From Levitating Transport System on Moon to Plasma Rocket, NASA Updates on 6 Groundbreaking Space Technology Concepts

American space agency, NASA, has a program called "NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC)", and this program has taken a significant step by advancing six groundbreaking space technology concepts to a new phase of development. These concepts, which seem like they're straight out of science fiction, have completed their initial phase and have been selected for Phase II, which includes additional funding and development.

The NIAC Phase II conceptual studies will receive up to $600,000 (~ ₹5 Crores) to continue working over the next two years to address key remaining technical and budget hurdles and pave their development path forward.

When Phase II is complete, these studies could advance to the final NIAC phase, earning additional funding and development consideration toward becoming a future aerospace mission.

Here's a brief overview of the six innovative tech concepts:

1. Fluidic Telescope (FLUTE):

The Fluidic Telescope (FLUTE) is a revolutionary concept being developed by NASA in collaboration with the Technion Israel Institute of Technology. It represents a significant leap forward in the design and construction of space observatories.

Artist’s depiction of the Fluidic Telescope (FLUTE) Edward Balaban
Artist’s depiction of the Fluidic Telescope (FLUTE) Edward Balaban

The FLUTE concept aims to create a large optical observatory in space using fluidic shaping of ionic liquids. It could potentially help investigate high-priority astrophysics targets, such as Earth-like exoplanets, first-generation stars, and young galaxies.

One of the most intriguing aspects of FLUTE is the concept of self-healing mirrors. These mirrors would be able to maintain their shape and repair themselves from minor damages, which is a significant advantage in the harsh environment of space.

FLUTE is designed to study high-priority astrophysics targets, including Earth-like exoplanets, first-generation stars, and early galaxies. By peering farther into space, FLUTE could help answer one of humanity's most profound questions: "Are we alone in the universe?".

2. Pulsed Plasma Rocket:


From Levitating Transport System on Moon to Plasma Rocket, NASA Updates on 6 Groundbreaking Technology Concepts


The Pulsed Plasma Rocket (PPR) is an advanced propulsion system under development that could significantly reduce travel times for human missions to Mars and beyond. The propulsion system utilizes nuclear fission, where atoms split apart to release energy. This energy is then used to create bursts of plasma for propulsion, pushing the rocket forward in space.

It may generate up to 100,000 N of thrust with a specific impulse (Isp) of 5,000 seconds. This exceptional performance combines high Isp and high thrust, which is crucial for efficient space travel over large distances.

The high efficiency of the PPR allows for manned missions to Mars to be completed within just 2 months. It also enables the transport of much heavier spacecraft equipped with shielding against Galactic Cosmic Rays, reducing crew exposure to negligible levels.

3. The Great Observatory for Long Wavelengths (GO-LoW):

The Great Observatory for Long Wavelengths (GO-LoW) is a visionary project proposed by NASA to explore the low-frequency radio sky, which has been largely inaccessible until now due to the Earth's ionosphere.

GO-LOW aims to measure the magnetic fields of terrestrial exoplanets by detecting their radio emissions at frequencies between 100 kHz and 15 MHz.

From Levitating Transport System on Moon to Plasma Rocket, NASA Updates on 6 Groundbreaking Technology Concepts
Artist concept highlighting the novel approach proposed by the 2024 NIAC Phase II awardee for possible future missions. Credits: Mary Knapp

The observatory will consist of an interferometric array of thousands of identical SmallSats located at an Earth-Sun Lagrange point, such as L5. These autonomous SmallSats satellites will measure magnetic fields emitted from exoplanets and the cosmic dark ages.

GO-LOW is part of a long-term vision to map out the technological development required to make such an observatory feasible in the next 10-20 years.

4. Radioisotope Thermoradiative Cell Power Generator:

This study investigates new in-space power sources that could operate at higher efficiencies than NASA's legacy power generators.
 
From Levitating Transport System on Moon to Plasma Rocket, NASA Updates on 6 Groundbreaking Technology Concepts
Artist’s depiction of Radioisotope Thermoradiative Cell Power Generator Stephen Polly

The Radioisotope Thermoradiative Cell (TRC) Power Generator is an innovative power source being developed for space missions, particularly those targeting the outer planets.

The TRC operates on a novel principle of thermal power conversion, somewhat akin to a solar cell working in reverse. It converts heat from a radioisotope source into infrared light, which is then emitted into the cold expanse of space. This process generates electricity.

This technology could significantly improve the capabilities of small spacecraft, enabling missions that were previously not feasible due to power constraints. It's particularly suited for operations in areas where sunlight is scarce, such as polar lunar craters or the outer reaches of our solar system. The ongoing research aims to refine the TRC technology, focusing on system size, weight, and power (SWaP), and to integrate the effects of potential power and efficiency loss mechanisms developed in Phase.

This power generation concept study is from Stephen Polly at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

5. Lunar Railway System:

A concept being developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a railway system to provide payload transport on the Moon.

From Levitating Transport System on Moon to Plasma Rocket, NASA Updates on 6 Groundbreaking Technology Concepts
Artist concept of novel approach proposed by a 2024 NIAC Phase II awardee for possible future missions depicting lunar surface with planet Earth on the horizon. Credit: Ethan Schaler

The FLOAT (Flexible Levitation on a Track system) employs unpowered magnetic robots that levitate over a 3-layer flexible film track: a graphite layer enables robots to passively float over tracks using diamagnetic levitation, a flex-circuit layer generates electromagnetic thrust to controllably propel robots along tracks, and an optional thin-film solar panel layer generates power for the base when in sunlight.

This would be a lunar railway system, providing reliable, autonomous, and efficient payload transport on the Moon. This rail system could support daily operations of a sustainable lunar base as soon as the 2030s. Ethan Schaler leads FLOAT at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

FLOAT robots have no moving parts and levitate over the track to minimize lunar dust abrasion / wear, unlike lunar robots with wheels, legs, or tracks.

FLOAT will operate autonomously in the dusty, inhospitable lunar environment with minimal site preparation, and its network of tracks can be rolled-up / reconfigured over time to match evolving lunar base mission requirements.

6. ScienceCraft for Outer Planet Exploration (SCOPE)

Artist’s depiction of ScienceCraft, which integrates the science instrument with the spacecraft by printing a quantum dot spectrometer directly on the solar sail to form a monolithic, lightweight structure. Mahmooda Sultana

The ScienceCraft for Outer Planet Exploration (SCOPE) is a groundbreaking mission concept developed by NASA. It aims to revolutionize the exploration of the outer planets, particularly the ice giants Neptune and Uranus, which are believed to hold secrets about the formation and evolution of our solar system.

SCOPE integrates a science instrument and spacecraft into one monolithic structure, which is a significant departure from traditional spacecraft design.

The mission utilizes a quantum dot-based spectrometer printed directly onto the solar sail material. This allows the spacecraft to not only propel through space but also to conduct scientific measurements.

These visionary studies will receive up to $600,000 each to continue working over the next two years to address technical and budget hurdles and pave their development path forward. When Phase II is complete, these studies could advance to the final NIAC phase, earning additional funding and development consideration toward becoming future aerospace missions.

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