Nasa has awarded funding to engineering teams exploring daring futuristic space technology concepts

Nasa explores plasma-braking and growable habitats

Technology using plasma to slow down spacecraft landing on a distant planet and a spiralling self-assembling habitat that can expand itself are among eight projects selected by Nasa as potential game changers in future space exploration.

The eight innovative ideas are being funded as part of the Phase II of Nasa’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Programme (NIAC) and will receive up to $500,000 each for a two-year development.

“The NIAC program is one of the ways Nasa engages the US scientific and engineering communities, including agency civil servants, by challenging them to come up with some of the most visionary aerospace concepts,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of Nasa’s Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington.

Most of the technologies aim to tackle problems of deep space or even interplanetary exploration. A project by University of California, Santa Barbara, is proposing a novel propulsion system using what they call directed energy. Instead of currently used rockets burning chemical fuel, the future spacecraft could propel itself forward using an array of powerful lasers generating electromagnetic radiation. The team behind the project believes the technology would enable spacecraft to travel so fast, it would reach Mars in days instead of months. With such speeds, exploring distant stars and galaxies would become possible.

A private space consultancy Spaceworks Engineering impressed Nasa with a concept of a habitat for long-duration missions that would induce non-cryonic long-duration sleep in the crew members, somewhat akin to winter rest observed in warm blooded animals in nature.

A proposal by Texas Engineering Experiment envisions self-assembling space stations that would expand themselves by building a conch-like structure while revolving around their axis. The tensegrity-based technology would provide protection against radiation, some levels of gravity-like force for the astronauts to move inside the space station, as well as the ease of expanding the station flexibly.

A team from MSNW, a company developing novel space propulsion technologies, is proposing a spacecraft braking system that would use an electromagnetic field instead of parachutes.

Dubbed the Magnetoshell, the system would deploy a simple dipole magnetic field containing magnetised plasma. The interaction of the plasma with the atmosphere of the planet would slow down the spacecraft without causing overheating, which is a major problem of existing systems. The plasma would effectively absorb the heat into its ions and use is to maintain the Magnetoshell.

Further concepts include a dual aircraft platform that would be able to stay in the air for weeks or months powered only by the energy from the wind to explore the lower stratosphere, a novel coating material dubbed the Solar White, which reflects more than 99.9 per cent of solar energy, and an innovative telescope technology that would allow building much larger mirrors than currently possible. The eighth project, by researchers from the University of Missouri, explores plasmonic force propulsion technology for small spacecraft.

All projects are still in the early stages of development, most requiring ten or more years of concept maturation and technology development before use on a Nasa mission.

NIAC is funded by Nasa’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, which innovates, develops, tests, and flies hardware for use in NASA’s future missions.

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