From levitating transport system to plasma rocket on the Moon, NASA updates on 6 groundbreaking space technology concepts


From levitating transport system to plasma rocket on the Moon, NASA updates on 6 groundbreaking space technology conceptsThe US space agency, NASA, has a program called “NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC), and this program has taken an important step forward by advancing six groundbreaking space technology concepts into a new stage of development. These concepts, which seem straight out of science fiction, have completed their initial phase and have been selected for Phase II, which includes additional funding and development.

The NIAC Phase II conceptual study will receive up to $600,000 (~₹5 crore) to continue work over the next two years to address key remaining technical and budget hurdles and advance their development path.

When Phase II is completed, these studies can advance to the final NIAC phase, allowing additional funding and development to be considered toward becoming a future aerospace mission.

Here's a brief overview of six innovative technology concepts:

1. Fluidic Telescope (Flute):

The Fluidic Telescope (FLUTE) is a revolutionary concept being developed by NASA in collaboration with the Technion Israel Institute of Technology. This represents a significant leap forward in the design and construction of space observatories.

Fluidic telescope (flute) Artist's illustration of Edward Balaban
Fluidic telescope (flute) Artist's illustration of Edward Balaban

The Flute concept aims to create a large optical observatory in space using the liquid shape of ionic liquids. This could potentially help investigate high-priority astrophysics targets such as Earth-like exoplanets, first-generation stars and young galaxies.

One of the most interesting aspects of the flute is the concept of a self-healing mirror. These mirrors will be able to retain their shape and repair themselves from minor damage, which is a significant advantage in the harsh environment of space.

FLUTE is designed to study high-priority astrophysical targets, including Earth-like exoplanets, first-generation stars, and early galaxies. Peeking far into space, Flute may help answer one of humanity's most profound questions: “Are we alone in the universe?”

2. Pulsed Plasma Rocket:

From levitating transport system to plasma rocket on the Moon, NASA updates on 6 groundbreaking technology concepts

The pulsed plasma rocket (PPR) is an advanced propulsion system under development that could significantly reduce travel times for manned missions to Mars and beyond. The propulsion system uses nuclear fission, where atoms split apart to release energy. This energy is then used to create a burst of plasma for propulsion, which propels the rocket into space.

It can generate up to 100,000 N of thrust with a specific impulse (ISP) of 5,000 seconds. This exceptional performance combines high ISP and high thrust, which is critical for efficient space travel over large distances.

The high efficiency of PPR allows manned missions to Mars to be completed within just 2 months. It also enables the transportation of very heavy spacecraft equipped with shields against galactic cosmic rays, reducing crew risk to negligible levels.

3. Great Observatory for Long Wavelengths (GO-LoW):

The Great Observatory for Long Wavelengths (GO-LOW) is a telescope project proposed by NASA to explore the low-frequency radio sky, which is largely inaccessible due to the Earth's ionosphere.

GO-LOW aims to measure the magnetic fields of terrestrial exoplanets by detecting their radio emissions at frequencies between 100 kHz and 15 MHz.

From levitating transport system to plasma rocket on the Moon, NASA updates on 6 groundbreaking technology concepts
Artist concept highlighting the novel approach proposed by a 2024 NIAC Phase II awardee for potential future missions. Credit: Mary Knapp
The observatory will consist of an interferometric array of thousands of identical smallsats located at an Earth-Sun Lagrange point such as L5. These autonomous SmallSat satellites will measure magnetic fields emitted from exoplanets and cosmic dark ages.

GO-LOW is part of a long-term vision to outline the technological developments needed to make such an observatory viable over the next 10–20 years.

4. Radioisotope Thermoradiative Cell Power Generator:

This study investigates new energy sources in space that can operate at higher efficiencies than NASA's older power generators.

From levitating transport system to plasma rocket on the Moon, NASA updates on 6 groundbreaking technology concepts
Illustration of the Radioisotope Thermoradiative Cell Power Generator by artist Stefan Polley

The radioisotope thermoradiative cell (TRC) power generator is an innovative energy source being developed for space missions, particularly missions targeting the outer planets.

TRC works on a new principle of thermal power conversion, somewhat similar to a solar cell working in the reverse direction. This radioisotope converts heat from the source into infrared light, which is then emitted into the cold expanse of space. Electricity is generated through this process.

This technology could significantly improve the capabilities of small spacecraft, allowing missions that previously were not possible due to lack of power. It is particularly suitable for operations in areas where sunlight is rare, such as polar lunar craters or the outer reaches of our solar system. Ongoing research aims to refine the TRC technology, focusing on system size, weight and power (SWAP) and integrating the effects of potential power and efficiency loss mechanisms developed in the phase.

This power generation concept study has been conducted by Stephen Polley at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

5. Lunar Railway System:

A concept is being developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a railway system to provide payload transportation to the Moon.

From levitating transport system to plasma rocket on the Moon, NASA updates on 6 groundbreaking technology concepts
Artist's concept of a novel approach proposed by a 2024 NIAC Phase II award winner for possible future missions depicting the lunar surface with planet Earth on the horizon. Credit: Ethan Sklar

FLOAT (Flexible Levitation on Track System) employs unpowered magnetic robots that fly on a 3-layer flexible film track: a graphite layer enables the robots to passively float on tracks using diamagnetic levitation, a The flex-circuit layer generates electromagnetic thrust to controllably move the robot along the tracks, and an optional thin-film solar panel layer generates power for the base in sunlight.

It will be a lunar railway system, which will provide reliable, autonomous and efficient payload transportation to the Moon. This rail system could support daily operations of a permanent lunar base by the 2030s. Ethan Sklar leads FLOAT at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

Unlike lunar robots with wheels, legs or tracks, float robots have no moving parts and fly on tracks to reduce moon dust friction/wear.

FLOAT will operate autonomously in the dusty, inhospitable lunar environment with minimal site preparation, and its network of tracks can be rolled-up/reconfigured over time to match emerging lunar base mission requirements.

6. Science Craft for Outer Planet Exploration (Scope)

sciencecraft outer planet
Artist's illustration of ScienceCraft, which integrates science instruments with the spacecraft by printing a quantum dot spectrometer directly onto a solar sail to create a monolithic, lightweight structure. mahmuda sultana

ScienceCraft (SCOPE) is an unprecedented mission concept developed by NASA for exoplanet exploration. It aims to revolutionize the exploration of the outer planets, particularly the ice giants Neptune and Uranus, which are believed to hold secrets about the formation and evolution of our solar system.

The scope integrates a science instrument and spacecraft into a monolithic structure, a significant departure from traditional spacecraft design.

The mission uses a quantum dot-based spectrometer printed directly on solar cell materials. This allows the spacecraft not only to move in space but also to make scientific measurements.

These visionary studies will each receive up to $600,000 to continue work over the next two years to overcome technical and budget barriers and advance their development path. When Phase II is completed, these studies can advance to the final NIAC phase, allowing additional funding and development to be considered for what will become a future aerospace mission.




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