NASA’s NIAC program funds new ideas

January 5, 2024
January 5, 2024 Hal Jordan

NASA’s NIAC program funds new ideas

NASA announced on Thursday that it has selected 13 new projects for its 2024 Phase I awards under the Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. This program funds visionary and unconventional ideas for space technologies. Each project will receive up to $175,000 to explore their concepts.

The NIAC program has a history of supporting groundbreaking missions, such as the Mars Ingenuity helicopter and the MarCO deep space CubeSats. These missions demonstrate how NIAC fosters innovation and creativity in space exploration.

NASA associate administrator Jim Free said in a press release: “The daring missions NASA undertakes for the benefit of humanity all begin as just an idea, and NIAC is responsible for inspiring many of those ideas.”

The selected teams will have the opportunity to access NASA’s expertise and resources to refine their concepts. These projects are not official NASA missions yet, but they have the potential to become one in the future. As Free said, not all of these ideas will fly, but “NASA and our partners worldwide can learn from fresh approaches and may eventually use technologies advanced by NIAC.”

One of the 13 new projects is the one proposed by Thomas Eubanks of Space Initiatives Inc., based in Florida. His team proposes to send a swarm of tiny spacecraft to Proxima Centauri, the nearest star system to our Sun, within this century. These self-guided probes, numbering in the thousands, would use laser sails and laser communications to collect and send data about our closest interstellar neighbor. Traveling at 20% the speed of light, the probes would take about 21 years to reach Proxima Centauri, which is about 4.24 light-years away from Earth.

Another project that is closer to home is the one by Ge-Cheng Zha of Coflow Jet LLC, based in Florida. He proposes to fly the first fixed-wing, electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft on Mars. This aircraft, called MAGGIE, would use solar power to explore the Red Planet and other worlds. The aircraft could travel up to 111 miles (179 kilometers) on a full battery and fly up to 3,280 feet (1,000 meters) high. In a Martian year, MAGGIE could cover a total of about 9,975 miles (16,048 kilometers).

Meanwhile, NASA and its international partners are working on a plan to bring back surface samples from Mars. But Geoff Landis from NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland has a bigger challenge: bringing back surface samples from Venus. The second planet from the Sun is very hostile, with temperatures around 842 degrees F (450 degrees C) and pressures 92 times higher than on Earth’s surface. This makes it one of the hardest places in the solar system to visit. The team suggests using a new rocket that can make fuel from the carbon monoxide in the Venusian atmosphere. The system would be able to survive the high temperatures and work with a solar-powered aircraft made for Venus’s conditions.

Some of the other projects are technology to store fuel in space more efficiently and longer (to make it easier and more possible to send people to Mars), a system to destroy and remove dangerous chemicals, called perchlorates, from the Martian environment, an ISS project to study how hibernation and its low-energy state, torpor, work in microgravity (to help with traveling to other planets), and developing new technologies for keeping cryogenic propellants, like liquid hydrogen, in space (to refuel spacecraft on trips to Mars and back), and more.

It would be awesome to see these ideas become real missions and expand our exploration of space even more.

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