He and his colleagues fund high-risk, high-return projects as part of the NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Program, or NIAC, which last week announced grants to 14 teams exploring cool ideas. Many of them will fail. But some, perhaps the lunar oxygen conduit or the space telescope mirror that is actually built in space, could be a game changer.
“We’re looking at everything from retrospective concepts to things that have been conceptualized but not yet developed,” LaPointe says. “These are things that look 20 to 30 years down the road to see how we could dramatically improve or enable new types of NASA missions.” For example, while efforts to slightly increase the efficiency of a chemical rocket engine would be commendable, it’s not enough for the program. A proposal for a completely new system that could replace chemical rockets would fit perfectly.
NASA awards these grants each year, primarily to academic researchers in the United States. This new round of awards is for Phase 1 projects, which each receive $175,000 to conduct a nine-month study that researchers will use to define their plans in more detail, run tests and design prototypes. A few hopefuls will make it to Phase 2 and receive $600,000 for a two-year study. Next, NASA will award $2 million to a single outstanding project to fund a two-year Phase 3 study.
Some of the competitors may eventually find a home at NASA or with a commercial partner; others may have an indirect effect on space exploration by paving the way for derivative technologies. For example, the startup Freefall Aerospace’s inflatable space antenna it started as a NIAC project. A NIAC proposal for a rotary-wing aircraft on the Red Planet inspired the Ingenuity Martian helicopter.
One of this year’s winners is a proposal to design a habitat assembled with building materials grown on Mars, substances generated by fungi and bacteria. It’s hard to send big, heavy things, like a housing structure, into space. The launch cost is prohibitively expensive and you have to put it on top of a rocket and also attack the mars landing. But this project, developed by mechanical and materials engineer Congrui Jin and his colleagues at the University of Nebraska, explores the idea of building blocks that grow on their own.
These fungi or bacteria start out small, but gradually grow filaments and tendrils to fill the space available to them. “We call them self-healing materials,” says Jin, whose research team has used them to create biominerals and biopolymers that fill cracks in concrete. “We want to go one step further to develop materials that grow on their own.”
In a bioreactor on Mars, such materials would turn into sturdy building blocks. The process would be expensive on Earth, but since the Red Planet lacks concrete and construction workers, it might make more economic sense there. During his NIAC study, Jin plans to determine whether the growth process could be accelerated from months to days and how long the materials could survive in the harsh Martian environment.
It’s not the first time that NIAC has funded an experiment to use mushrooms to grow structures in space: a different “mycotecture” project has been one of last year’s winners. But this team’s project will focus on using a different aspect of the fungus: the minerals it forms under certain conditions, such as calcium carbonate, rather than the root-like filaments called mycelia.
Another NIAC winner proposes designing a giant moon-based pipeline that could deliver much-needed oxygen to astronauts on a future moon base. Thanks continued NASA Artemis program, astronauts will arrive as soon as 2026. Longer future missions will require oxygen supplies that will last for weeks or months, and possibly for use as rocket fuel. Ferrying oxygen tanks into space is just as troublesome as dropping building materials, but getting the gas to the moon might be a better option. Oxygen is available as a byproduct of water ice mining using a process called electrolysis.
However, there’s a logistical problem: A lunar mining operation might not be right next to the camp. Lunar ice abounds within permanently shaded craters, but those are also the coldest places on the moon and it can be difficult to communicate to and from them. One option is to produce the oxygen at a crater site and bring it back to base on a rover, says Peter Curreri, a former NASA scientist and cofounder and chief science officer of the company Lunar Resources. But, he points out, “producing oxygen in one place and moving it, using compressed containers or robotic dewars, is very expensive and cumbersome.”
His team’s proposal is to figure out how to build a 5-kilometer pipeline that connects two areas. It would have been built in segments by robots, using metals such as aluminum mined from lunar regolith. The segments would be welded together and the pipe would run in a trench or support, not unlike oil pipes on Earth. It would allow for an oxygen flow of 2 kilograms per hour, sufficient for the needs of future NASA astronauts. Curreri and his colleagues are currently conducting a feasibility study, considering potential costs, the best architecture for the tube, and whether repairs could be completed by rovers.
Some of the other grant winners are more astronomical leanings. For example, Edward Balaban, a scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, is investigating using the near-zero gravity of space to model fluids for mirrors or lenses for giant space telescopes. These would be more powerful than current telescope mirrors, which are often made from a special type of glass and are vulnerable micrometeoroid impacts and shaking during the throwing process. The diameter of a mirror also determines how far a telescope can resolve an object in deep space, but today it is limited by the size of the launching rocket.
“The mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope, 6.5 meters in diameter, is an engineering marvel. It took a lot of creativity and technical risk to fold it in this origami way to fit the cover of the launch vehicle,” says Balaban, and then the delicate structure had to survive the violence of the launch. “If we try to scale it further, it just gets more expensive and complex.”
Instead, with his “fluid telescope” concept, you just cast a frame structure — like an umbrella-shaped dish antenna — and a reservoir of mirror liquid, such as alloys of gallium and ionic liquids. After launch, liquid would be injected into the frame. In space, droplets stick together due to surface tension, and the annoying pull of Earth’s gravity doesn’t get in the way and distort their shape. This will result in an incredibly smooth mirror without the need for mechanical processes such as grinding and polishing, which are used for traditional glass mirrors. It would then be connected to the other telescope components through an automated process.
Using tests on an airplane and on the International Space Station, his team has already learned how to make lenses out of liquid polymers and determined that the volume of the liquid determines the degree of magnification. With NIAC funding, they will prepare for the next step: conducting a test of a small liquid mirror in space by the end of this decade. Their goal is eventually to design a 50-meter mirror, but because this technology is scalable, Balaban says the same physical principles could be used to design a mirror kilometres wide. JWST’s large mirror makes it one of the most sensitive telescopes ever built, but, he argues, to continue making progress, larger mirrors may need to be built with this new method.
Zachary Cordero, an MIT astronautics researcher, leads another new project to develop an in-space manufacturing technique called folding. It involves bending a single strand of wire at specific knots and angles, then adding joints to create a rigid structure. Cordero and his team are working on one particular application: designing a reflector for a high-orbiting satellite that could monitor storms and precipitation by measuring changes in humidity in the atmosphere.
As with many of the other winners, his proposal tackles the challenge of building really large objects in space, despite the size and weight limitations of rocket travel. “With conventional reflectors, the bigger you make these things, the worse the surface accuracy, and ultimately they’re basically unusable. People have been talking about ways to make 100-meter or kilometer-scale reflectors in space for decades,” he says. With their process, one could launch enough material for a 100-meter dish onto a single rocket, he says.
Among 14 other winners: a proposal to deploy a flying seaplane TitanSaturn’s largest moon, and one for a probe heated to penetrate its neighbor’s ocean, Enceladuswhich is enclosed by a thick outer layer of ice that acts like a rock, thanks to the sub-zero temperatures.
Even if some of these projects won’t succeed, the program helps NASA test the limits of what’s feasible, says LaPointe: “If a project fails, it’s still good for us. If it works, it could transform future NASA missions.”