Space

NASA's weird and wonderful NIAC 2016 selections

NASA's weird and wonderful NIA...
Artist's impression of the RAMA mission, which would seek to transform wandering asteroids into functioning spacecraft
Artist's impression of the RAMA mission, which would seek to transform wandering asteroids into functioning spacecraft
View 4 Images
Artist's impression of the TANDEM concept displaying atmospheric entry and landing
1/4
Artist's impression of the TANDEM concept displaying atmospheric entry and landing
Artist's impression of the RAMA mission, which would seek to transform wandering asteroids into functioning spacecraft
2/4
Artist's impression of the RAMA mission, which would seek to transform wandering asteroids into functioning spacecraft
Illustration displaying the various stages of the ICE concept
3/4
Illustration displaying the various stages of the ICE concept
Artist's impression of the Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE) – this concept mission suggests exploring the hostile surface of Venus with a reinforced rover
4/4
Artist's impression of the Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE) – this concept mission suggests exploring the hostile surface of Venus with a reinforced rover
View gallery - 4 images

NASA has announced its2016 selections for Phase 1 of its Innovative Advanced Concepts(NIAC) program. As usual, the first round contains an impressivearray of weird and wonderful technological concepts with thepotential to revolutionize space exploration.

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

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

The 13 projectsselected 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 shiedaway from embracing ambitious concepts under the NIAC program, whichseeks to assess the viability of concepts that wouldn't be out ofplace if found between the pages of a sci-fi novel.
For example, the RAMAmission would seek to send a team of robots to convert far-flungasteroids into massive, rudimentary spacecraft. The mission hopes toleverage in-situ resource utilization and manufacturing technologiesthat are being developed by the agency and its partners as it forgesahead with its long term goal of putting a man on Mars.

The mission would see acollection of robotic builders rendezvous with an asteroid, and upontouching down, make use of locally sourced materials to construct thebasic subsystems that constitute a functioning spacecraft, such aspropulsion and avionics systems.

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

Other missions wouldseek to explore the atmosphere, surface, and subsurface of theeclectic collection of planets and moons that make up our solarsystem. At this point, many will have read about NASA's interest inusing an autonomous submarine to explore the liquid hydrocarbon seasof Saturn's moon Titan.

Illustration displaying the various stages of the ICE concept
Illustration displaying the various stages of the ICE concept

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

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

The SM, supplied withpower by the DM via an umbilical cord, would descend until itreached Enceladus' subsurface ocean, and deploy the AUVs. Theautonomous probes would then explore the moon's oceans in the searchfor signs of life.

Data from the AUVswould then be sent to the DM via a combination of acousticcommunication and optical cables, and transmitted to Earth throughtraditional radio signals. A little convoluted, but if it works, itworks.

A number of otherselected projects highlight NASA's willingness to innovate past thetraditional rover concept for hazardous and difficult to navigatedestinations. The TANDEM mission for example would combine thefunctions of a heat shield, descent and landing system, andlocomotion system in a single tensegrity structure.

Artist's impression of the TANDEM concept displaying atmospheric entry and landing
Artist's impression of the TANDEM concept displaying atmospheric entry and landing

Theproposed design (displayed above) could best be described as a hightech tumble weed. Upon entering the atmosphere of a target body suchas Mars, the lander is protected by a woven carbon-cloth heat shield.The incredibly light-weight design would be capable of reorientatingitself in mid flight, and adjust the configuration of its struts tofurther soften its landing.

Oncesafely on the ground, cables running through the interior of thestruts would be manipulated by a locomotion mechanism located with tothe scientific equipment in the center of the probe to serve as amethod of propulsion. The lightweight build and omnidirectionalprotection afforded by TANDEM would allow for deployment andoperation in landing zones that would be considered far too hazardousfor a traditional rover.

These are only a fewexamples of the concept technologies accepted for further study underthe NIAC 2016 Phase 1 program. To read more on each of the projectsvisit the NASA NIAC web page.

Source: NASA

View gallery - 4 images
3 comments
BradKohlenberg
I actually made that image on top, the correct credit is (Made In Space / Brad Kohlenberg)
peritaxi
“Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?” Being answered by US for all who would clasp the handle NASA offers on heaven's door
Douglas Bennett Rogers
A modular accelerator based fusion engine should be fairly easy to build in space. No vacuum chamber is needed.