brane craft
A "brane craft," a two-dimensional spacecraft that could be used for orbital debris removal, was one of 13 concepts that received NIAC Phase 1 awards in 2016. Credit: Joseph Hidalgo/The Aerospace Corporation

WASHINGTON — NASA has taken offline technical reports associated with a cutting-edge technology program out of concerns of a possible export control breach, an agency official said Aug. 24.

Speaking at annual symposium of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program in Raleigh, North Carolina, Jason Derleth, the NIAC program executive at NASA Headquarters, said the final reports associated with various NIAC research projects have been removed from the agency’s website after one of them appeared to contain information that ran afoul of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) export control rules.

“We’ve had to remove the studies because of a potential ITAR violation by one of our fellows,” Derleth said. “So now we’re going through and doing all of the ITAR checks to make sure that everything is perfectly legal.”

He did not elaborate on the specific study or technology issue that raised the potential of an ITAR violation. He did say that the review would take a “few months,” after which the reports would be placed back online.

The NASA website makes no mention of export control as the cause of the missing reports. “Due to technical difficulties, we have had to remove the NIAC final reports,” the page on the site that previously listed funded studies with links to final reports. “We are working to resolve the issues and will re-post as soon as is feasible.”

NIAC funds early-stage development of space technologies or mission ideas that have low technology readiness levels. It awards grants for Phase 1 studies, at about $100,000 each for one year, and Phase 2 studies, at up to $500,000 each over two years, to determine if the concepts are feasible and identify plans for future development.

In April, NASA awarded 13 Phase 1 grants for topics that included a fusion-powered Pluto orbiter and lander, exoplanet imaging techniques, and the use of asteroid resources to create autonomous spacecraft. In May, NASA awarded eight Phase 2 grants, selected from those who completed earlier Phase 1 studies, including studies of suspended animation for crews traveling to Mars and plasma propulsion systems.

Another Phase 2 award made in May, to Philip Lubin of the University of California Santa Barbara, involves the study of directed energy propulsion, using high-power lasers, for interstellar travel. That award came a month after billionaire Yuri Milner announced Breakthrough Starshot, a $100 million project to begin development of such an interstellar propulsion system. Lubin is part of Breakthrough Starshot’s management and advisory committee.

NIAC is part of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, which incorporates a number of programs for developing technologies at various stages of maturity. While much of that work is related to NASA’s long-term plans for human missions to Mars, NIAC is free to explore other technologies that could render some of those plans obsolete.

“NIAC isn’t here to walk along the planned technology pathway,” Derleth said at the workshop. “We’re here to leapfrog, skip and break the roadmaps.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...