January 28, 2023

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NASA is studying some terrestrial future technologies

TitanAir concept for exploration of Saturn’s moon Titan.
Clarification: Quinn Morley

The future of space exploration requires big ideas, and NASA has no objection to considering some of the biggest ideas out there. The Space Agency’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program exists for this very purpose, and has selected the following set of concepts worthy of initial consideration.

The latest round of NIAC grants has been awarded to 14 research teams, who each received $175,000 to develop their concepts, NASA announce yesterday. Of the 14, 10 are first-time NIAC recipients. These are all preliminary studies for the first phase, which must be completed within nine months.

“NIAC Phase 1 studies help NASA determine whether these futuristic ideas can pave the way for future space exploration capabilities and enable amazing new missions,” NIAC program executive director Michael LaPointe said in the release.

Success in phase one may see some of these concepts carry over into phase two, where researchers are given more funding and two additional years to develop their ambitious blueprints. Only a select few make it to third base: the third stage.

NIAC grants typically cover a wide range of aerospace interests, And this year’s choices are no different. NASA strikes a balance between Earth and space sciences, space exploration and, most importantly for the space agency, advances its Artemis agenda, according to which NASA seeks a sustainable, long-term return to the Moon.

Fly AirTitan

Among the most striking concepts is Project AirTitan Conceived by planetary scientist Quinn Morley of Planet Enterprises. Various concepts have been to explore Saturn’s moon Titan suggested byAnd NASA is already in the midst Prepare for the Dragonfly mission, but Morley’s idea is clearly next level. An autonomous AirTitan vehicle would be as comfortable flying through Titan’s thick atmosphere as it would be navigating its own methane lakes.

    Artist's impression of a lake at the north pole of Saturn's moon Titan.

Artist’s impression of a lake at the north pole of Saturn’s moon Titan.
picture: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Morley envisions day trips for the AirTitan, seamlessly transitioning from watercraft (er, methane craft?) to planes. In addition to sampling Titan’s complex atmosphere, the probe will collect and analyze liquid samples. In fact, Titan is of great astrobiological importance, as it may host vital organic chemistry. However, thick oily lakes can be a problem, but an inflatable wing liner can “provide flexibility and reduce problems with sludge build-up,” according to Morley.

Large astronomy satellites

NASA is also interested in The Great Longwave Observatory The GO-LoW concept proposed by Mary Knapp of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This space observatory will consist of thousands of identical satellites operating at the fifth Lagrangian point between Earth and the Sun (L5). By searching for radio emissions at frequencies between 100 kHz and 15 MHz, the satellite array can study the magnetic fields of distant exoplanets and detect rocky exoplanets similar to our own.

Great Long Wavelength (GO-LoW) observatory imaging with low-frequency vector sensors.

Great Long Wavelength (GO-LoW) observatory imaging with low-frequency vector sensors.
The drawing: Mary Knapp

The “fail quick, fail cheap” approach represents a radical departure from traditional practices, Knapp writes, adding that “SpaceX and other new entrants to the launch vehicle market have driven the market lower and lower costs, through manufacturing innovations and economies of scale behind mega-constellations.”

Push the pellet beam

NASA wants Artur Davuyan of the University of California, Los Angeles, to further develop its capabilities Pellet beam propulsion system The concept conceived by the mechanical and aerospace engineer as a means of transporting heavy spacecraft to targets across the solar system and even into interstellar space. The proposed propulsion system would use a pellet beam — a beam of microscopic ultrafast particles propelled by laser beams — to propel spacecraft to desired locations. Unlike other concepts, the pellet package allows for the transport of heavy spacecraft, which Davoyan says “significantly increases the range of potential missions.”

Imaging beam pellet propulsion for superspace exploration

Imaging beam pellet propulsion for superspace exploration
The drawing: Artur Davoyan

The pellet beam thrust could take payloads to the outer planets in less than a year and to distances more than 100 times the Earth-Sun distance (au) in about three years, he claimed. For the current study, Dafuyan will look at the effectiveness of using a pellet beam to move a 1-ton load to 500 units in less than 20 years. For reference, Pluto is “only” 35.6 units from Earth, while NASA’s Voyager 2, launched 45 years ago, is approximately 133 units from Earth.

An oxygen pipeline at the lunar south pole

One of the main priorities of NASA’s Artemis program is maintaining a sustainable presence on the lunar surface, a challenge the space agency could overcome with On-site resources, such as extracting oxygen from lunar regolith (soil) and water ice. Peter Currie of Lunar Resources in Houston agrees, but he’s not a fan of NASA’s current plan, because Explain:

Current funded efforts on site [on-site] Oxygen extraction consists of filling the oxygen into compressed gas tanks or liquefying it and storing it in a dewar. Both methods require tankers or dewars to be moved to different facilities for use. The process of transporting this oxygen on the rovers is more energy intensive than the extraction process and is believed to be the more expensive aspect of obtaining the oxygen in situ for use on the Moon due to the long distances that would be the resource extraction area from a human habitat. or liquefaction plant.

Instead, Kuriri proposes a lunar pipeline, which would be built at the lunar south pole, where most of the moon’s water ice is located. The concept caught the attention of NASA, which led to a Phase 1 award for the research.

Depiction of an oxygen pipeline at the lunar south pole.

Depiction of an oxygen pipeline at the lunar south pole.
picture: Peter Currie

The pipelines would provide settlers with continuous access to precious oxygen, while also connecting scattered settlements. “A lunar pipeline has never been pursued and will revolutionize lunar surface operations for the Artemis program and reduce cost and risk,” Kuriri says.

Growing bricks on Mars

NASA also has its sights set on Mars, so it wants Congrui Grace Jin, an engineer from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, to pitch her idea of ​​growing bricks on Mars, rather than importing them from Earth. Indeed, settlers would need to build structures on Mars, but that would require launching materials on separate missions, adding to costs. Practically speaking, Jin’s research “suggests that instead of shipping ready-made outfitting items to Mars, habitat outfitting could be accomplished through on-site construction using cyanobacteria and fungi as building agents.”

These microbes will be persuaded to generate vital minerals and polymers in order to glue the Martian regolith into the building blocks. “These self-growing building blocks can later be assembled into various structures, such as floors, walls, partitions, and furniture,” Jane writes.

These are just a few of the fourteen concepts NASA selected for this year’s NIAC grant. You can learn more about other search proposals here. And, to be clear, these concepts haven’t been approved as actual projects—they still need to pass a sniff test conducted by NASA. Some And maybe all of these thoughts You may die on the vine, but those kinds of speculation are always worth it and a quick preview of what might be possible in the end.

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