In Pictures: NASA’s cool, radical and visionary concepts

From satellite swarms to interstellar subs NASA is advancing transformative aerospace projects.

  • Phase II NASA this month announced a variety of technology concept programs for continued study under Phase II of the space agency's Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program. NIAC funds programs NASA says are “visionary ideas that could transform future NASA missions with the creation of breakthroughs - radically better or entirely new aerospace concepts…” The projects include plans for metallic lithium combustion, submarines that explore the oceans of icy moons of the outer planets, and a swarm of tiny satellites that map gravity fields and characterize the properties of small moons and asteroids. Take a look.

  • Swarming spacecraft Johns Hopkins University has offered a method for discerning the gravity fields and sub-surface mass of a small planet or other object without requiring dedicated orbiters or landers. In this concept, Johns Hopkins says a spacecraft would release a swarm of small, low-cost probes during a flyby past an asteroid or comet. By tracking those probes, it can estimate the asteroid’s gravity field, infer its underlying composition and offer a model of the body’s mass distribution and reveal unique aspects its interior that are otherwise unobservable..

  • Up PERISCOPE Nosanov Consulting’s PERIapsis Subsurface Cave Optical Explorer or PERISCOPE is an instrument and mission concept with the goal of investigating and mapping lunar skylights from an orbiting platform using photon time-of-flight imaging. According to the researchers, a spacecraft in a very low orbit would direct laser pulses into the lunar skylights, detect light returning to the spacecraft after multiple reflections in the cave, and transmit a summary of those data back to the Earth. A team on the ground would process that data to develop a 3D map of the interior void of the skylight that was at all times beyond the direct line of sight of the spacecraft.

  • The space sub NASA’s Titan Submarine (Titan Sub) has arguably gotten the most attention out of this group or research projects. With continued funding the project has legs. The Titan sub will be a fully autonomous, highly capable machine that will allow a complete exploration of what exists beneath the waves on another world, specifically Saturn’s Titan moon. The major risks found in the Phase I center around vehicle operations in a liquid hydrocarbon sea. Basic physics questions of operating in this cryogen need to be answered, the researchers said. Cryogenic experts at the NASA Glenn Research Center will develop models to explore mixtures and pressures of cryogens and gases and how they would react with a warm submarine.

  • Power without the sun Researchers at the Pennsylvania State University are looking to use a technology called Stored Chemical Energy Power Systems (SCEPS) to see if it could be adapted to power a lander sent to a target with no usable sunlight as an energy source. The group said it developed a mission to the surface of Venus, showing that SCEPS could be used for powering spacecraft and landers. The team compared it to conventional battery and Plutonium powered systems, both of which have deficiencies that are overcome by SCEPS. We propose to continue the research into applying SCEPS to exploration missions that can't be powered by sunlight, the group stated.

  • Looking for warmth and power where there are none TransFormers are a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory project that would let a series of machines on a planet gather and project sunlight onto robots or other systems that need warmth and power. For Phase II development the researcher propose for not only to create a micro-environment around a single exploration rover, but form an entire “oasis” where equipment for in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) can also operate. The proposed mission limits the illuminated area to the carefully selected oasis location, where the ISRU equipment operates and where the excavating robots operating nearby in the darkness come back to warm up and recharge.

  • Solar sailing NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center wants to build a solar sailing system with their concept called the Heliopause Electrostatic Rapid Transit System (HERTS). The HERTS is a propellant-less propulsion concept that is ideal for deep space missions to the outer planets, Heliopause, and beyond, the group says. 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. “Our proposal builds upon our teams technical findings in Phase 1 – “that an E-Sail propelled spacecraft can travel 100 AU in less than 10 years or to the Heliopause (120 – 150 AU) in < 15 years”.

  • Grab the wind Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Dual-Aircraft Platform (DAP) is a Phase 1 NASA project that uses almost stationary high-altitude unmanned aircraft to grab wind and solar power that could be used to support cell stations or orbiting satellites.

  • Outer space gas stations Deep Space Industries is looking into ways to develop space propulsion materials while in space instead of transporting them from Earth. “This study examines water-based propulsion using NEA volatiles to manufacture storable chemical propellants. The problem of storable propellants on Earth has been solved by the use of hydrazine derivatives as fuel and N2O4 as oxidizer, both made possible by Earth’s nitrogen-rich atmosphere. Nitrogen is scarce on asteroids, and would be best devoted to creating fire-retardant atmospheres for crews. There are plausible paths known for making asteroid-derived carbon-based storable fuels, but the provenance of a suitable storable oxidizing agent that does not employ nitrogen is an unsolved and difficult problem.”

  • Gathering the wind NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory wants to develop WindBots it could fly into large planet atmospheres – think Jupiter and Saturn and have them examine the planet while grabbing energy from the strong winds and magnetic fields around such planets.

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