Flexible rails on the moon and asteroid soil made from mushrooms: NASA's most promising projects

What kind of competition are we talking about?

Early exploration of futuristic space ideas may initiate new

types of missions.But there is a question - where to get ideas from? In search of new talent and ingenuity, NASA has organized a competition for grants. More than a dozen researchers from the agency, industry and academia will receive grants from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. With the allocated money, the authors of the projects will be able to test their concepts.

“We do not expect all of them to bear fruit, butWe recognize that providing small seed funding for early research can be very beneficial for NASA in the long term, ”explains Jenn Gustetic, director of early innovation and partnerships at NASA's Space Technology Administration (STMD).

For 2021, STMD has selected 16 NIAC Phase I projects,which offer a range of inventions and applications. Each proposal will receive a grant from NASA of up to $ 125,000. If their first 9 months of projects are successful, NIAC fellows can apply for Phase II grants. All NIAC studies, regardless of phase, represent early-stage technology development work.

Top projects

This year, the program has a hugethe number of new members. All but two researchers selected for the Phase I award will receive a NIAC grant for the first time. Committee representatives are confident that NASA's capabilities continue to attract new creative thinkers from across the country. So which projects impressed the jury especially?

  • "Railroad" on the Moon

Robotic Engineer from the Jet LaboratoryMovement (JPL) NASA in Southern California Ethan Schaler proposed the idea of ​​an infrastructure for autonomously transporting cargo on the Moon using magnetic robots that would hover over a flexible rail. It will be the first lunar rail system to provide reliable, autonomous and efficient transportation of goods. A rugged, durable robotic transport system will be critical to the day-to-day operation of a sustainable lunar base in the 2030s.

To implement the project, Shaler plans to create FLOAT (Flexible Levitation on a Track) - a flexible levitation system.

The FLOAT system uses magnetic robots withoutpower supplies that levitate over a three-layer flexible film track: the graphite layer allows robots to passively float along the walkways using diamagnetic levitation, the flexible circuit layer creates electromagnetic thrust for controlled movement of the robots along the walkways, and an additional thin-film solar panel layer generates energy for the base when is in the sun. FLOAT robots have no moving parts and hover over the track to minimize abrasion / wear on moon dust, unlike moon robots with wheels, legs, or tracks.

In parallel, the fellow will research another NIAC Phase I study: floating microrobots to explore ocean worlds.

  • Soil made from asteroids and fungi

Industrial researcher Jane ShevtsovShevtsov of the Trans Astronautica Corporation has proposed a conceptual method for creating soil in space using carbon-rich asteroids and fungi. The concept suggests that the mushrooms will destroy material and turn it into soil for growing food and maintaining large-scale habitats in deep space.

A graphical depiction of a method for creating soil for a space habitat by seeding asteroids with fungi.
Credit: Jane Shevtsov

Any large, long-term habitata person in space will have to grow most of their own food and process nutrients. For easily replenished missions, growing crops in hydroponics makes sense, but soil systems have important advantages in the context of a large settlement that cannot be replenished from Earth at an affordable cost.

  • Artificial gravity

Associate Professor at Carnegie Mellon University will study lungand a deployable structure that allows the creation of kilometer-scale structures in space. The proposal suggests that this structure could serve as the basis for a large rotating spacecraft capable of generating artificial gravity.

  • Melting the Moon

Sarbajit Banerjee of the Texas Experimentalengineering station A&M came up with a system of adaptive regolith modifications (RAMs). It was conceived to selectively enhance and fuse the natural materials of the lunar surface. Much of the current research on lunar regolith modification focuses on the use of technologies that require a lot of infrastructure for sintering and geopolymerization.

Graphical representation of the Regolith Adaptive Modification System (RAM)

On the contrary, the RAM system is suitable to supportdeployment during early landing, but can also be used for more mature construction work after the establishment of lunar and Martian settlements. Rather than bringing with it all the materials, equipment, and power supplies needed to modify the regolith for dust suppression and other foundation supports for folding landing pads, fixed landing pads, or roads, RAM uses new microcapsule delivery systems that deliver precursors (mixtures of nanothermite and organosilanes). They are activated during deployment to spot weld anchor points linking surface structures to the underlying regolith by forming advanced high-strength steel pins in place.

  • Autonomous Deep Drilling Robot

Subglacial liquid water is believed to beexists on Mars at a depth of 1.5 km in the South Pole Layered Deposits (SPLD). Quinn Morley, the author of the project to create an autonomous robot for deep drilling (ARD3), is sure: if scientists are going to do astrobiology, we need not just observe it, we need to get a piece of it, get the purest possible sample.

For this, a robot is being developed that is capable ofdrilling deep wells. Incidentally, the chances that, for example, a subglacial lake may contain life are greatly increased if the liquid phase becomes possible due to the heat generated by volcanic activity under the earth's crust.

  • An on-site radio observatory on the far side of the moon

Ronald Polidan of Lunar Resources, Inc.proposes to conduct a comprehensive study to create a very large low-frequency (5-40 MHz) radio observatory FarView on the far side of the Moon using regolith materials. FarView will be a sparse array of ~ 100,000 dipole antennas located on an area of ​​~ 20 × 20 km. Its peculiarity is that it will be assembled on site.

In connection with the implementation of the NASA Artemis program, thisthe study will provide a timely assessment of the value and needs of this important scientific observatory and develop technologies to ensure a sustainable presence on the moon.

What's next?

NIAC supports forward-thinking researchideas through several progressive learning phases. Researchers from the US government, industry, and academia with important ideas can provide suggestions.

NIAC Phase II Researchers Receive Grants inup to $ 500 thousand for the further development of their concepts for up to two years. Phase III aims to strategically transition NIAC concepts with the greatest potential impact on NASA, other government agencies, or commercial partners. Phase III researchers are awarded a contract worth up to $ 2 million to conceptualize their mission over two years.

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