Space travel is all about research and innovation. With that in mind, NASA has a specialized branch whose sole purpose is to find and fund innovative ideas that can help further our efforts to explore the cosmos. And this year’s grants have been approved and announced.
Every year, NASA offers a series of grants in support of exciting and promising research to underpin the world of the future. It’s called NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (or NIAC) Program. The 2022 crop of projects includes 12 Phase 1 projects (with an initial funding grant of $175,000) that will be explored over the next nine months, and five projects in Phase 2 (which receive a $600,000 grant for a two-year research period).
A special interest has been given this year to initiatives that involve helping NASA return to Venus, as the agency has already announced new missions to study the planet — the first time in 30 years — which are in preparation for some time during the 2020 decade. Replacement ideas of the International Space Station are also being explored through the NIAC program, as the vessel is planned for decommissioning and a controlled crash in the future as commercial space stations take on its duties.
The Phase 1 projects are:
Cryospheric Rydberg Radar. In essence, this project is looking into the potential development of a new, quantum radar that could theoretically be used in all settings. Although this technology would serve well on spaceships, NASA explains that it has huge potential to be used in public and industrial settings “covering virtually every application of radio/radar”.
Silent, Solid-State Propulsion for Advanced Air Mobility Vehicles. This project would further our ability to use small, electric, vertical takeoff and landing aircraft in urban landscapes by addressing the single largest complaint the public has with such operations: noise. The solution is to develop electroaerodynamic (EAD) propulsion systems, which produce thrust through collisional ion acceleration without any moving surfaces, and are thus nearly completely silent.
Combined Heat Shield and Solar Thermal Propulsion System for an Oberth Manuever. A powered flyby, or Oberth maneuver, is a maneuver during which a spacecraft falls into a gravitational well and then uses its engines to further accelerate as it is falling, making it go really fast. This project is looking to develop a heat exchanger/shield that is powerful enough to withstand an Oberth maneuver around the Sun, which could make it easier for us to launch missions towards Kuiper Belt Objects or interstellar space.
The Spacesuit Digital Thread: 4.0. This system will allow for custom spacesuits to be created for each astronaut based on scans of their body shape. The system is meant to become a “digital human scan to digital design/analyses to robotic manufacture” system.
Pi – Terminal Defense for Humanity – essentially an asteroid destroyer. Essentially, this is a giant gun meant to break apart asteroids that threaten to hit Earth. The fragments resulting from this impact should be small enough to burn harmlessly in the planet’s atmosphere.
SCOPE: ScienceCraft for Outer Planet Exploration. Like sailing ships of old, SCOPE will use a series of solar sails for propulsion. This design would allow it to reach far deeper into space than any craft we have today, as it wouldn’t need to carry any fuel for the journey, and could accelerate almost indefinitely.
The five Phase 2 projects that have received funding are:
Kilometer-Scale Space Structures from a Single Launch. Extended time spent in zero-gravity in space seems to come with a whole host of health issues. This project aims to design a rotating space habitat that would mimic the gravity of Earth, thus removing the health risks of long-term spaceflight.
SWIM-Sensing with Independent Micro-swimmers. On the subject of exploration bots, SWIM aims to deliver a swarm of 3D-printed micro-robots that can swim through and explore the oceans of worlds like Enceladus, Europa, and Titan.
As futuristic as these proposals sound, they are actual projects being undertaken — with NASA funding, no less — right as we speak. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that we see them bear fruit, because each and every one of them is fascinating in its own right, and showcases just how far we’ve come as a species that we’re researching into topics that two decades ago were the stuff of movies.