Early-stage research into futuristic space ideas – a lunar levitation track system, light bending lunar power system, method for making soil from asteroid material, and more – could help revolutionize NASA’s technology toolbox and pioneer new kinds of missions. More than a dozen researchers from within the agency, industry, and academia will receive grants from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program to study their concepts’ feasibility.
“NIAC Fellows are known to dream big, proposing technologies that may appear to border science fiction and are unlike research being funded by other agency programs,” said Jenn Gustetic, director of early-stage innovations and partnerships within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD). “We don’t expect them all to come to fruition but recognize that providing a small amount of seed-funding for early research could benefit NASA greatly in the long run.”
For 2021, STMD selected 16 Phase I NIAC proposals, which offer a range of inventions and applications. Each selected proposal will receive a grant from NASA up to $125,000. If their initial 9-month feasibility studies are successful, NIAC Fellows can apply for Phase II awards. All NIAC studies, regardless of phase, are early-stage technology development efforts. They are not considered and may never become NASA missions.
Among the selections is a robotics engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, offering an infrastructure idea for autonomously transporting cargo on the Moon using magnetic robots that would levitate over a flexible track. The tracks would unroll on the lunar surface, forgoing major on-site construction associated with building roads and railways on Earth. The Fellow will research another NIAC Phase I study in parallel: swimming micro-robots for exploring ocean worlds.
A researcher at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, will look into a concept for generating and distributing power on the Moon. The “light bender” system would capture, concentrate and focus sunlight using telescope optics.
An industry-based researcher with Trans Astronautica Corporation proposed a conceptual method for making soil in space using carbon-rich asteroids and fungi. The concept suggests the fungi would break down the material and turn it into soil to grow food and sustain large-scale deep-space habitats.
An assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University will investigate a lightweight and deployable structure design to allow for kilometer-scale structures in space. The proposal suggests the structure could serve as the backbone of a large rotating spacecraft capable of producing artificial gravity.
“There is an overwhelming number of new participants in the program this year,” said NIAC Program Executive Jason Derleth. “All but two of the researchers selected for Phase I awards will be first-time NIAC grant recipients, showing NASA’s early-stage opportunities continue to engage new creative thinkers from all over the country.”
One of the new proposals from JPL is FLOAT, where a railway system would be used on the moon to move cargo. Magnetic robots would levitate over the track. Credits: Ethan Schaler/ NASA.
SWIM is an exciting new proposal where centimeter-scale micro-robots would be used to explore the oceans of moons such as Europa and Enceladus. Credits: Ethan Schaler/ NASA.
ARD3 would be a deep drilling system used to search for liquid water and possible evidence of life below the Martian surface. The ultimate goal would be to drill down as far as 0.9 miles (1.5 km). Credits: Planet Enterprises/ James Vaughan/ NASA.
In the Kilometer-Scale Space Structures from a Single Launch proposal, one-kilometer long (0.6 miles) deployable structures could be launched into orbit with a single rocket launch. That would be large enough to produce artificial gravity for astronauts. Credits: Zachary Mancheste/ Tzipora Thompson/ NASA.
Background and Objectives: Any large, long-term human space habitat will need to grow most of its own food and recycle nutrients. For easily resupplied missions, growing crops hydroponically makes sense, but soil-based systems possess important advantages in the context of a large settlement that cannot be affordably resupplied from Earth.
One proposed habitat design is a cylinder that rotates to create artificial gravity and houses up to 8000 people, for purposes such as asteroid mining, space manufacturing and research. This habitat is meant to be self-sustaining with regards to food and have ample green space, which both supports crew mental health and functions as part of the life support system. At this scale, hydroponics would run into difficulties with the amount of machinery needed and the concomitant proliferation of failure points such as pumps and tubing. Moreover, hydroponic systems require nutrient solutions and do not easily lend themselves to the recycling of agricultural and human waste, which is readily accomplished in a soil-based system through composting the waste (possibly using thermophilic methods that are effective at killing pathogens) and incorporating it into soil.
