NASA looks to outside technology for the future of space exploration

Funding will cover 18 projects in an innovation scheme and work on deep space habitats

Illustration of the interior of a deep space habitat
Credits: NASA

Smart spacesuits and solar surfing may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but they are just two of the technology concepts NASA has selected for further research as part of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) programme.

The programme will fund 18 studies to determine the feasibility of early-stage technologies that could go on to change what’s possible in space.

Another ambitious step by NASA for the future of the organisation is the selection of two new Space Technology Research Institutes (STRIs) to advance space habitat designs using resilient and autonomous systems. The smart habitat, or SmartHab, research will complement other NASA projects to help mature the mission architecture needed to meet challenging exploration goals. The chosen institutes are Habitats Optimized for Missions of Exploration and Resilient ExtraTerrestrial Habitats institute.

The NIAC funded technologies have the potential to transform human and robotic exploration of other worlds, including the Moon and Mars. One researcher, for example, will study an affordable way to mine the ample ice at the Moon’s polar regions. NASA aims to send astronauts to land on the Moon’s South Pole in five years.

Funding levels

The latest NIAC selections include Phase I and Phase II awards. The selected Phase I studies cover a wide range of innovations. Each Phase I award is valued at approximately $125,000, helping researchers define and analyze their proposed concepts over nine months. If the initial feasibility studies are successful, awardees can apply for Phase II awards.

Then for the first time, this summer the NIAC program will select one Phase III research study. The award will be up to $2 million for as long as two years. This final phase is designed to strategically transition a NIAC concept with the highest potential impact to NASA, other government agencies or commercial companies.

“NIAC is about going to the edge of science fiction, but not over,” said Jason Derleth, NIAC program executive. “We are supporting high impact technology concepts that could change how we explore within the solar system and beyond.”

NIAC partners with forward-thinking scientists, engineers and citizen inventors from across the nation to help maintain America’s leadership in aeronautics and space research. NIAC is funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, which is responsible for developing the cross-cutting, pioneering new technologies and capabilities needed by the agency to achieve its current and future missions.

 

New Phase I selections

Bioinspired Ray for Extreme Environments and Zonal Exploration (BREEZE):

Combines inflatable structures with bio-inspired kinematics to explore and study the atmosphere of Venus

Javid Bayandor, State University of New York, Buffalo

 

Power Beaming for Long Life Venus Surface Missions:

New approach to support a Venus surface mission with power beaming

Erik Brandon, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California

 

SmartSuit:

An intelligent spacesuit design with soft-robotics, self-healing skin and data collection for extravehicular activity in extreme environments that allows for greater mobility for exploration missions

Ana Diaz Artiles, Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station, College Station

 

Dual Use Exoplanet Telescope (DUET):

A novel telescope design to find and characterize planetary systems outside the solar system

Tom Ditto, 3DeWitt, Ancramdale, New York

 

Micro-Probes Propelled and Powered by Planetary Atmospheric Electricity (MP4AE):

Similar to the ballooning capabilities of spiders, these floating microprobes use electrostatic lift to study planetary atmospheres

Yu Gu, West Virginia University, Morgantown

 

Swarm-Probe Enabled ATEG Reactor (SPEAR) Probe:

An ultra-lightweight nuclear electric propulsion probe for deep space exploration, designed to keep mass and volume low for commercial launch

Troy Howe, Howe Industries, Tempe, Arizona

 

Ripcord Innovative Power System (RIPS):

An investigation of a drag using ripcord unspooling power system for descent probes into planets with atmospheres, such as Saturn

Noam Izenberg, Johns Hopkins University, Laurel, Maryland

 

Power for Interstellar Fly-by:

Power harvesting from ultra-miniature probes to enable interstellar missions

Geoffrey Landis, NASA’s Glenn Research Center, Cleveland

 

Lunar-polar Propellant Mining Outpost (LPMO):

Affordable lunar pole ice mining for propellant production

Joel Serce, TransAstra Corporation, Lake View Terrace, California

 

Crosscutting High Apogee Refueling Orbital Navigator (CHARON):

Novel system for small space debris mitigation

John Slough, MSNW, Redmond, Washington

 

Thermal Mining of Ices on Cold Solar System Bodies:

Proposes using a unique heat application on frozen volatiles and other materials for resource extraction

George Sowers, Colorado School of Mines, Golden

 

Low-Cost SmallSats to Explore to Our Solar System's Boundaries:

A design for a low-cost, small satellite heliophysics mission to the outer solar system

Robert Staehle, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

 

Phase II studies allow researchers to further develop concepts, refine designs and start considering how the new technology would be implemented.

This year’s Phase II selections address a range of cutting-edge concepts from flexible telescopes to new heat-withstanding materials. Awards under Phase II can be worth as much as $500,000 for two-year studies.

 

Phase II selections

The High Étendue Multiple Object Spectrographic Telescope (THE MOST):

A new, flexible optical telescope design that can be a deployed in a cylindrical roll and installed upon delivery, on a 3D printed structure

Tom Ditto, 3DeWitt, Ancramdale, New York

 

Rotary-Motion-Extended Array Synthesis (R-MXAS):

A geostationary synthetic aperture imaging radiometer with a rotating tethered antenna

John Kendra, Leidos, Reston, Virginia

 

Self-Guided Beamed Propulsion for Breakthrough Interstellar Missions:

An effort to advance self-guided beamed propulsion technology

Chris Limbach, Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station, College Station

 

Astrophysics and Technical Lab Studies of a Solar Neutrino Spacecraft Detector:

A small-scale neutrino detector study to advance detector technology for future probe missions

Nickolas Solomey, Wichita State University, Kansas

 

Diffractive LightSails:

A study to design and advance passive and electro-optically active diffractive films for missions in low-Earth orbit, inner solar orbits and to distant stars

Grover Swartzlander, Rochester Institute of Technology, New York

 

Solar Surfing:

A materials-science study to determine the best protective materials to enable heliophysics missions closer to the Sun

Doug Willard, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida

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