NASA just funded research into releasing robot-swarms during flybys, improving life support system, laser-mapping lunar lava caves, exploring the hydrocarbon seas of Titan, converting torpedo power supplies for deep space, creating an oasis of perpetual sunshine on the moon, and characterizing electric sails. Awesome.
NASA pushes boundaries between science fiction and science fact with the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program (NIAC). We’ve seen this year’s Phase I of fuzzy concepts; now they’ve announced funding selections for Phase II of good ideas, giving them time and money to figure out the practical details of implementation.
The NIAC program provides funding in the hopes of developing outrageous new technologies for future research expeditions. NIAC projects initially win $100,000 for nine months of research during Phase I, allowing researchers to determine if idea is even feasible and a true benefit to space exploration. If it still looks good at the end of the initial period, the researchers can apply for Phase II funding: $500,000 over two years to refine the ideas and explore how to execute them. Once the program ends, the researchers should have a solid idea of how to develop their projects, although it will still probably be another decade before we see them pop up in mission research proposals.
This year’s Phase I winners included a robotic squid for alien seas, a pulsar-based navigation system, and robotic swarms to mine the moon along with 12 other wild ideas. Here’s this year’s Phase II projects that already work in concept, and now have the time and money to figure out the details:
Getting the Most Out of Flybys with Swarms of Tiny Robots
CubeSats — compact, bare-bones satellites — are getting traction as a low-cost way of conducting short-term experiments in the near-Earth environment. Justin Atchison and his team at John Hopkins University are taking the applications a step farther by testing out if major spaceprobes could carry a payload of mini-probes that could be released during flybys to conduct secondary science missions. This approach would apply swarm theory to deep space exploration, maximize the science that can be performed during flybys, and introduce a whole new style of data collection by deliberately relying on integrating data from many independent probes instead of multiple unique encounters by a single probe.
During Phase I, Atchison and his team confirmed the feasibility of using a swarm of small, cheap(ish) probes to measure the gravity field and subsurface mass distribution of an asteroid or a comet by simulating theoretical encounters. For Phase II, they’ll be extending the simulations by upping fidelity and comparing tradeoffs in the probes’ capacities. They’ll also be prototyping a dispenser and actual probes, characterizing how they function in the real world.
If this project works, one day we can look forward to future deep space probes like the current New Horizons spacecraft carrying a payload of pint-sized robots. By strategically dumping tiny representatives along their path as they soar through space, we’ll increase the amount of secondary science we can execute in a single mission.
Harnessing High-Energy Light for Safer Life Support
The unfiltered sunlight outside the Earth’s atmosphere is an excellent untapped resource to power life support systems. Bin Chen and her team at the University of California Santa Cruz are developing a new life support system that uses a different catalyst and new physical design that is theoretically more flexible, more efficient, and safer to operate. With a bit of tweaking, the new design could even be manufactured entirely in space, dropping cost and increasing usability even more.
By using titanium oxide (TiO2) as a co-catalyst to generate oxygen, the life support system can function without relying on thermal or electrical energy. The design feeds air through a highly twisted grid, dropping the mass and volume required. It does this through using photoeletrochemistry paired with a new three-dimensional design for the air flow system, resulting in a decrease in mass, decrease in system complexity, decrease in its power and cooling requirements, increase in deployment flexibility, and increase in efficiency. By operating at near-room temperature and pressure, the system will also be safer for astronauts.
Phase II funding will allow Chen’s team to perform experiments to characterize the system’s performance compared to current technology, hopefully confirming the drastic reduction in requirements to run the system in reality instead of just theory.
