Swarms of laser-flown bots visiting a planet light years away – and more NASA-funded projects revealed

An electric airplane on Mars, micrograv hibernation, and plenty others

NASA is funding 13 ambitious projects that could potentially lead to space missions one day, ranging from scanning for signs of life on Mars to exploring a nearby exoplanet with thousands of swarming spacecraft.

Under the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NAIC) program, the US space agency supports seemingly wacky ideas put forth by industry and academia that go beyond its near-term game plans. On Friday, it announced the 2024 Phase I awardees, who will each receive up to $175,000 to flesh out their designs, and draw up roadmaps for how their proposed technologies will or could be used.

"The diversity of this year's Phase I projects – from quantum sensors observing Earth's atmosphere to a coordinated swarm of spacecraft communicating from the next star – is a testament to the truly innovative community reached by NIAC," Mike LaPointe, NIAC program executive, said. "The NIAC awards highlight NASA's commitment to continue pushing the boundaries of what's possible."

Starting from the most distant of ideas, Space Initiatives, a startup based in Florida, wants to send minuscule spacecraft each with a mass measuring mere grams to a nearby star using light-sails powered by lasers.

The fleet of thousands of these tiny probes would behave as one autonomous swarm floating through space to reach Proxima Centauri, a star that is about 4.2 light years away and home to a possibly habitable exoplanet.

This would require a laser capable of beaming approximately 100 gigawatts of power to push the swarm's light sails. The spacecraft collective could, in theory, reach Proxima Centauri within 20 years in the third quarter of this century, and communicate with Earth with an eight-year round-trip time lag.

Five of the 13 projects are focused on Mars. Coflow Jet, an aerospace company that builds electric aircraft and is also based in Florida, believes it can fly the first fixed-wing vehicle on Mars. Nicknamed MAGGIE, it is expected to be capable of soaring up to 0.25 times the speed of sound in Martian skies on a fully charged battery. MAGGIE would be able to travel 179 kilometres over 7.6 Martian days at an altitude of 1,000 metres. Over a year, it could fly a total range of 16,048 kilometres.


Illustration of the proposed MAGGIE aircraft on Mars ... Source: Ge-Cheng Zha

Given that NASA has already flown the Ingenuity helicopter on the Red Planet, maybe MAGGIE is within reach – if it can be transported to Mars. The Coflow aircraft could help scientists conduct higher-altitude missions on the unforgiving dust world.

The other four of the five Mars-focused concepts are geared toward supporting human survival and finding alien lifeforms. 

The University of California, Los Angeles, has proposed building storage tanks to hold cryogenic propellants so that future astronauts have enough fuel to return home from the Red Planet. Meanwhile, Georgia Tech Research Corporation is designing a magnetohydrodynamic electrolytic cell to extract and split water, separating it into oxygen and hydrogen gas. The system would operate in microgravity and support up to four astronauts consuming 3.36 kilograms of oxygen a day, and means they wouldn't have to carry as much life support kit.

The first internal NASA project funded under NAIC goes to the agency's Ames Research Center, which wants to invent a regenerative perchlorate reduction system. The design employs genetically engineered bacteria to remove toxic chemicals from water on Mars to make it potable to humans.

Scientists have already studied and produced a strain of Bacillus subtilis microbes that consume perchlorates, a type of chemical compound containing chlorine and oxygen that naturally contaminates Martian groundwater. Finally, the Foundation For Applied Molecular Evolution, a research lab in Florida, is looking to construct a "life finding system" that would support large-scale water mining on Mars and maybe detect alien DNA from samples. 

The second NASA-backed internally developed concept is a high-resolution, long-baseline, optical imaging interferometer to study stars and black holes at visible and ultraviolet wavelengths from the surface of the Moon. Researchers believe construction could be part of the space agency's Artemis program to once again send humans to and from our natural satellite.

In another idea that has featured in sci-fi plots, Fauna Bio, a biotech biz based in California, is drawing up plans for a microgravity hibernation device, named STASH, to be tested on the International Space Station. STASH is designed to keep rats in a state of torpor in temperatures held at four degrees Celsius. Scientists working in the floating lab would monitor the rats' health, and eventually, STASH could be used to keep humans alive in hibernation as they travel long distances across space.

The remaining projects are next-generation technologies to support space exploration, such as Florida's City Labs' sensors powered by nuclear batteries that generate electric power from radioactive decay to be used on the Moon, and Massachusetts' Charles Stark Draper Laboratory's solar sail rockets fashioned from sheets of Thorium-228 film that are propelled by alpha particles emitted during nuclear decay.

Meanwhile, MIT envisions satellites carrying lightweight fiber-based antennas to gather data on Earth's soil moisture and sea surface salinity. Finally, the University of Washington has proposed a mission sending a network of satellites to the outskirts of the Solar System. They would measure distances to extragalactic sources of fast radio bursts to help scientists better understand dark energy.

Some NAIC-backed ideas have come to fruition before, said NASA Associate Administrator Jim Free, and this kind of long-term thinking is essential to inspiring future missions.

"The Ingenuity helicopter flying on Mars and instruments on the MarCO deep space CubeSats can trace their lineage back to NIAC, proving there is a path from creative idea to mission success. And, while not all these concepts will fly, NASA and our partners worldwide can learn from fresh approaches and may eventually use technologies advanced by NIAC." ®

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