Inflatable Venus drone, Mars spacesuits and more: NASA picks far-out tech concepts for future study

NASA has selected a range of early-stage innovative studies that could benefit space missions in the future. These studies include custom-made spacesuits for Mars travel and new planetary defense technology that could pulverize asteroid threats. 

Seventeen concepts received money in the latest round of funding for the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. In total, $5.1 million is being spent on these studies. 

“NASA’s mission to explore the universe requires new technologies and new ways of doing things,” Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), said in a statement in February, when the awards were announced.

“Studying these creative ideas is the first step to turn science fiction into science fact,” Reuter added.

Related: NASA funds proposal to build a telescope on the far side of the moon

Twelve of the chosen projects are currently in Phase I of development, and each will receive $175,000; the remaining five are in Phase II, receiving $600,000 each. For NIAC projects, there are three progressive phases, according to NASA. Phase I studies are those still in the exploration stage. Leading researchers will need to determine how viable their idea is, over the course of nine months. 

Phase II of project development continues over the following two years. During this time, further technological advancements are made. Then, in Phase III, concepts need to be developed to produce the highest possible impact. This can be for use by NASA or by other government agencies or commercial partners.  

“As we set our sights on ever more challenging destinations for exploration with humans and robots, innovative ideas and future thinking will be critical to helping us reach new milestones,” Pam Melroy, NASA’s deputy administrator, said in the same statement.

“Concepts like those being studied with this new round of NIAC funding are helping us expand the scope of the possible so we can make it reality.”

One of the newly funded concepts is a parachuting probe that could enter Venus’ atmosphere and collect a sample of gas and clouds. The purpose of the project, proposed by a team led by Sara Seager from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is to help scientists in their search for life on other planets. 

Another project given Phase I funding involves a futuristic spacesuit with a “digital thread” (DT) —  a digital template carrying information about the suit’s features. Led by Bonnie Dunbar, a former NASA astronaut now based at Texas A&M University, this idea would enable Mars astronauts to have cost-effective spacesuits tailored to their dimensions. 

Using a DT, individuals could insert their appropriate body dimensions for different parts of the spacesuit and eventually 3D print them to provide the ultimate comfort, flexibility and accessibility, according to details in the NIAC 2022 Phase I and Phase II Selections list. Plans for the spacesuit technology align with NASA’s goals to place humans on Mars in the 2030s and conduct regular spacewalks there. 

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Some of the Phase II studies, which researchers hope to bring into reality in the nearer future, include a device that can expand and rotate in space to create artificial gravity, climbing robots for the study of Mars’ caves and Venus fliers that can analyze the atmosphere of the planet at heights of 31 to 37 miles (50 to 60 kilometers), where temperatures are moderate enough to (perhaps) support Earth-like microbial life.

The full list of concepts chosen for NIAC 2022 grants, and their principal investigators, can be found below:

Phase I:

Cryospheric Rydberg Radar (Darmindra Arumugam, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California)Silent, Solid-State Propulsion for Advanced Air Mobility Vehicles (Steven Barrett, Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge)Combined Heat Shield and Solar Thermal Propulsion System for an Oberth Maneuver (Jason Benkoski, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore)CREW HaT: Cosmic Radiation Extended Warding using the Halbach Torus (Elena D’Onghia, University of Wisconsin–Madison)The Spacesuit Digital Thread: 4.0 Manufacture of Custom High Performance Spacesuits for the Exploration of Mars (Bonnie Dunbar, Texas A&M University in College Station)Breathing Mars Air: Stationary and Portable O2 Generation (Ivan Ermanoski, Arizona State University in Tempe)Pi: Terminal Defense for Humanity (Philip Lubin, University of California, Santa Barbara)Hybrid Observatory for Earth-like Exoplanets (HOEE) (John Mather, NASA Goddard)In-situ Neutral-Optics Velocity Analyzer for Thermospheric Exploration (INOVATE) Marcin Pilinski, University of Colorado, BoulderStarburst: A Revolutionary Under-Constrained Adaptable Deployable Structure Architecture (Jonathan Sauder, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California)Venus Atmosphere and Cloud Particle Sample Return for Astrobiology (Sara Seager, Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge)SCOPE: ScienceCraft for Outer Planet Exploration (Mahmooda Sultana, NASA Goddard)

Phase II:

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