Instead, we propose to create soil from carbon-rich asteroid material, using fungi to physically break down the material and chemically degrade toxic substances. We will use fungi to help turn asteroid material into soil. The basic idea is to inoculate carbonaceous asteroid material with fungi to initiate soil formation. Fungi are excellent at breaking down complex organic molecules, including those toxic to other life forms. For example, oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) have been shown to successfully clean up petroleumcontaminated soil by digesting the hydrocarbons making up the petroleum. Fungal hyphae can penetrate long distances into cracks and exert large amounts of pressure, physically breaking down rock – some even live inside rocks. Indeed, evidence indicates that fungi played a key role in early soil formation on Earth.
Approach: Two tasks would be performed during Phase 1. Task 1 will be to identify the leading fungal species for experimental use on simulated asteroid material, followed by study of their soil production rates and the effects of physical parameters such as temperature, humidity and oxygen concentration. Task 2 will be to evaluate a number of different approaches for performing the breakdown of asteroid regolith by fungi in space – ranking them in terms of productivity and estimated costs, as well as sizing them to support a target mission habitat within a reasonable amount of time.
Significance: The research proposed here will support efforts to develop large space habitats with ample green space and robust agricultural systems. These will then open the door to other activities, such as space mining, manufacturing, and scientific research. While an expandable habitat can support many types of activities, our soil-making process is a particularly natural fit for asteroid mining operations targeting volatiles, as they use carbonaceous asteroids and leave behind leftover regolith that should make a suitable parent material for soil production. Our method turns this leftover regolith into a valuable resource.
This concept should be exciting to everyone working on off-planet habitats and their applications – a major part of the move toward space commercialization and, in a larger sense, becoming a space-faring species.
The complete list of researchers selected to receive NIAC Phase I grants in 2021 and the titles of their proposals are:
Sarbajit Banerjee, Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station in College Station
Regolith Adaptive Modification System to Support Early Extraterrestrial Planetary Landings
Sigrid Close, Stanford University in Stanford, California
Exploring Uranus: Sustained ChipSat/CubeSat Activity Through Transmitted Electromagnetic Radiation (SCATTER)
Amelia Greig, University of Texas in El Paso
Ablative Arc Mining for In-Situ Resource Utilization
Zachary Manchester, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh
Kilometer-Scale Space Structures from a Single Launch
Patrick McGarey, JPL
Passively Expanding Dipole Array for Lunar Sounding (PEDALS)
Quinn Morley, Planet Enterprises in Gig Harbor, Washington
Autonomous Robotic Demonstrator for Deep Drilling (ARD3)
Christopher Morrison, Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC-Tech) in Seattle
Extrasolar Object Interceptor and Sample Return Enabled by Compact, Ultra Power Dense Radioisotope Batteries
E. Joseph Nemanick, The Aerospace Corporation in Santa Monica, California
Atomic Planar Power for Lightweight Exploration (APPLE)
Steven Oleson, NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland
Titan Sample Return Using In-situ Propellants
Marco Pavone, Stanford University
ReachBot: Small Robot for Large Mobile Manipulation Tasks in Martian Cave Environments
Ronald Polidan, Lunar Resources Inc. in Houston
FarView: In-situ Manufactured Lunar Far Side Radio Observatory
Ethan Schaler, JPL (two selections)
FLOAT: Flexible Levitation on a Track
SWIM: Sensing with Independent Micro-swimmers
Jane Shevtsov, Trans Astronautica Corporation in Lake View Terrace, California
Making Soil for Space Habitats by Seeding Asteroids with Fungi
Charles Taylor, Langley
Joshua Vander Hook, JPL
Solar System Pony Express
NIAC supports visionary research ideas through multiple progressive phases of study. Researchers across U.S. government, industry, and academia with high-impact ideas can submit proposals.