Peek Into Lunar Caves With Lasers
When lava tubes collapse, they create skylights, tiny windows into their tunnel systems. The moon is riddled with lava tubes and tantilizing skylights into these cave systems, but we haven’t been able to explore them (yet!). Jeffrey Nosanov of Nosanov Consulting in Maryland wants to create a LiDAR system for spacecraft, bouncing laser pulses into lunar skylights to create a 3D map of the interior of caves formed by prehistoric lava flows on the moon. This is cool because building in lunar caves is one of the ways we’re investigating for establishing a long-term human presence on the moon. This also pairs nicely with a previous recipient of an NIAC award for a cave-crawling robot.
During the Phase I research, Nosanov and his team used a variety of simulations and analytical tools to establish the concept was feasible for being able to interpret the multiple reflections of laser pulses to create an interior three-dimensional map of the caves’ interiors beyond the spacecraft’s direct line-of-sight.
Schematic of proposed LiDAR mapping of lunar caves. Image credit: Nosanov Consulting
For Phase II, they’ll be trying to develop the idea enough to be a feasible candidate for a full mission proposal, possibly including more detailed models and experiments with real-world materials to see how the system would respond to expected subsurface materials on the moon.
Dive Into the Seas of Titan With a Submarine
The seas of Titan are a seriously sexy lure in planetary science. After a single probe into its atmosphere and ongoing monitoring by the Cassini satellite, we know just enough to be entirely unsatisfied with our current understanding of the intriguing moon of Saturn. Its liquid hydrocarbon seas present a unique challenge for exploration.
For Phase I, Oleson and his team established that’s even possible to create a submarine capable of operating in a liquid hydrocarbon sea. Now it’s time to figure out all the details from how a submarine would interact with the strange environment to how to even get a decidedly not-flightworthy submarine from orbit into Titan’s seas in the first place.
Schematic of a submarine to explore the liquid hydrocarbon seas of Titan. Image credit: NASA
For Phase II, they’re tackling the basic physics questions like how the sea would respond to the presence of a warm submarine at different pressures and chemical compositions, and using that to refine the conceptual ballast and propulsions systems. They’re also passing along the conceptual designs to the Pennsylvania State University Applied Research Laboratory to evaluate using their hydrodynamic fluid models, integrating the latest data from Cassini on the composition and depths of the northern Titan Seas.
Payload and interior schematics of the Titan submarine. Image credit: NASA
Beyond the physical problems, the team is also harnessing the collective knowledge of outside experts by running a series of workshops at science and cryogenics conferences to direct potential science goals and capacities for a Titan submarine. Finally, Phase II cash will also be funding investigation into figuring out how to launch and deliver a long, cylindrical submarine safely into the seas, and how to set up robust communications systems so it can report home what it finds (either directly or via a dedicated Titan orbiter). By the end of this funding stage, the team hopes to have the Titan Submarine concept sufficiently developed in both technology and mission science goals to give NASA the confidence to invest via more traditional funding avenues.
Finding a New Power Source For Robotic Explorers
Just about every space exploration robot relies on one of two energy sources: solar power or nuclear power. Not everywhere has enough sunlight to make solar power feasible, and plutonium sources are running low enough that NASA is getting downright stingy in approving it for new missions. Michael Paul and his team at Pennsylvania State University are looking at adapting the U.S. Navy’s Stored Chemical Energy Power Systems (SCEPS) for use in space. In theory, the system exceeds performance of current battery systems, could operate in low- to no-sunlight situations, and not rely on dwindling plutonium resources.
In Phase I, Paul and company checked out the capacity of using a SCEPS system to power a theoretical mission to cloudy Venus as compared to conventional solar or radioactive systems.
In theory, a Venus lander could use a power system adapted from Navy torpedoes. Image credit: NASA
Phase II will involve scaling down SCEPS power generation to the few watts necessary for spacecraft exploration, on order of a few hundred watts instead of the millions of watts used for current military applications. It will also involve testing out how to make the best use of extraterrestrial environments to enable fuel combustion. This will involve elaborating on the theoretical Venus mission, determining if a SCEPS-powered mission to Venus could still function when using CO2 as an oxidizer, or if it’d need to bring along mass-demanding materials to fuel combustion.
