NASA Awards Next Round Of Grants For Futuristic Tech Development

NASA has awarded the next round of grants for one of its most ingenious initiatives —- the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. The concepts run the gamut.

There’s a concept for a device that allows an astronaut to step into a body scanner and, hours later emerge onto the Martian surface in a custom-made spacesuit, all the while breathing oxygen that was extracted from Mars’ carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere.  

Another grant is for the research and development of an inflatable bird-like drone that would sweep through the atmosphere of our sister planet Venus collecting samples for return to Earth. Once processed in an earth-based lab, researchers could look for signs of life taken from samples high in Venus’ atmosphere. 

A third grant will be used to develop a football field-sized starshade in space that would be aligned with ground-based telescopes in order to block out light from distant stars so that astronomers could search for biosignatures in the atmospheres of extrasolar earthlike planets.   

The latest slate of awards will provide $5.1 million to 17 researchers across nine states. The selected concepts include 12 new projects for Phase I study, as well as five Phase II awards that will allow researchers to continue prior work on innovative concepts, says NASA. Phase I fellows will each receive $175,000 for a nine-month study, and Phase II fellows will receive $600,000 each for study over a two-year period, NASA notes. 

Here are three of my favorites:

—- An array of hypervelocity rocket penetrators that pulverize and disassemble an Earth-threatening asteroid or small comet.

Known as the Pi-Terminal Defense for Humanity, this concept is low-cost and uses existing technology to disrupt incoming near-Earth impactors, says NASA and is put forth by Philip Lubin at the University of California in Santa Barbara. Pre-deployment of the system into orbit or at a lunar base allows for rapid response on the order of less than a day if needed, NASA reports.  

The effectiveness of the approach depends on the time to intercept and size of the asteroid, but allows for effective defense against asteroids in the multi-hundred-meter diameter class and could virtually eliminate the threat of mass destruction caused by these threats, NASA notes.

—- A portable magnetic field to protect astronauts in situ from solar radiation and cosmic radiation as they travel to Moon or Mars and back.

Since the Earth’s magnetic field is responsible for protecting us on Earth’s surface, a logical solution to the problem would be to have a spacecraft bring along its equivalent magnetic field, argues Elena D’Onghia at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her solution is a concept known as crew HaT, a new concept for a Halbach Torus (HaT), which consists of light, deployable, mechanically supported magnetic coils activated by a new generation of high-temperature superconducting tapes, D’Onghia writes. 

The idea is that this configuration would prodce an enhanced external magnetic field that diverts cosmic radiation particles. 

—- And, finally, Zac Manchester of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh will continue his work on his kilometer-scale space structures from a single launch concept to mitigate the deleterious health effects of weightlessness. 

This is a concept that would allow for the production of artificial gravity in space using a kilometer-size rotating structure.  After launching on a single rocket, Manchester notes that the proposed structure would deploy to 150 times its original size, becoming a huge rotating habitat that would provide artificial gravity equal to Earth’s gravity in some parts of the structure.

In the near term, such a structure would make sustained human habitation in cislunar space, for example, as part of the Lunar gateway, NASA notes. But such large structures could also advance astronomy by supporting large-scale telescope arrays, Manchester writes.

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