Meet the space technologies of tomorrow – or maybe a decade after that.
Since 2011, NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) programme has selected long-shot space exploration ideas that it thinks are worth exploring. This year’s crop, announced on 8 April, features 13 proposals, each of which NASA will award $100,000 for nine more months of research.
Full details of the projects will be released at a symposium in August – but in the meantime, here are some of our favourites.
The Brane Craft
If you feel normal spacecraft are just way too bulky, the Brane Craft might be for you. It would be a flat square, a metre to a side, weighing just 35 grams – yet capable of propelling itself through space.
Propellant would fit into the 10-micrometre gap between two insulating sheets, with solar cells on one side drawing power. Electromagnetic fields would spray particles from the other side to push the spacecraft along.
Amazingly, this idea from Siegfried Janson of the Aerospace Corporation in Los Angeles is the third super-thin technology the NIAC program has funded.
But the previous proposals were just for components that could drop down to a planet and communicate. “This is an extension of that into a fully functional membrane spacecraft,” says Jason Derleth, head of NIAC in Washington DC.
One purpose for the brane craft would be to approach and wrap itself around debris in low Earth orbit, and then drag that material out of the way.
The asteroid energy beam
When we visit comets or asteroids, how do you find out what they are made of? Gary Hughes of California Polytechnic State University proposes blasting them with an energy beam.
The beam would vaporise or sublimate icy material on the surface, before heating up rock underneath. The glow from the heated rock would shine through the plume of vaporised molecules, allowing a spacecraft to analyse chemicals in the cloud of debris.
A mission equipped with this technology could scan across the surface and map the asteroid’s composition. Or it could bore into a single spot to get a taste of material deeper down, before heading on to the next space rock.
“You could imagine a mission that goes out to the asteroid belt and hits 40 or 50 targets,” Derleth says.
The Direct Fusion Drive
For a faster trip across the solar system, how about a fusion-powered rocket engine? Brainchild of Stephanie Thomas of Princeton Satellite Systems in Plainsboro, New Jersey, she and her team are currently working on the Direct Fusion Drive with funding from the US Department of Energy.
It would run on energy from the fusion of deuterium and helium-3, and assuming it works as advertised, the team suggests taking the engine for a drive to Pluto.
A probe powered by fusion could get there in just four to six years, about the half the time it took NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which flew past Pluto last July and is powered by the decay of plutonium. Once there, it could settle into an orbit and even land, not just sail by.
It could also survey the dwarf planet with instruments running on up to 2 megawatts of power, thousands of times more than New Horizons had to work with.
The steampunk rover
The Antikythera mechanism, a 2000-year-old astronomical calculator, ran on only clockwork. Could a similar approach help us explore Venus?
The heat, pressure and chemistry at the surface of Venus mean no lander has been able to survive for much more than 2 hours. The key might be to remove electronic parts entirely, according to a concept proposed by Jonathan Sauder of the Jet Propulsion Lab in California.
“We’re getting to the point now we can build materials that can survive, but it’s the electronics that won’t,” Derleth says.
Built with hardened metals, Sauder’s fully mechanical automata would explore Venus and other extreme environments in the solar system. That leaves just one tricky part – sending messages back home.
Fitting with the steampunk theme, Sauder’s proposal suggests one solution would be to record the data on a phonograph, and then loft it on a balloon to rendezvous with a spacecraft overhead.
The asteroid spaceship
In the same vein as the Venus rover, this concept involves a mechanical spacecraft – only it would be carved out of an asteroid (see lead picture at top).
First, a robotic probe would travel to an asteroid, says Jason Dunn of Made in Space, a private company based in the NASA Ames Research Park in California. Once there, it would start landscaping, converting ice and rock into rough analogues of spacecraft parts, including a propulsion system that would control the asteroid’s direction of travel by firing material out into space.
By transforming the asteroid itself into an automaton, the whole system would remove the need to launch any spacecraft parts from Earth. Once set in motion, the asteroid would carry out a pre-programmed mission, like steering itself away from Earth, or coming close enough for astronauts to land on it.
If any of these or the other proposals pan out, researchers can apply for another two years and $500,000 in funding. Still, as with all far-out ideas, the road to real technology may be a long one.