The team is also adding in more possible scenarios to analyze the viability of SCEPS for exploring small bodies like steroids, moons, and comets, or for deep space exploration of outer solar system objects. This involves using trade space tools to compare the intersection of SCEPS capacity with its utility to mission requirements, mapping out how to best target the development of SCEPS capacity in a manner most useful for NASA’s solar system science goals.
Creating an Oasis of Perpetual Daylight on the Moon
One of the biggest challenges in using solar power is limited daylight. Adrian Stoica and his team at Jet Propulsion Laboratory decided to work around this with the creation of TransFormers, a computer-controlled mirror (heliostat) to redirect sunlight to solar panels. During Phase I, the team was pleasantly surprised to discover that the 40-meter diameter TransFormer heliostat supplied a million watts of power, enough to supply one hundred Mars Curiosity style rovers. That means that for Phase II, they stepped up ambitions: instead of a portal heliostat to power a single rover, they could carefully position heliostats to create an oasis for rovers to happily work while basking in perpetual daylight.
The TransFormers could modify the extreme environment of the moon to supply power and warmth to a swarm of small rovers. Specifically, a pair of heliostats carefully positioned along the rim of Shackleton crater could be enough to provide illumination for 86 to 94% of the time, providing near-continuous reflected light for solar power. These robots could prospect for and excavate useful components, kick-starting in-situ resource utilization on the moon to extract water, hydrogen, and oxygen. The target dimensions are to create a TransFormer that can pack into a cube that packs into less than a cubic meter, weighs between 10 and 100 kilograms, and can unfold into a thin (0.1 to 1 mm) reflective surface cover over 1,000 meters2.
Riding the Ions of the Solar Wind with an Electric Sail
Bruce Wiegmann and his team at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center are developing an electrical sail as part of a solar exploration project. Like a solar sail, the electric sail extracts momentum from the sun, but unlike solar sails which extract momentum from photons in sunshine, electric sails use electromagnetic fields to extract momentum from ions in the solar wind. This means the sail itself looks totally bizarre: a series of radiating wires spreading out from the spacecraft.
An electric sail uses electromagnetic fields to deflect the solar wind into creating propulsion for a spacecraft. The sail is composed of long, thin, conductive, positively-charged tethers extending radially from the spacecraft, with its electrical field extending dozens of meters beyond the sails into space. The tethers repel solar wind protons, extracting momentum and creating thrust, while simultaneously attracting electrons to keep the current flowing. The attitude of the spacecraft is controlled by tuning the potential of individual tethers, modifying exactly how it is deflecting the solar wind is a manner akin to tacking a sail into a terrestrial wind.
An electrical sail has a trio of major limitations: directionality, useable environments, and thrust control. An electric sail could theoretically only operate up to 60° inclination to the wind, allowing for up to 30° between the direction of solar wind and the spacecraft’s thrust, limiting where a spacecraft could go. The sail is only useable outside planetary magnetospheres where the solar wind is strong. More problematically, a spacecraft relying exclusively on electric sails for propulsion has no method of slowing down to match orbits with its target destination.
During Phase I, the team determined than an electric sail could propel a spacecraft over 100 times the Earth-Sun distance (100 AU) in less than a decade, or to the Heliopause (120 to 150 AU away) in less than 15 years. For Phase II, the team is checking out what other missions could benefit from an electric sail propulsion system, possibly increasing transit times so researchers could start getting data back from outer planetary missions within two years of launching.
I love NASA’s innovative concepts program because the projects go beyond the safe and reliable into the realm of exploring just how innovative we can be. By emphasizing creativity and imagination, we get all-new power systems, new form-factors for robotic explorers, and delve past reliable to push into something truly novel.
Top image: Montage of several Phase II funded concepts. Credit: M B. Wiegmann/MSFC/A. Stoica/JPL/S. Oleson/J. Atchison