Phase II NIAC researchers receive up to $500,000 grants to further develop their concepts for up to two years. Phase III aims to strategically transition NIAC concepts with the highest potential impact for NASA, other government agencies, or commercial partners. Phase III researchers receive a contract up to $2 million to mature their mission concept over two years.
For more information on NASA’s space technology solicitations and opportunities, visit:
Opportunity: NASA Rover Completes Mars Mission
NASA Releases New Amazing Images Of Mars – Surreal Montage
Sunset in Mars’ Gale Crater NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover recorded this view of the sun setting at the close of the mission’s 956th Martian day, or sol, from the rover’s location in Gale Crater. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Texas A&M Univ.
This Martian “postcard” comes after Mars Curiosity drilled its eighth hole on the Red Planet.
Evolution of Mars
This is a conception view of the Western hemisphere of Mars with oceans and clouds. Olympus Mons is visible on the horizon beyond the Tharsis Montes volcanoes and the Valles Marineris canyons near the center. Credit: Kevin Gill
Explore Mars Map
Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun and the second-smallest planet in the Solar System after Mercury. In English, Mars carries a name of the Roman god of war, and is often referred to as the “Red Planet” because the reddish iron oxide prevalent on its surface gives it a reddish appearance that is distinctive among the astronomical bodies visible to the naked eye. Mars is a terrestrial planet with a thin atmosphere, having surface features reminiscent both of the impact craters of the Moon and the valleys, deserts, and polar ice caps of Earth.
The rotational period and seasonal cycles of Mars are likewise similar to those of Earth, as is the tilt that produces the seasons. Mars is the site of Olympus Mons, the largest volcano and second-highest known mountain in the Solar System, and of Valles Marineris, one of the largest canyons in the Solar System. The smooth Borealis basin in the northern hemisphere covers 40% of the planet and may be a giant impact feature. Mars has two moons, Phobos and Deimos, which are small and irregularly shaped. These may be captured asteroids, similar to 5261 Eureka, a Mars trojan.
There are ongoing investigations assessing the past habitability potential of Mars, as well as the possibility of extant life. Future astrobiology missions are planned, including the Mars 2020 and ExoMars rovers. Liquid water cannot exist on the surface of Mars due to low atmospheric pressure, which is less than 1% of the Earth’s, except at the lowest elevations for short periods. The two polar ice caps appear to be made largely of water. The volume of water ice in the south polar ice cap, if melted, would be sufficient to cover the entire planetary surface to a depth of 11 meters (36 ft). In November 2016, NASA reported finding a large amount of underground ice in the Utopia Planitia region of Mars. The volume of water detected has been estimated to be equivalent to the volume of water in Lake Superior. Credit: Wikipedia
Welcome to Mars Trek
Mars Trek is an application that allows you to view imagery and perform analysis on data from the planet Mars.
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NASA has recognized the science team behind the discovery of a distant planetary system with a Group Achievement Award. The award, given by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), cites the team for “the outstanding scientific achievement in uncovering the nature of the TRAPPIST-1 system, revealing seven potentially habitable planets around a nearby cool red star.” TRAPPIST is the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope, a key tool used in the discovery and the namesake of the system’s host star.
Co-investigator Julien de Wit, an assistant professor of planetary sciences in the MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), accepted the award on Aug. 28 on behalf of the TRAPPIST-1 discovery team at an award ceremony held at JPL.
In February 2017, the researchers, including de Wit and colleagues from the University of Liège in Belgium, announced their discovery, which marked a new record in exoplanet research. The TRAPPIST-1 system is the largest known of its kind outside our solar system, with a total of seven rocky, Earth-sized planets orbiting in the habitable zone — the range around their host star where temperatures could potentially sustain liquid water.
The Group Achievement Award is one among the prestigious NASA Honor Awards, which are presented to a number of carefully selected individuals and groups, both government and non-government, who have distinguished themselves by making outstanding contributions to the space agency’s mission.