Seven Proposals Nab NASA Technology Study Funding

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WASHINGTON — An electric sail to waft satellites through space and foundational technology for an extraterrestrial submarine are among seven proposals NASA selected for Phase 2 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) awards, which are worth up to $500,000 each.

Phase 2 awards are available only to proposals that have won NIAC funding in a previous round and provide two years of additional funding to refine work completed in round one, NASA said in a July 6 press release.

NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Ohio will use its award to continue research on an interplanetary submarine called the Titan Sub that will explore the hydrocarbon seas of Titan, Jupiter’s largest moon. Researchers are developing the vehicle’s propulsion and ballast systems for a potential mission.

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama put forth a new spacecraft propulsion idea that harnesses solar wind using an electric sail. Instead of a solar sail, which uses light photons to gather speed, this concept use positively charged wires that could deflect protons emitted in solar wind and gently push the spacecraft. In Phase 1, researchers said such a craft might be able to travel 100 astronomical units in less than 10 years. Earth is one astronomical unit from the sun.

A team from the Johns Hopkins University in Maryland proposed a new way of mapping gravity fields and mass distribution in small bodies through a technique called “Swarm Flyby Gravimetry.” As a spacecraft goes past an asteroid, it releases a swarm of small probes and tracks their movement around the small body, calculating the gravitational field.

Credit: Johns Hopkins University
Artist’s concept of “Swarm Flyby Gravimetry.” Credit: Johns Hopkins University

One team from the University of California, Santa Cruz continuing work on its 3D Photocatalytic Air Processor, which would filter oxygen from air without using electric or thermal energy. Lighter than conventional air processors, the solar-powered machine uses photoelectrochemistry to produce breathable air while maintaining near-ambient temperature and pressure.

Nosanov Consulting of Bethesda, Maryland, developed a system with which low-orbiting satellites could look into lunar caves by shooting lasers through the openings, which are also called skylights. By analyzing the returning signal from the laser, it would be possible to create a three-dimensional model of the interior void without having seen the inside.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California is also interested in illuminating the moon and is investigating a 40-meter diameter mirror that could be positioned on the edge of a crater. The foldable TransFormer would shine light on rovers working downhill to keep them warm and powered in permanently-shadowed sites.

Finally, a team from Pennsylvania State University proposed to build upon the research in Stored Chemical Energy Power Systems. The team suggested that the research could allow a Venus lander to use the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide in combination with an onboard fuel to support a combustion reaction, powering the vehicle. This system offers electricity in sunless environments longer than conventional batteries, but without needing to use scarce Plutonium. The U.S. Navy uses a similar power system in its torpedoes.

NASA says all of the projects are still in their infancy. Most will need at least 10 years of study before they can be implemented in a mission.