NASA’s NIAC Program Provides Insight into Future of Space Travel


From Star Trek-like medical scanners to concepts for off-planet agriculture as in The extent, science fiction has often inspired real research at NASA and other space agencies. This week, researchers are gathering at a virtual conference for the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program to brainstorm and explore science-fiction-like ideas, some of which could very well shape missions for the next 20 years.

A drone helicopter flying over a Martian crater or a lunar rover that maps lunar ice might have seemed far-fetched a decade ago, but the helicopter actually flew earlier this year, and the rover is in the planning stages. Now, conference organizers have solicited proposals for more exploratory projects, some of which could potentially be funded by the agency. “We are investing in distant, long-term technologies, and most of them are unlikely to work. Those who do could change everything. It’s a high risk, high return investment, almost like a venture capital investment portfolio, ”says Jason Derleth, NIAC program manager.

The program isn’t focused on incremental developments, but rather looks for game-changing technologies, technologies 10 times better than state-of-the-art, explains Derleth. He compares it to the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which also explores highly speculative concepts but developed the forerunner of the modern Internet, among other innovations.

The annual conference, which runs until Thursday, September 23, can be viewed publicly on NIAC’s live stream. Some of the proposals discussed so far, such as new ways to launch collapsible space stations or astronaut habitats, or extract resources from other worlds, revolve around the understanding that for long space travel , you have to get the most out of each rocket. launch.

The next generation of space travelers will need resources to survive, for protective structures, and to fuel the journey further or return home. “This leaves us with two options: take everything with us, as if you are going on a hike in the desert. Or find new, creative ways to use whatever is out there, ”said Amelia Greig, an aerospace engineer at the University of Texas at El Paso, who gave a presentation at the conference Tuesday.

To facilitate the creative reuse of lunar resources, Greig and his colleagues come up with a technology called ablative arc mining, which would suck up water ice and the types of metals that could be used as building materials. “It’s like using controlled lightning to extract the moon,” she said during her presentation. His concept describes a van-sized lunar robot, named after the Jawa sandcrawlers of Star wars– who chooses a place, then places a ringed device that he wears on its front end parallel to the ground. Electric arcs pass through the ring, which can reach a meter in diameter, tearing particles from the moon’s surface. These particles, now charged, can then be moved and sorted by the electromagnetic fields of the machine. That way, rather than studying a single resource, a single piece of equipment could fill one container with water, another with oxygen bound to other elements, and others with silicon, aluminum or d other metallic particles.

An artistic representation of the ablative arc mining system deployed in a crater near the lunar south pole.

Illustration: Janet Hill / Creative Studios / The Center for Faculty Leadership and Development / UTEP

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