humans to the surface of the Moon within a period of 5–7 years from authority to proceed at an estimated total cost of about $10 billion (–30%) for two independent and competing commercial service providers, or about $5 billion for each provider, using partnership methods.”

Other issues discussed in the series are the location of the base and the nature of its life-support systems. In the article titled “Site Selection for Lunar Industrialization, Economic Development, and Settlement“, the case is made for a base located in either the northern or southern polar region. Written by Dennis Whigo, founder and CEO of Skycorp, the article identifies two potential sites for a lunar base, using input parameters developed in consultation with venture capitalists.

These include the issues of power availability, low-cost communications over wide areas, availability of possible water (or hydrogen-based molecules) and other resources, and surface mobility. According to these assessments, the northern polar region is a good location because of its ample access to solar power. The southern pole is also identified as a potential site (particularly in the Shackleton Crater) due to the presence of water ice.

Last, but certainly not least, the series explores the issue of economic opportunities that could have far-ranging benefits for people here on Earth. Foremost among these is the potential for creating space solar power (SSP), a concept which has been explored as a possible solution to humanity’s reliance on fossil fuels and the limits of Earth-based solar power.

Whereas Earth-based solar collectors are limited by meteorological phenomena (i.e. weather) and Earth’s diurnal cycle (night and day), solar collectors placed in orbit would be able to collect energy from the Sun around the clock. However, the issues of launch and wireless energy transmission costs make this option financially unattractive.

But as is laid out in “Lunar-Based Self-Replicating Solar Factory“, establishing a factory on the Moon could reduce costs by a factor of four. This factory could build solar power satellites out of lunar material, using a self-replicating system (SRS) able to construct replicas of itself, then deploy them into geostationary Earth orbit via a linear electromagnetic accelerator (aka. Mass Driver).

An overriding theme in the series is how a lunar base would present opportunities for cooperation, both between the private and public sectors and different nations. The ISS is repeatedly used an example, which has benefited greatly in the past decade from programs like NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) – which has been very successful at acquiring cost-effective transportation service to the station.

It is therefore understandable why NASA and those companies that have benefited from COTS want to extend this model to the Moon – in what is often referred to as Lunar Commercial Orbital Transfer Services (LCOTS) program. Aside from establishing a human presence on the Moon, this endeavor is being undertaken with the knowledge that it will also push the development of technologies and capabilities that could lead to an affordable to Mars in the coming years.

It sure is an exciting idea: returning to the Moon and laying the groundwork for a permanent human settlement there. It is also exciting when considered in the larger context of space exploration, how a base on the Moon will help us to reach further into space. To Mars, to the Asteroid Belt, perhaps to the outer Solar System and beyond.

And with each step, the opportunities for resource utilization and scientific research will expand accordingly. It may sounds like the stuff of dreams; but then again, so did the idea of putting a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960s. If there’s one thing that particular experience taught us, it’s that setting foot on another world leaves lasting footprints!

Further Reading: New Space

The post Moonbase by 2022 For $10 Billion, Says NASA appeared first on Universe Today.

Here’s The First 3-D Part Printed In Space. Where Will That Take Us Next?

Here’s the 22nd-century version of breaking the surly bonds of Earth: NASA and private company Made In Space have just collaborated on the first 3-D printed part in space, ever. The milestone yesterday (Nov. 25) is a baby step towards off-Earth manufacturing, but the implications are huge. If these testbeds prove effective enough, eventually we […]