We have talked extensively about how technology and science fiction parallel each other, with these impressive fictional engineering feats making them into our reality. The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program is the coolest program that you have never heard of. The collaborative group funds ideas that sound like something directly out of your favorite film. For the uninitiated, the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program is a visionary and far-reaching aerospace program with the ambitious but straightforward aim of finding projects that could change almost every possible aspect of space travel.
Innovation is crucial to our survival
Though it is a bit of a grim outlook, the late English theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author Stephen Hawking famously said that humanity must find a new planet to live on within 1,000 years or perish. In short, becoming an interplanetary species is crucial to our survival. "Although the chance of a disaster to planet Earth in a given year may be quite low, it adds up over time, and becomes a near certainty in the next 1,000 or 10,000 years," Stephen Hawking told listeners at the 2016 Oxford University Union.
"By that time we should have spread out into space, and to other stars, so a disaster on Earth would not mean the end of the human race." For this to be possible, humans need to answer two questions, where would we go and how would we get there?
Due to current technological constraints, our answers to these questions have been limited. However, do not lose hope. Public and private institutions worldwide, most famously Elon Musk's SpaceX, are racing to solve this problem. Even more so, individuals in all fields are taking things into their own hands, working hard on projects that could very literally change the course of humanity.
Everything you need to know about the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program
As previously mentioned, the NIAC program nurtures visionary ideas that could transform future NASA missions and the course of space travel. They look to fund ideas that often seem grandiose and overly ambitious, solutions that could provide radically better or entirely new aerospace concepts. Partnering with entrepreneurs and innovators, the program looks for these innovations in diverse and non-traditional sources. As the NIAC team has described, "They study innovative, technically credible, advanced concepts that could one day ’change the possible’ in aerospace." The NIAC Program funds these ideas helping innovators refine concepts, properly define, and inevitably bring them to fruition, depending on their feasibility.
Here, we will look at some of the most out-of-this-world ideas that have been awarded Phase I and Phase II funding. If you have an idea that the NIAC could be interested in, be sure to apply and submit your ideas here.
Exploring Venus? Meet BREEZE or Bioinspired Ray for Extreme Environments and Zonal Exploration
As we have previously discussed, Venus is a viable candidate for a future human habitat. Of course, you would want to avoid the surface of the planet at any cost. However, higher up in the atmosphere, things are relatively pleasant; some could even argue better than Mars. But, to get to the neighboring planet, we need to understand its environment. A team at the State University of New York at Buffalo has proposed BREEZE. Standing for Bio-inspired Ray for Extreme Environments and Zonal Exploration, these inflatable structures could be the key to understanding the Venus atmosphere.
The proposed inflatable solar-powered structures take their inspiration directly from biology. Hovering at approximately 50 km/h above the surface of Venus, these inflatable structures could be used to collect mountains of atmospheric data, track weather patterns, atmospheric constituents, and active volcanic investigations. BREEZE would include a host of technologies that could make this possible, including a mass spectrometer, nephelometer, visible and near-infrared high-resolution cameras, magnetometer, an anemometer, and sensors for measuring atmospheric pressure, temperature, and density.
Shapeshifting robots that can explore just about any terrain
You have probably come across "shapeshifting" robots in a few of your science fiction shows. Those shapeshifting robots are changing to avoid human detection. The shapeshifters proposed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory have been created to adapt and explore the harsh multi-terrain environments of planets and moons in our solar systems. The Shapeshifter NASA project proposes robots that are able to travel in an environment and atmosphere. Using a very minimal design, these robots are composed of smaller robot units combining and forming to fit an environment's needs, just like a Transformer. Robots can be aerial or amphibious. These Shapeshifters would be perfect for the exploration of Titan and other habitable bodies on our planet.
A telescope designed to find and characterize planetary systems outside the solar system
The Dual-Use Exoplanet Telescope, or DUET, could help us better understand planetary systems outside of our solar system. This new telescope design has the unique ability to detect exoplanets both indirectly (with radial velocity and astrometry techniques as well as directly with advanced spectroscopy). Even more impressive, DUET has an annulus gossamer membrane holographic primary objective that has four times the collection area and twice the diameter of the largest planned ground telescopes. Unlike competing exoplanet finders, DUET does not require a coronagraph or starshade.
Ice mining on cold solar system bodies made easy for future rockets
Ice is far more abundant in our solar system than you may think. Mining for water on places like the Moon could drastically expand our potential for space exploration, with people going as far as to say the ice is the “oil of space”. Some of the more obvious water uses are that it could be recycled and used for drinking water and bathing on future habitats. Nonetheless, there is another reason. In our lunar example, water could be used to make rocket propellant. As you know, the main components of water are hydrogen and oxygen. These two materials are the two most prominent materials used to power rockets. Being able to make rocket propellant out of the water on the Moon could drastically cut down on the cost of some of our more ambitious missions in space.
That is the motivation behind the Colorado School of Mines Thermal Mining NASA project. The project involves applying heat to ice using redirected sunlight via conducting rods or heaters placed in boreholes. This method of mining would then capture the vapor in a dome-like tent and refreeze it in cold traps for processing.
Using what we have learned from flying spiders to study planetary atmosphere
Yes, if you were not already aware, there are flying spiders out there. The spiders use the process of ballooning, or what is sometimes known as “kiting”, to fly. Certain species of spiders are able to spin a few threads, creating a sail that then catches winds and transports them to different locations. West Virginia University researchers have proposed a similar concept that would allow NASA to study planetary atmospheres.
The concept is simple; thousands of micro spider probes would be deployed at once, each with a total mass of 50 mg. Each of the pods will have a small payload pod hanging under a 200 m long string loop, which provides both atmospheric drag and electrostatic lift. The pods will contain energy storage and conversion devices, an actuator for replenishing and regulating the static electric charge on the string loop, an integrated microprocessor, radio, and sensors. If done right, these microprobes would offer large spatial-scale atmospheric sensing capabilities.
An upgraded spacesuit that can heal itself and increase human performance
As SpaceX has recently demonstrated, our space suits are in need of an upgrade, especially if we are planning to make it to another planet. This NIAC project proposes just that. Created by a team at Texas A&M Engineering, the SmartSuit is like nothing we have seen before. It is a spacesuit built for extravehicular activity (EVA) operations on Mars and other planetary environments.
The SmartSuit can not only increase human performance but also features stretchable self-healing skin. This smart outer membrane can provide visual feedback to the wearer, identifying potential damage, threats, or issues with the suit. What’s more, this EVA spacesuit is designed to be extremely comfortable.
Which project is your favorite? Which project do you think will have the biggest impact?