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.

ESA Planning To Build An International Village… On The Moon!

The ESA recently elaborated its plan to create a Moon base by the 2030s. Credit: Foster + Partners is part of a consortium set up by the European Space Agency to explore the possibilities of 3D printing to construct lunar habitations. Credit: ESA/Foster + Partners

With all the talk about manned missions to Mars by the 2030s, its easy to overlook another major proposal for the next great leap. In recent years, the European Space Agency has been quite vocal about its plan to go back to the Moon by the 2020s. More importantly, they have spoken often about their plans to construct a moon base, one which would serve as a staging platform for future missions to Mars and beyond.

These plans were detailed at a recent international symposium that took place on Dec. 15th at the the European Space Research and Technology Center in Noordwijk, Netherlands. During the symposium, which was titled “Moon 2020-2030 – A New Era of Coordinated Human and Robotic Exploration”, the new Director General of the ESA – Jan Woerner – articulated his agency’s vision.

The purpose of the symposium – which saw 200 scientists and experts coming together to discuss plans and missions for the next decade – was to outline common goals for lunar exploration, and draft methods on how these can be achieved cooperatively. Intrinsic to this was the International Space Exploration Coordinated Group‘s (ISECG) Global Exploration Roadmap, an agenda for space exploration that was drafted by the group’s 14 members – which includes NASA, the ESA, Roscosmos, and other federal agencies.

This roadmap not only lays out the strategic significance of the Moon as a global space exploration endeavor, but also calls for a shared international vision on how to go about exploring the Moon and using it as a stepping stone for future goals. When it came time to discuss how the ESA might contribute to this shared vision, Woerner outlined his agency’s plan to establish an international lunar base.

In the past, Woerner has expressed his interest in a base on the Moon that would act as a sort of successor to the International Space Station. Looking ahead, he envisions how an international community would live and perform research in this environment, which would be constructed using robotic workers, 3D printing techniques, and in-situ resources utilization.

The construction of such a base would also offer opportunities to leverage new technologies and forge lucrative partnerships between federal space agencies and private companies. Already, the ESA has collaborated with the architectural design firm Foster + Partners to come up with the plan for their lunar village, and other private companies have also been recruited to help investigate other aspects of building it.

Going forward, the plan calls for a series of manned missions to the Moon beginning in the 2020s, which would involve robot workers paving the way for human explorers to land later. These robots would likely be controlled through telepresence, and would combine lunar regolith with magnesium oxide and a binding salt to print out the shield walls of the habitat.

At present, the plan is for the base to be built in southern polar region, which exists in a near-state of perpetual twilight. Whether or not this will serve as a suitable location will be the subject of the upcoming Lunar Polar Sample Return mission – a joint effort between the ESA and Roscosmos that will involve sending a robotic probe to the Moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin by 2020 to retrieve samples of ice.

This mission follows in the footsteps of NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which showed that the Shakleton crater – located in the Moon’s southern polar region – has an abundant supply of water ice. This could not only be used to provide the Moon base with a source of drinking water, but could also be converted into hydrogen to refuel spacecraft on their way to and from Earth.

As Woerner was quoted as saying by the Daily Mail during the course of the symposium, this lunar base would provide the opportunity for scientists from many different nations to live and work together:

The future of space travel needs a new vision. Right now we have the Space Station as a common international project, but it won’t last forever. If I say Moon Village, it does not mean single houses, a church, a town hall and so on… My idea only deals with the core of the concept of a village: people working and living together in the same place. And this place would be on the Moon. In the Moon Village we would like to combine the capabilities of different spacefaring nations, with the help of robots and astronauts. The participants can work in different fields, perhaps they will conduct pure science and perhaps there will even be business ventures like mining or tourism.

http://video.dailymail.co.uk/video/bc/rtmp_uds/1418450360/2015/05/06/1418450360_4220193384001_4219972182001.mp4

Naturally, the benefits would go beyond scientific research and international cooperation. As NexGen Space LLC (a consultant company for NASA) recently stated, such a base would be a major stepping stone on the way to Mars. In fact, the company estimated that if such a base included refueling stations, it could cut the cost of any future Mars missions by about $10 billion a year.

And of course, a lunar base would also yield valuable scientific data that would come in handy for future missions. Located far from Earth’s protective magnetic field, astronauts on the Moon (and in circumpolar obit) would be subjected to levels of cosmic radiation that astronauts in orbit around Earth (i.e. aboard the ISS) are not. This data will prove immeasurably useful when plotting upcoming missions to Mars or into deep space.

An additional benefit is the possibility of creating an international presence on the Moon that would ensure that the spirit of the Outer Space Treaty endures. Signed back in 1966 at the height of the “Moon Race”, this treaty stated that “the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind.”

In other words, the treaty was meant to ensure that no nation or space agency could claim anything in space, and that issues of territorial sovereignty would not extend to the celestial sphere. But with multiple agencies discussing plans to build bases on the Moon – including NASA, Roscosmos, and JAXA – it is possible that issues of “Moon sovereignty” might emerge at some point in the future.

http://wpc.50e6.edgecastcdn.net/8050E6/mmedia-http/download/public/videos/2016/02/049/orig-1602_049_AR_EN.mp4

And having a base that could facilitate regular trips to the Moon would also be a boon for the burgeoning space tourism industry. Beyond offering trips into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) aboard Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson has also talked about the possibility of offering trips to the Moon by 2043. Golden Spike, another space tourism company, also hopes to offer round-trip lunar adventures someday (at a reported $750 million a pop).

Other private space ventures that are looking to make the Moon a tourist destination include Space Adventures and Excalibur Almaz – both of which are hoping to offer lunar fly-bys (no Moon walks, sorry) for $150 million apiece someday. Many analysts predict that in the coming decade, this industry will begin to (no pun intended) take flight. As such, establishing infrastructure there ahead of time would certainly be beneficial.

“We’re going back to the Moon”. That appeared to be central the message behind the recent symposium and the ESA’s plans for future space exploration. And this time, it seems, we will be staying there! And from there, who knows? The Universe is a big place…

Further Reading: European Space Agency

The post ESA Planning To Build An International Village… On The Moon! appeared first on Universe Today.

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