NASA has funded a new set of visionary concepts for space exploration that could one day prove useful — and perhaps even transformative.
The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program provides funding for early-stage studies into technologies that could support future missions. NIAC grants worth $175,000 apiece will be given to 14 researchers who are probing the boundaries of what is possible to allow NASA to evaluate potential new technologies, the agency announced earlier this month.
This year’s Phase 1 NIAC selections include ideas for space telescopes, such as a new kind of observatory comprised of thousands of identical small satellites using the concept of interferometry, and another using fluidic shaping in microgravity to create a 164-foot-wide (50 meters) unsegmented mirror for a new generation of space telescopes. Another telescope concept seeks to be able to resolve Earth-like planets orbiting sun-like stars within 10 parsecs (32.6 light-years) of Earth.
Pellet-beam propulsion and nuclear engine concepts will be investigated for possible application to space transportation. A flying boat for exploring Saturn’s huge moon Titan and a hybrid fusion fast fission nuclear reactor for accessing ocean-harboring icy moons such as Jupiter’s Europa are also among the newly funded concepts.
“NASA dares to make the impossible possible. That’s only achievable because of the innovators, thinkers and doers who are helping us imagine and prepare for the future of space exploration,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement (opens in new tab) released by the agency on Jan. 9.
“The NIAC program helps give these forward-thinking scientists and engineers the tools and support they need to spur technology that will enable future NASA missions,” Nelson said.
The full list (opens in new tab) of ideas and their principal investigators chosen for Phase 1 NIAC 2023 grants is below:
- Fluidic Telescope: Enabling the Next Generation of Large Space Observatories (opens in new tab) (Edward Balaban, NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley)
- Photophoretic Propulsion Enabling Mesosphere Exploration (opens in new tab) (Igor Bargatin, University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia)
- Accessing Icy World Oceans Using Lattice Confinement Fusion Fast Fission (opens in new tab) (Theresa Benyo, NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland)
- Bend-Forming of Large Electrostatically Actuated Space Structures (opens in new tab) (Zachary Cordero, MIT)
- Lunar South Pole Oxygen Pipeline (opens in new tab) (Peter Curreri, Lunar Resources, Inc. in Houston)
- Pellet-Beam Propulsion for Breakthrough Space Exploration (opens in new tab) (Artur Davoyan, University of California, Los Angeles)
- New Class of Bimodal Nuclear Thermal/Electric Propulsion with a Wave Rotor Topping Cycle Enabling Fast Transit to Mars (opens in new tab) (Ryan Gosse, University of Florida, Gainesville)
- Biomineralization-Enabled Self-Growing Building Blocks for Habitat Outfitting on Mars (opens in new tab) (Congrui Jin, University of Nebraska, Lincoln)
- Great Observatory for Long Wavelengths (opens in new tab) (Mary Knapp, MIT)
- TitanAir: Leading-Edge Liquid Collection to Enable Cutting-Edge Science (opens in new tab) (Quinn Morley, Planet Enterprises in Gig Harbor, Washington)
- EmberCore Flashlight: Long Distance Lunar Characterization with Intense Passive X- and Gamma ray Source (opens in new tab) (Christopher Morrison, Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation – Space, in Seattle)
- Diffractive Interfero Coronagraph Exoplanet Resolver: Detecting and Characterizing all Earth-like Exoplanets Orbiting Sun-like Stars within 10 Parsecs (opens in new tab) (Heidi Newberg, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York)
- Radioisotope Thermoradiative Cell Power Generator (opens in new tab) (Stephen Polly, Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York)
- Aerogel Core Fission Fragment Rocket Engine (opens in new tab) (Ryan Weed, Positron Dynamics in Seattle)
The NIAC program started in 2011 and is funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.