Bonnie Dunbar, a professor of aerospace engineering at Texas A&M University in College Station, visualizes high-performance exploration spacesuits customized cost effective for Mars.
A concept that could help humanity study distant Earth-like exoplanets is the brainchild of Nobel Laureate & astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, John C. Mather.
Sara Seager, professor of physics & planetary sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, conceptualizes a probe that would help scientists study Venus.
The afore mentioned are among this year’s winners of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, announced last week.
“There are a lot of new concepts that we haven’t seen before,” NIAC chief science adviser Dr. Ronald E. Turner told IE.
They also include a silent electric airplane concept, a manned spacecraft that provides more radiation protection on long journeys, small climbing robots that could explore sub-surface caves on Mars & 3D-printed swimming micro robots that could explore ocean worlds like Enceladus, Europa & Titan.
Ideas that literally out of this world
Researchers from corporations to leading universities submit their futuristic aerospace ideas to NIAC. The winners receive grants for further development & the program supports their ideas through progressive phases.
The new award list will provide a total of $5.1 million to 17 researchers from 9 states.
While 12 new projects were selected for Phase I study this year, the Phase II awards, which include 5 projects, allow researchers to build on their prior work on innovative concepts. Phase I fellows will each receive $175,000 for a 9 month study & Phase II fellows will each receive $600,000 for a 2 year study.
“The general evaluation criteria are changed slightly every year, just to make sure we communicate well to the community about what we are after. Throughout the program, we make sure that what we are looking for are innovative ideas that have the possibility to change future. Another change to our criteria is that we want you to put your innovation in a mission context so you understand the benefits your idea offers,” Turner said.
Under its current name, NIAC has existed for almost 10 years. The program was originally founded in 1998 as the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts.
Do we have past winners who have played significant roles in official NASA missions? It’s a 2 double edged question because the short answer will be yes and we have some examples. But it’s also a 2 edged sword because we’re asking people to share proposals that may be so far off that it would be difficult to bring the ideas to fruition in the short-time the program has been around,” said Turner.
Giant leaps for mankind
Turner reveals that they also sometimes fund concepts that are off shelf ideas but shuffled around in a way that hasn’t been considered before. These concepts are not that far apart in the time horizon. “For example, the CubeSats that were deployed on a Mars mission is a result of a study funded by NIAC several years ago. Another mission is coming soon, which is the result of another study we funded “, he said.
He mentions that some presentations were influenced by NIAC concepts. “One of them was based on the predecessor NIAC. Back then, they had funded someone to look at a helicopter on Mars that turned out to be a flapping wing. Someone looked at this study and said, “That’s interesting. I wonder if we can make-it work.” That led to the Ingenuity helicopter, which is on Mars right now. So the idea took a different tack, but it was influenced by this study,” Turner explained.
There were also several spin-offs that resulted in people starting companies based on innovations that was inspired by NIAC’s concepts.
The creativity of the space community is showcased to the full in the NIAC program and we can’t wait to see these projects come to life.
For Turner, the exciting part of program is the opportunity to interact with such intelligent people. “And when you’re surrounded by so much pessimism these days, it’s nice to have something optimistic & forward looking,” he added.