Space travel is all about research and innovation. With that in mind, NASA has a specialized branch whose sole purpose is to find and fund innovative ideas that can help further our efforts to explore the cosmos. And this year’s grants have been approved and announced.
Every year, NASA offers a series of grants in support of exciting and promising research to underpin the world of the future. It’s called NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (or NIAC) Program. The 2022 crop of projects includes 12 Phase 1 projects (with an initial funding grant of $175,000) that will be explored over the next nine months, and five projects in Phase 2 (which receive a $600,000 grant for a two-year research period).
A special interest has been given this year to initiatives that involve helping NASA return to Venus, as the agency has already announced new missions to study the planet — the first time in 30 years — which are in preparation for some time during the 2020 decade. Replacement ideas of the International Space Station are also being explored through the NIAC program, as the vessel is planned for decommissioning and a controlled crash in the future as commercial space stations take on its duties.
The Phase 1 projects are:
Cryospheric Rydberg Radar. In essence, this project is looking into the potential development of a new, quantum radar that could theoretically be used in all settings. Although this technology would serve well on spaceships, NASA explains that it has huge potential to be used in public and industrial settings “covering virtually every application of radio/radar”.
Silent, Solid-State Propulsion for Advanced Air Mobility Vehicles. This project would further our ability to use small, electric, vertical takeoff and landing aircraft in urban landscapes by addressing the single largest complaint the public has with such operations: noise. The solution is to develop electroaerodynamic (EAD) propulsion systems, which produce thrust through collisional ion acceleration without any moving surfaces, and are thus nearly completely silent.
Combined Heat Shield and Solar Thermal Propulsion System for an Oberth Manuever. A powered flyby, or Oberth maneuver, is a maneuver during which a spacecraft falls into a gravitational well and then uses its engines to further accelerate as it is falling, making it go really fast. This project is looking to develop a heat exchanger/shield that is powerful enough to withstand an Oberth maneuver around the Sun, which could make it easier for us to launch missions towards Kuiper Belt Objects or interstellar space.
CREW HaT: Cosmic Radiation Extended Warding using the Halbach Torus. Space is a very hazardous place, not least of which because it is saturated with dangerous radiation. This project will look into creating a device that will act as a personal shield against this radiation, protecting crew on missions outside spacecraft.
The Spacesuit Digital Thread: 4.0. This system will allow for custom spacesuits to be created for each astronaut based on scans of their body shape. The system is meant to become a “digital human scan to digital design/analyses to robotic manufacture” system.
Breathing Mars Air: Stationary and Portable O2 Generation. This device is also earmarked for our efforts to put people on Mars. It involves a new device that can separate oxygen from the Martian atmosphere ten times more efficiently than current options.
Pi – Terminal Defense for Humanity – essentially an asteroid destroyer. Essentially, this is a giant gun meant to break apart asteroids that threaten to hit Earth. The fragments resulting from this impact should be small enough to burn harmlessly in the planet’s atmosphere.
Hybrid Observatory for Earth-like Exoplanets (HOEE). The HOEE design proposes using an enormous starshade — an object the size of a football field that blocks the glare from stars — to improve our telescopes’ ability to peer at far-away objects.
In-situ Neutral-Optics Velocity Analyzer for Thermospheric Exploration (INOVATE). Spaceweather is a very sci-fi-sounding concept, and it’s something we know precious little about. Direct measurement data is an area where we’re especially lacking. The INOVATE project proposes the use of a spacecraft swarm used to study space weather.
Starburst: A Revolutionary Under-Constrained Adaptable Deployable Structure Architecture. Unlike most other projects on this list, this one peers towards Earth, not away. The Starburst proposal puts forth the idea of using a specialized satellite to analyze storms on Earth and improve our predictive ability for such events.
Venus Atmosphere and Cloud Particle Sample Return for Astrobiology. This is a study aiming to detect the presence of any life forms on Venus. It would involve the direct harvest of gas and cloud samples from Venus and returning them to Earth for study.
SCOPE: ScienceCraft for Outer Planet Exploration. Like sailing ships of old, SCOPE will use a series of solar sails for propulsion. This design would allow it to reach far deeper into space than any craft we have today, as it wouldn’t need to carry any fuel for the journey, and could accelerate almost indefinitely.
The five Phase 2 projects that have received funding are:
BREEZE (Bioinspired Ray for Extreme Environments and Zonal Exploration). BREEZE aims to help us less-than-lethally explore the atmosphere of Venus by deploying bird-like drones. These robots should have much better energy efficiency than our current drones and be resistant to the planet’s corrosive clouds.
Kilometer-Scale Space Structures from a Single Launch. Extended time spent in zero-gravity in space seems to come with a whole host of health issues. This project aims to design a rotating space habitat that would mimic the gravity of Earth, thus removing the health risks of long-term spaceflight.
ReachBot: Small Robot for Large Mobile Manipulation Tasks in Martian Cave Environments. Do you want to risk your life exploring potentially unstable subsurface caves on Mars? Didn’t think so. This robot will do it for us.
SWIM-Sensing with Independent Micro-swimmers. On the subject of exploration bots, SWIM aims to deliver a swarm of 3D-printed micro-robots that can swim through and explore the oceans of worlds like Enceladus, Europa, and Titan.
As futuristic as these proposals sound, they are actual projects being undertaken — with NASA funding, no less — right as we speak. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that we see them bear fruit, because each and every one of them is fascinating in its own right, and showcases just how far we’ve come as a species that we’re researching into topics that two decades ago were the stuff of movies.