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NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts
Making spacecraft heat shields from dirt on other planets and using ice to power machines and even spacecraft engines are only two of 30 study proposals recently selected for funding under the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.

Each proposal, from Kennedy Space Center's Engineering Directorate, will receive about $100,000 for one year to advance the innovative space technology concept and help NASA meet operational and future mission requirements.

An artist conception for a regolith-derived heat shield depicted in a Mars-entry scenario for a human mission lander.

Image above: An artist conception for a regolith-derived heat shield depicted in a Mars-entry scenario for a human mission lander. Image credit: NASA
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"The interesting thing about projects like these is that we always learn the unexpected and more," said Engineering Director Pat Simpkins. "These projects will help make exploration affordable and the unknown spin-offs will improve life on Earth."

The first study is the Regolith-Derived Heat Shield for Planetary Body Entry and Descent System with In situ Fabrication. It will be led by Kennedy Principal Investigator and Research Physicist Dr. Michael Hogue, and Co-investigators Robert Mueller, who is chief of the Surface Systems Office at Kennedy, and Dr. Daniel Rasky, director for the Emerging Space Office and senior scientist at Ames Research Center at Moffett Field in California.

Mueller said protecting large and heavy spacecraft from the intense heat experienced during entry and landing on a planet, such as Earth, Mars or Jovian moons, is one of NASA's grand challenges. The group is studying a way to create a spacecraft heat shield from the dirt and other material on the surface of another world. That could lead to a way to manufacture shielding off the Earth, and then just use it for landing, which would save weight and energy you would otherwise need if you were to haul it back and forth between worlds.

Development will take place in the Engineering Directorate's Surface Systems Office and Granular Mechanics and Regolith Operations Laboratory, which has a variety of simulated regolith, or planetary dirt and materials, and the expertise for using them for in-situ resource utilization, according to Mueller.

"During Phase 1 we will fabricate and test 10 regolith-derived thermal protection system heat shield coupons at the Arc Jet facility at Ames," Mueller said. "We hope to develop a new and innovative way of protecting high-mass spacecraft during planetary entry, descent and landing."

Mueller said heat shields fabricated in situ could provide a thermal protection system for spacecraft that routinely enter a planet's atmosphere.

Hogue said it is an exciting and innovative project that has the potential to save significant resources in returning payloads to Earth. "I am really thrilled and thankful for this opportunity," Hogue said.

The second study is In Space Propulsion Engine Architecture Based on Sublimation of Planetary Resources: from Exploration Robots to NEO Mitigation.

According to Principal Investigator Dr. Laurent Sibille with Team QinetiQ-NA ESC at Kennedy, the project focuses on the possibility of accessing the potential energy of ice, a common resource found on many solid-surface planetary bodies in the solar system, and transforming it into a gas that can serve as a source of mechanical energy for deep-space robotic or human missions.

Co-investigators are Chemical Engineer Jesus Dominguez, also with Team QinetiQ-NA ESC, and NASA Physicist Dr. James Mantovani.

Sibille said the large majority of power used in deep-space systems is derived from electrical energy, such as solar panels; thermal energy, such as heat generated by radioisotope thermal generators; or chemical energy, such as fuel cells and chemical propulsion engines.

"NIAC asked for visionary concepts that could potentially change the way we explore and work in space," Sibille said. "Accessing local space resources and transforming their energy state to give additional capability and power to a robotic exploration mission or a human crew facing some new challenge struck us as being one of those promising ideas that merit a deeper look."

Sibille said Phase 1 work will focus on verifying what assumptions about ice properties in space are correct through experiments that show how much gas can be produced from them in different environments. The work will be performed in a vacuum chamber at Kennedy's Space Life Sciences Laboratory beginning in October.

Using water and carbon dioxide, which exist in the form of ice on the moon, Mars, and other worlds in the outer solar system in low-pressure environments, Sibille said the team will use small amounts of heat to transform them into gas. Once pressurized, the potential energy of the gas can be transformed into mechanical power to lift objects or hardware using mechanical actuators, pneumatic systems or used directly in propulsion.

"The innovative concepts funded under NIAC are imaginative and creative ideas with the potential to mature into technological breakthroughs," said Kennedy's Chief Technologist Karen Thompson. "These efforts meet the challenge given to NASA to investigate visionary, far-reaching advanced concepts as part of the agency's mission. It is exciting that Kennedy is a part of the first set of projects selected under the new NIAC."

"Although not broadly known as a research center in the past, the unique capabilities of the great scientists and engineers at the center come front-and-center from projects like these for both the scientific community and the public, at large, to see," Simpkins said.

He added, "As with all research and development, I hope that the investigators, through the NIAC awards, can move the science of space exploration forward. I also hope that we continue to learn more about what works, and what doesn’t, and then continue to pursue the 'art of the possible.'" Simpkins added.

Linda Herridge
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center