The task of advancing space exploration to match science fiction falls under the responsibility of Mike Lapointe and his colleagues. As part of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, also known as NIAC, they invest in high-risk and high-reward projects. Recently, 14 teams were awarded grants to investigate and develop their imaginative ideas.
NASA Awarded Its NIAC Grants
It is acknowledged that not all projects will be successful. However, some ideas, such as the lunar oxygen pipeline or the space telescope mirror that’s built in space, have the potential to revolutionize the field. The program is considering a wide range of ideas, from early-stage concepts to those that are yet to be developed. These ideas are focused on improving and enabling new types of NASA missions in the next 20-30 years.
NASA awards annual grants to academic researchers in the US for Phase 1 projects, which receive $175,000 for a nine-month study. A select few move on to Phase 2, receiving $600,000 for a two-year study. One exceptional project receives $2 million for a two-year Phase 3 study. Some may secure opportunities with NASA or commercial partners, while others may contribute to space exploration by developing new technologies.
An Oxygen Pipeline on the Moon
A proposal to design a habitat assembled from building materials grown on Mars using substances generated by fungi and bacteria has been selected as one of the winners this year. The project explores the idea of self-growing building blocks that start small but gradually grow filaments and tendrils to fill the space available to them, thus reducing the prohibitive launch cost. It is referred to as self-healing materials, next step is to develop self-growing materials. The growing process could be more cost-effective on Mars, and the study aims to determine if it can be accelerated, as well as the materials’ survival capabilities in the harsh Martian environment. The project will focus on using different minerals formed by the fungus, such as calcium carbonate.
A Flying Boat for Titan
The Artemis program aims to send astronauts to the moon by 2026. This year’s NIAC winners include a proposal for a giant pipeline on the moon that could deliver oxygen to future lunar bases. The study will explore the logistics of transporting oxygen from mining sites to the base, including the use of rovers and compressed canisters. The team’s proposal is to figure out how to build a five-kilometer pipeline connecting two areas. Another project is developing an in-space manufacturing technique called bend-forming. It involves bending a single strand of wire at specific nodes and angles, then adding joints to make a stiff structure.
Other projects among the other winners include a proposal to deploy a seaplane to fly on Titan and one for a heated probe to penetrate the ocean of its neighbor, Enceladus. All these projects will help NASA test the bounds of the feasible.