NASA's weird and wonderful NIAC 2016 selections

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Artist's impression of the RAMA mission, which would seek to transform wandering asteroids into functioning spacecraft(Credit: NASA/Made In Space)

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NASA has announced its 2016 selections for Phase 1 of its Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. As usual, the first round contains an impressive array of weird and wonderful technological concepts with the potential to revolutionize space exploration.

"The 2016 NIAC Phase I competition was fierce, as usual. All of the final candidates were outstanding, and limiting the choice to what fit in our budget was difficult," states NIAC program executive Jason Derleth. "We hope each new study will push boundaries and explore new approaches – that's what makes NIAC unique."

NIAC selections for previous years have included bouncing rovers, innovative telescopes and even robotic squids. Phase 1 of the program awards each team $100,000 in funds aimed at facilitating a nine-month period of honing and analyzing their concepts prior to Phase 2 submissions.

The 13 projects selected for Phase 1 of the 2016 NIAC program are as follows.

  • Light Weight Multifunctional Planetary Probe for Extreme Environment Exploration and Locomotion, Javid Bayandor, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg.
  • Venus Interior Probe Using In-situ Power and Propulsion (VIP-INSPR), Ratnakumar Bugga, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.
  • Project RAMA: Reconstituting Asteroids into Mechanical Automata, Jason Dunn, Made In Space, Inc. in Moffett Field, California.
  • Molecular Composition Analysis of Distant Targets, Gary Hughes, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.
  • Brane Craft, Siegfried Janson, The Aerospace Corporation in Los Angeles.
  • Stellar Echo Imaging of Exoplanets, Chris Mann, Nanohmics, Inc. in Austin, Texas.
  • Mars Molniya Orbit Atmospheric Resource Mining, Robert Mueller, NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
  • Journey to the Center of Icy Moons, Masahiro Ono, JPL.
  • E-Glider: Active Electrostatic Flight for Airless Body Exploration, Marco Quadrelli, JPL.
  • Urban bio-mining meets printable electronics: end-to-end at destination biological recycling and reprinting, Lynn Rothschild, NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.
  • Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments, Jonathan Sauder, JPL.
  • Fusion-Enabled Pluto Orbiter and Lander, Stephanie Thomas, Princeton Satellite Systems, Inc. in Plainsboro Township, New Jersey.
  • NIMPH - Nano Icy Moons Propellant Harvester, Michael VanWoerkom, ExoTerra Resource, LLC of Littleton, Colorado.

NASA has never shied away from embracing ambitious concepts under the NIAC program, which seeks to assess the viability of concepts that wouldn't be out of place if found between the pages of a sci-fi novel.

For example, the RAMA mission would seek to send a team of robots to convert far-flung asteroids into massive, rudimentary spacecraft. The mission hopes to leverage in-situ resource utilization and manufacturing technologies that are being developed by the agency and its partners as it forges ahead with its long term goal of putting a man on Mars.

The mission would see a collection of robotic builders rendezvous with an asteroid, and upon touching down, make use of locally sourced materials to construct the basic subsystems that constitute a functioning spacecraft, such as propulsion and avionics systems.

The team hopes that its tech will play a part in making future NASA missions such as ARM more feasible by moving an asteroid into an Earth/Moon libration point. Another theoretical application for the tech could be to divert an asteroid that would otherwise pose a threat to Earth.

Other missions would seek to explore the atmosphere, surface, and subsurface of the eclectic collection of planets and moons that make up our solar system. At this point, many will have read about NASA's interest in using an autonomous submarine to explore the liquid hydrocarbon seas of Saturn's moon Titan.

Illustration displaying the various stages of the ICE concept(Credit: NASA)

The Icy-moon Cryovolcanic Explorer (ICE) project selected for NIAC 2016 would use an equally ambitious approach to plumb the depths of Enceladus' subsurface ocean. If concept become reality, ICE would be the Russian nesting doll of planetary exploration missions, being comprised of a descent module (DM), a surface module (SM) and a payload of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs).

First, the DM would land on the icy surface of the moon and release the SM. This is the easy part. The SM would then be expected to traverse from the landing site, and, using a combination of climbing, absailing and hopping to navigate to and climb down one of the "tiger stripe" cryovolcanic vents scarring the southern polar region of Enceladus.

The SM, supplied with power by the DM via an umbilical cord, would descend until it reached Enceladus' subsurface ocean, and deploy the AUVs. The autonomous probes would then explore the moon's oceans in the search for signs of life.

Data from the AUVs would then be sent to the DM via a combination of acoustic communication and optical cables, and transmitted to Earth through traditional radio signals. A little convoluted, but if it works, it works.

A number of other selected projects highlight NASA's willingness to innovate past the traditional rover concept for hazardous and difficult to navigate destinations. The TANDEM mission for example would combine the functions of a heat shield, descent and landing system, and locomotion system in a single tensegrity structure.

Artist's impression of the TANDEM concept displaying atmospheric entry and landing(Credit: NASA)

The proposed design (displayed above) could best be described as a high tech tumble weed. Upon entering the atmosphere of a target body such as Mars, the lander is protected by a woven carbon-cloth heat shield. The incredibly light-weight design would be capable of reorientating itself in mid flight, and adjust the configuration of its struts to further soften its landing.

Once safely on the ground, cables running through the interior of the struts would be manipulated by a locomotion mechanism located with to the scientific equipment in the center of the probe to serve as a method of propulsion. The lightweight build and omnidirectional protection afforded by TANDEM would allow for deployment and operation in landing zones that would be considered far too hazardous for a traditional rover.

These are only a few examples of the concept technologies accepted for further study under the NIAC 2016 Phase 1 program. To read more on each of the projects visit the NASA NIAC web page.

Source: NASA

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