In Pictures: NASA’s coolest 'way-out' future projects

From space submarines to solar wind powered spacecraft, a look at the coolest space technologies

  • NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program funds what it calls “visionary ideas that could transform future NASA missions with the creation of breakthroughs - radically better or entirely new aerospace concepts - while engaging America's innovators and entrepreneurs as partners in the journey.” What that the space agency is trying to stay on the bleeding edge with legitimate projects that could one day become real missions or as NASA puts it: Turn science fiction into fact. Take a look at the projects selected this year.

  • Johns Hopkins University developed a method for distinguishing the gravity fields and sub-surface mass distribution of a solar system small body, without requiring dedicated orbiters or landers. Instead of a lander, a spacecraft releases a swarm of small, low-cost probes during a flyby past an asteroid or comet. By tracking those probes, we can estimate the asteroid’s gravity field and infer its underlying composition and structure.

  • Eugene Boland of Techshot put forth a way of examining whether life could survive on Mars. His Mars Ecopoiesis Test Bed concept would conclude with a device for studying the survival of terrestrial life forms on the surface of Mars. Ecopoiesis is the concept of initiating life in a new place; more precisely, the creation of an ecosystem capable of supporting life. It is the concept of initiating “terraforming” using physical, chemical and biological means including the introduction of ecosystem-building pioneer organisms.

  • Here we see conventional telescope pointed at an opaque disk along an axis to a distant target. Rather than block the view, the disk boosts the resolution of the system with no loss of collecting area. This architecture, dubbed the “Aragoscope” by Webster Cash of the University of Colorado can be used to achieve the diffraction limit based on the size of the low cost disk, rather than the high cost telescope mirror used today. One can envision affordable telescopes that could provide 7cm resolution of the ground from geosynchronous orbit or images of the sky with 1,000 times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope.

  • Tethers Unlimited, Inc (TUI) wants to capture asteroids and space debris while minimizing risk to the primary spacecraft. TUI proposes the use of a nanosatellite-scale satellite, called the Weightless Rendezvous And Net Grapple to Limit Excess Rotation (WRANGLER) System, which will capture and de-spin the space object. WRANGLER will do that by combining two innovative technologies that have been developed by TUI: the GRASP deployable net capture device, and the SpinCASTER tether deployer/winch mechanism. The leverage offered by using a tether to extract angular momentum from a rotating space object enables a very small nanosatellite system to de-spin a very massive asteroid or large spacecraft.

  • NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab has a proposal to develop a small rotocraft that could be deployed from a balloon to land on Saturn’s giant moon, Titan. Titan is the richest laboratory in the solar system for studying prebiotic chemistry, which makes studying its chemistry from the surface and in the atmosphere one of the most important objectives in planetary science. “We propose a mission study of a small rotorcraft that can deploy from a balloon or lander to acquire close-up, high resolution imagery and mapping data of the surface, land at multiple locations to acquire microscopic imagery and samples of solid and liquid material, return the samples to the mothership for analysis, and recharge from on the mothership to enable multiple sorties.

  • Johns Hopkins University offered up PRIDE (Passive Radio Ice Depth Experiment) -- a concept for an innovative low cost, low power, low mass passive instrument to measure ice sheet thickness on outer planet moons, such as Europa, Ganymede, and Enceladus, some of which may harbor the possibility of life in under-ice oceans. The proposed instrument, which uses experimental techniques adapted from high energy physics, is a passive receiver of a naturally occurring signal generated by interactions of deep penetrating cosmic ray neutrinos. It could measure ice thickness directly, and at a significant savings to spacecraft resources.

  • Another from NASA’s JPL: Use an orbiting platform to study caves on the moon using a technique known as “photon time-of-flight imaging.” A tabletop demonstration of the imaging technique, “seeing around corners” was led by one of the authors and we assert that this concept can be extended to a lunar orbiting platform architecture.

  • NASA’s Titan Submarine (Titan Sub) will be a fully autonomous, highly capable science craft that will allow a complete exploration of what exists beneath the waves on another world, in this case Saturn’s Titan moon. As such no one has yet envisioned what such a craft might look like, how it would operate or if it could be built; this is the conceptual mission design work we propose with Titan Sub. The Titan Sub addresses NASA’s strategic goals by exploring the Titan environment which could hold clues to how Earth and life formed, it will create new technologies in the form of a semi-autonomous planetary submersible which could be extended to other planetary oceans.

  • The comet hitchhiker concept is literally to hitch rides on comets to tour around the Solar System. This concept is implemented by a tethered spacecraft that accelerates or decelerates itself without fuel by harvesting kinetic energy from a target. First, the spacecraft harpoons a target as it makes a close flyby in order to attach a tether to the target. Then, as the target moves away, it reels out the tether while applying regenerative brake to give itself a moderate acceleration as well as to harvest energy. Our concept enables to design a fast trajectory to a wide range of destinations in the Solar System by taking full advantage of the high relative velocity, abundance, and orbital diversity of small bodies.

  • Draper Laboratory proposes technology to break what it called the two-mission space exploration cycle (remote survey eventually followed by in situ sensing) by creating mission architectures that perform both remote survey and in situ sampling. Through enabling technologies, such as high-accuracy quantum, or cold-atom, inertial sensors based on light-pulse atom interferometry (LPAI), and the extreme miniaturization of space components into fully functional spacecraft-on-a-chip systems (ChipSats), these combined missions can perform decadal-class science with greatly reduced time scales and risk.

  • A spacecraft blown by the solar winds, that’s what a NASA team would like to see with their concept called the Heliopause Electrostatic Rapid Transit System (HERTS). The HERTS is a revolutionary propellant-less propulsion concept that is ideal for deep space missions to the outer planets, Heliopause, and beyond. It is unique in that it uses momentum exchange from naturally occurring solar wind protons to propel a spacecraft within the heliosphere. The propulsion system consists of an array of electrically biased wires that extend outward 10 to 30 km from a rotating spacecraft.

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