The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program announced the winners of their Phase I awards, and they didn’t disappoint. The NIAC invests in radical aerospace concepts that push the limits of conventional science. Many are forward looking, tackling problems that assume humans become a space-faring society, while others solve near-term problems.
We’ve all seen science fiction movies with rotating structures simulating gravity. Long-term space habitation needs to deal with the detrimental effects of low gravity on the human body, including muscle atrophy, eyesight degradation and bone loss. Rotating structures can simulate gravity, but they need to be a kilometer long or they risk causing motion sickness. Imagine living on a carnival ride like the round up or spinning teacups for months on end. The Kilometer-Scale Space Structures from a Single Launch project led by Zachary Manchester of Carnegie Mellon University utilizes advances in mechanical metamaterials to launch a kilometer-scale rotating structure. The design folds up to fit inside a Falcon Heavy rocket, and once in place and deployed, it expands to its full size, the opposite of a shrinky-dink.
Another interesting concept tackles exploration on ocean worlds, specifically Enceladus, Europa and Titan. Sensing with Independent Micro-swimmers (SWIM) ran by Ethan Schaler of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory uses 3-D printed micro-robots to collect samples of ocean water for detecting biomarkers and ocean properties. The mini-robots work in conjunction with an existing concept for ocean exploration using thermo-mechanical drilling robots called the Scientific Exploration Subsurface Access Mechanism for Europa (SESAME). SESAME is a much larger robot, similar to a rover, that will drill through ice to reach the liquid ocean underneath. Its reach is limited however once it’s anchored in place. After drilling into the ocean, SESAME can release a swarm of SWIM robots to collect data from the broader environment.
Our last project isn’t magic, but it does use levitation. Flexible Levitation on a Track (FLOAT) also led by Ethan Schaler of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is shooting for easy transportation on the Moon. Billed as a space railway, the thin track will use unpowered magnetic robots to move payloads around the lunar surface. FLOAT is a sustainable, long-lasting, low-power solution for transportation, whether it’s lunar regolith mined for construction or payloads from landing zones. The track is a light, three-layer flexible film that’s easy to roll out and adjust. A graphite layer allows robots to float over the surface, reducing abrasion and wear, and a flex-circuit layer propels the robot along the track using electromagnetic thrust. With no moving parts and built-in solar panels, FLOAT is a long-lasting, self-contained transportation system.