NASA's bright future: new mission proposals for Enceladus, Europa, Titan, and more

NASA has the horizons of many alien worlds in store.
Deena Theresa
A few of the concepts awarded by NIAC.NASA

Bonnie Dunbar, Professor of Aerospace Engineering at the Texas A&M University in College Station, visualizes custom cost-effective high-performance exploration spacesuits for Mars.

A concept that could help humanity study distant, Earth-like exoplanets is the brainchild of Nobel laureate and astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, John C. Mather.

Sara Seager, Professor of Physics and Planetary Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, conceptualizes a probe that would help scientists study Venus.

The aforementioned are among this year's winners of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, which was announced last week. The projects, a few notches cooler than the previous years, illustrate ingenious, leading-edge technology that could transform future space missions, turning fiction into reality.

"There is a bunch of new concepts that we haven't seen before," Dr. Ronald E. Turner, NIAC Senior Science Advisor, told IE.

They also include a concept for a silent electric airplane, a crewed spacecraft that provides more protection from radiation on long journeys, small climbing robots that could explore subsurface caves on Mars, and 3D-printed swimming micro-robots that could explore ocean worlds like Enceladus, Europa, and Titan.

Ideas that are literally out of this world

Researchers from businesses to leading universities, submit their futuristic aerospace ideas to NIAC. Winners are awarded grants for further development and the program supports their ideas through progressive phases. 

The new slate of awards will provide a total of $5.1 million to 17 researchers from nine states.

While this year saw 12 new projects selected for Phase I study, Phase II awards, which include five projects, allow researchers to continue their prior work on innovative concepts. 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 two years.

"The general evaluation criteria gets slightly tweaked every year, just to make sure that we communicate well to the community about what we're after. Throughout the program, we make sure that what we're looking for are innovative ideas that have the opportunity to change the future. Another tweak to our criteria is that we want you to put your innovation in a mission context so that we understand the benefits your idea offers," said Turner.

Under its current name, NIAC has been around for almost 10 years. The program was initially founded in 1998 as the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts.

Do we have past winners that played a major role in official NASA missions? "That's a two-edged question because the short answer is going to be yes and we do have some examples. But it's also a two-edged sword because we ask people to share proposals that might be so far out that it would be difficult to bring the ideas to fruition in the short time the program has been around," said Turner.

Giant leaps for mankind

Turner reveals that sometimes they also fund concepts that are off-the-shelf ideas but shuffled around in a way that hasn't been considered before. Such concepts are not so far out in the time horizon. "For example, the CubeSats that were deployed in a Mars mission is a result of a study that NIAC funded several years ago. There's another mission coming up soon, which is a result of another study that we funded," he said.

He mentions that some submissions have been influenced by NIAC concepts. "One of them was based on the predecessor NIAC. At the time, they had funded someone to look at a helicopter on Mars, which happened to have a flapping wing. Someone looked at that study and said 'that's interesting. I wonder if we can make it work'. That led to the Ingenuity helicopter that's on Mars right now. So, the idea took a different tack, but it was influenced by that study," explained Turner.

There have also been several spin-offs resulting in people starting up companies based on the innovation that was inspired by NIAC concepts.

The creativity of the space community is at full display in the NIAC program, and we cannot wait for these projects to come to life. 

For Turner, the exciting part of the program is the opportunity to interact with such clever people. "And when you're surrounded these days by so much pessimism, it's good to have something optimistic and forward-looking," he added.

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