Enabling the future: NASA call for exploration revolution via NIAC concepts

by Chris Bergin

NASA’s Space Technology Program announced on Monday they are looking for what they describe as “far-out” concepts and ideas, as part of the Agency’s NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. Otherwise tagged as “game-changing”, such concepts range from advanced space suits to new propulsion methods for exploration spacecraft.


The original NIAC ran from 1998-2007, “inspiring and nurturing revolutionary concepts that could transform future aerospace endeavors.” Returning in 2011, NIAC’s goal was to fund “early studies of visionary, long term concepts – aerospace architectures, systems, or missions (not focused technologies).”

This second call for proposals follows inaugural selection of Phase I concepts, which are now under study.

The 2011 effort resulted in funding for 30 distinct project advanced technology proposals which will better help the agency explore space. Each approach – which ranged from changing the course of orbital debris, a self stabilizing spacesuit using flywheels, the exciting technology of 3-D printing and numerous propulsion and power concepts for future missions – each received $100,000 for one year of studies.

Now, just days into 2012, NIAC are seeking proposals for revolutionary concepts with the potential to transform future aerospace missions. The proposed concepts should enable new capabilities or significantly alter current approaches to launching, building and operating space systems.

In announcing the new effort, NIAC noted that projects are chosen for their innovative and visionary characteristics, technical substance, and early development stage – ten years or more from use on a mission. NIAC’s current portfolio of diverse and innovative ideas represents multiple technology areas, including power, propulsion, structures and avionics.

“NIAC is a forward-looking program that captures what’s great about America’s space program,” said Michael Gazarik, director of NASA’s Space Technology Program. “NASA is looking for futuristic concepts that may enable leaps forward in how we work in and explore the space frontier.

“Equally important, we’re asking for ideas from all sources: American citizen-inventors or educators working out of their garage to the visionary small business owners fueling our nation’s economy.”

Based on the large number of submissions received from 2011’s NIAC call for proposals, 2012’s Phase I solicitation will incorporate a two-step process – of which NASA expects to award funding for approximately 15 proposals.

“NIAC will accept short proposals, limited to two pages in length, until February 9. After review, NASA will invite those whose concepts are of interest to the agency to submit a full proposal of no more than ten pages. Full proposals will be due April 16,” the NASA release noted.

Those selected will receive up to $100,000 for one year to advance the innovative space technology concept and help NASA meet current operational and future mission requirements. Selection announcements are expected this summer.

The number of Phase I awards also will be balanced with NASA’s selection of Phase II awards. Phase II awards will be selected from Phase I concepts submitted last year that the agency decides to advance.

“NASA’s early investment and partnership with creative scientists, engineers and citizen inventors will pay huge technological dividends and help maintain America’s leadership in the global technology economy,” added the NASA release.

The solicitation is open to all United States citizens and researchers working in the United States, including NASA civil servants.

Out-Of-The-Box Advances:

While NIAC cover a large range of technologies, the need to move past the current chemical propulsion methods has been a long-standing wish for advancing the capability and execution of Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) exploration.

NASA administrator Charlie Bolden hinted at this wish via his announcement of the FY2011 budget proposal, in which he called for a study into a five year “game changing” propulsion study, as part of the changes proposed to the Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLV) program, in tandem with the cancellation of the Constellation Program (CxP).

That proposal was changed via the 2010 Authorization Act, which called for the HLV to utilize hardware from the Space Shuttle Program (SSP) and Constellation Program (CxP), as opposed to effectively mothballing what is now the Space Launch System (SLS) for at least five years.

NIAC appear to be looking towards the future from an “anyone got a better idea?” standpoint, calling for innovative propulsion and power concepts needed for future space mission operations. Such “out-of-the-box” thinking can be seen via the 2011 proposal presentations, which provide insight into the potential applications of future space exploration. (Link to presentations).

Led by “The Potential for Ambient Plasma Wave Propulsion”, the 2011 resources provide introductions to some of the revolutionary ideas which could provide breakthroughs into advancing the exploration of deep space.

“Truly robust and affordable space exploration will require that we use all the available resources we can find in space,” noted James Gilland of the Ohio Aerospace Institute.

“Many planets, and the Sun, possess an ambient environment of magnetic fields and plasmas. Plasmas with magnetic fields can support a variety of waves, which transmit energy and or pressure, like light or sound waves. Many of these waves are at radio frequencies (kHz to MHz), and can be generated using the appropriate antenna.

“This concept simply uses an on‐board power supply and antenna on a vehicle that operates in the existing plasma. The spacecraft’s beams plasma waves in one direction with the antenna, to generate momentum that could propel the vehicle in the other direction, without using any propellant on the space ship. Such a system could maneuver in the plasma environment for as long as its power supply lasts, without refueling.

“One particular wave to consider is the Alfven wave, which propagates in magnetized plasmas and has been observed occurring naturally in space.”

Also listed in the Group 1 category is the “Atmospheric Breathing Electric Thruster for Planetary Exploration,” as outlined by Kurt Hohman of Busek Co. Inc.

“This study will investigate the development of an atmosphere‐breathing electric propulsion solar-powered vehicle to explore planets such as Mars. The vehicle would use atmospheric gas for propellant, eliminating the need to launch and carry the propellant from earth. The propulsion thruster would be electric where the gas is ionized in a plasma and accelerated by electromagnetic fields.

“The combination of high efficiency and high specific impulse of the electric propulsion thruster and free propellant in‐situ will result in an exciting and enabling technology. This could enable NASA to perform missions of extended lifetime and capabilities beyond those available by typical chemical rockets. Phase I will formulate feasibility of the concept through modeling, calculations and preliminary laboratory experiments and push validity into Phase II research.”

Steven Howe, from the Universities Space Research Association, looks back to the heritage of the Apollo missions and deep space exploration probes for his “Economical Radioisotope Power” proposal, based around the concept of Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs) to provide electrical power.

“Almost all robotic space exploration missions, and all Apollo missions to the moon, have used RTGs for electrical power. These RTGs rely on the conversion of the heat produced by the radioactive decay of Pu‐238 to electricity. Unfortunately, the supply of Pu‐238 is about to run out,” Mr Howe wrote.

“This study will investigate an economical production method for Pu‐238 that could allow NASA or a private venture to produce several kilograms per year without the need for large government investment.”

This team is evaluating the production rate in a commercial nuclear reactor, an investigate the optimization of the transit time of the target material in the reactor, for the purpose of experimentally validating this production process and assess its efficiency, and estimate costs for production facilities and handling the waste stream form the process.

Other interesting ideas proposed in Group 1 of the 2011 NIAC effort include “Metallic Hydrogen: A Game Changing Rocket Propellant” – a concept which “would revolutionize rocketry”, as introduced by Isaac Silvera of Harvard University.

“Atomic metallic hydrogen, if metastable at ambient pressure and temperature could be used as the most powerful chemical rocket fuel, as the atoms recombine to form molecular hydrogen. This light‐weight high‐energy density material would revolutionize rocketry, allowing single‐stage rockets to enter orbit and chemically fueled rockets to explore our solar system.

“To transform solid molecular hydrogen to metallic hydrogen requires extreme high pressures, but has not yet been accomplished in the laboratory. The proposed new approach injects electrons into solid hydrogen to lower the critical pressure for transformation. If successful the metastability properties of hydrogen will be studied. This approach may scale down the pressures needed to produce this potentially revolutionary rocket propellant.”

Often mentioned as a serious contender for future crewed deep space exploration missions, nuclear-related proposals are nothing new. However, per John Slough of MSNW LLC, his “Nuclear Propulsion Through Direct Conversion of Fusion Energy” concept is part of the Group 1 proposals.

“The future of manned space exploration and development of space depends critically on the creation of a vastly more efficient propulsion architecture for in‐space transportation. Nuclear-powered rockets can provide the large energy density gain required,” Mr Slough wrote.

“A small scale, low cost path to fusion‐based propulsion is to be investigated. It is accomplished by employing the propellant to compress and heat a magnetized plasma to fusion conditions, and thereby channel the fusion energy released into heating only the propellant.

“Passage of the hot propellant through a magnetic nozzle rapidly converts this thermal energy into both directed (propulsive) energy and electrical energy.”

Alfonso Tarditi of the University of Houston at Clear Lake also lists a fusion based concept via his “Aneutronic Fusion Spacecraft Architecture”, which he claims could drastically change the potential for human and robotic space exploration.

“The proposed design is based on neutron‐free nuclear fusion as the primary energy source. An innovative beam conditioning/ nozzle concept enables useful propulsive thrust directly from the fusion products, while some fraction of the energy is extracted via direct conversion into electricity for use in the reactor and spacecraft’s systems.

“This study focuses on providing the framework required to make fusion propulsion an appealing proposition for long‐range space travel (by integrating the power generation and propulsion systems) rather than on the development of a specific fusion reactor concept.

“However, the scope of this study is not constrained by the immediate availability of fusion energy since it also analyzes “hybrid” schemes with a solar or fission primary energy source along with a sub‐critical fusion reactor used as a plasma space propulsion system.”

On the nuclear fission side of the NIAC supported concepts, Robert Werka – of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) – proposes “a Concept Assessment of a Fission Fragment Rocket Engine (FFRE) Propelled Spacecraft, which has a safety bonus of enabling the reactor to be charged after arrival in LEO.

“A new technology, the Fission Fragment Rocket Engine (FFRE), requires small amounts of readily available, energy dense, long lasting fuel, significant thrust at specific impulse of a million seconds, and increases safety by charging the reactor after arrival in LEO. If this study shows the FFRE potential, the return could be immense through savings in travel time, payload fraction, launch vehicle support and safety for deep space exploration.

“Nuclear fission emits charged fission fragments that travel at more than 4 percent of light speed. These normally quickly collide with other atoms in the core. But an FFRE with a magnetically contained dusty plasma core could employ electrical collimation of the charged fragments into an exhaust beam.”

Solar Sails are also a well-publicized concept, though not usually in the realm of interplanetary exploration. Grover Swartzlander of the Rochester Institute of Technology has proposed a concept which utilizes “optical lift” to enhance space missions employing solar sails.

“Although light is massless, it carries momentum. That momentum can be imparted to refracting, reflecting, and absorbing objects in the form of “radiation pressure”. Over time, the small but constant supply of radiation pressure may outweigh the large but brief force afforded by conventional propellants,” wrote Mr Swartzlander.

“The study team found that transparent refractive objects may settle into a position where they feel a force that is perpendicular to the incoming light direction, akin to the lift experienced by an airplane wing. This study will explore the potential for “optical lift” to enhance space missions employing solar sails.

“Space‐related applications of a fully maneuverable solar craft are numerous. In the distant future, one can imagine interplanetary missions and visits to exoplanets benefiting from the advantages of the optical lift force.”

Next up for NIAC is the 2012 Spring Symposium, which is being planned for March 27-29, 2012, at the Westin Hotel in Pasadena, California. Current NIAC Fellows – as listed above – will attend and give presentations about their Phase I research. The conference will feature exciting keynote speakers and information about NIAC’s program status and plans.

This will be followed by the first NIAC Phase II NASA Research Announcement, which will be released in early April, 2012.

(Images via NASA, NIAC and L2).

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