NIAC Looking for New Proposals

by Paul Gilster on January 18, 2012

NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program has issued a second call for proposals, following the selection of its first round of Phase I concepts in 2011. NIAC (formerly the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts) ran from 1998 to 2007 in the capable hands of Robert Cassanova, who is now external council chair for the new organization. After a four year interregnum, the program returned in 2011 with the goal of funding “early studies of visionary, long term concepts – aerospace architectures, systems, or missions (not focused technologies).” The 2011 effort resulted in funding for 30 advanced technology proposals, each of them receiving $100,000 for one year of study.

The new call for proposals continues the NIAC theme of looking for ideas that are both innovative and visionary, while remaining at an early stage of development, considered as being ten years or more from actual use on a mission. Approximately fifteen proposals are likely to win funding in the 2012 selection, with short proposals of no more than two pages in length accepted until February 9. Authors of the concepts that make the first cut will then be notified to submit a full proposal due on April 16. According to the NASA news release, the solicitation is “open to all U.S. citizens and researchers working in the United States, including NASA civil servants.”

I remember paging through reports and presentations from the first NIAC when working on my Centauri Dreams book — those reports are still available online and make for a compelling set of ideas, from antimatter collection strategies to micro-scale laser sails for deep space exploration. The new NIAC’s Phase I studies are equally provocative, and you might want to look through NIAC head Jay Falker’s presentation at the 2011 meeting to see not only an overview of the program but a set of posters explaining each of the Phase I studies chosen.

James Gilland (Ohio Aerospace Institute), for example, looks at ambient plasma wave propulsion, noting that an environment of magnetic fields and plasmas is associated not only with many planets but the Sun itself. Because plasmas with magnetic fields can support a variety of waves that can transmit energy and/or pressure, Gilland sees an opening for propulsion. Quoting the precis:

This
 concept
 simply
 uses 
an
 on‐board
 power
 supply and
 antenna
 on
 a
 vehicle
 that
 operates 
in 
the
 existing
 plasma.
 The
 spacecraft 
beams
 plasma
 waves
 in
 one
 direction
 with
 the
 antenna,
 to
 generate
 momentum
 that
 could
 propel
 the
 vehicle 
in 
the
 other
 direction,
 without
 using
 any
 propellant
 on 
the
 space
ship. 
Such
 a
 system
 could
 maneuver
 in 
the
 plasma
 environment
 for
 as 
long
 as 
its
 power
 supply 
lasts,
 without
 refueling.
 One
 particular 
wave
 to
 consider 
is
 the
 Alfven
 wave,
 which
 propagates 
in
 magnetized
 plasmas
 and
 has
 been
 observed
 occurring 
naturally 
in
 space.

Steven Howe (Universities Space Research Association), who devised the ingenious ‘antimatter sail’ concept that was analyzed in Phase I and II studies for the first NIAC, considers production methods for Pu-238, thus keeping Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs) in the game at a time when Pu-238 supplies are scarce. John Slough (MSNW LLC) looks at ‘a small scale, low cost path to fusion-based propulsion’ by using propellant to compress and heat a magnetized plasma to fusion conditions. Grover Swartzlander (Rochester Institute of Technology) explores so-called ‘optical lift’ and its potential to enhance solar sail missions.

Image: John Slough’s Phase I study, a ‘small scale, low cost path’ to fusion‐based propulsion. It is accomplished by employing the propellant to compress and heat a magnetized plasma to fusion conditions, and thereby channel the fusion energy released into heating only the propellant. Passage of the hot propellant through a magnetic nozzle rapidly converts this thermal energy into both directed (propulsive) energy and electrical energy. Credit: John Slough/NIAC.

I won’t go through all of these Phase I ideas here, as they’re available in Falker’s excellent presentation, and you can also see some of them discussed in Enabling the future: NASA call for exploration revolution via NIAC concepts, an article on the NASASpaceflight.com site. NASA’s 2012 solicitation page for NIAC is here. Ahead for NIAC is the 2012 Spring Symposium, planned for March 27-29 at the Westin Hotel in Pasadena, CA, where current NIAC fellows will give presentations about their Phase I research. Public attendance at the meeting is encouraged.

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Tim January 19, 2012 at 21:28

I’m curious, are submissions limited to US citizens because of ITAR, or could submissions from overseas one day be accepted?

Nick January 20, 2012 at 15:00

Tim, perhaps because it’s being paid for by U.S. taxpayers?

Tom January 20, 2012 at 17:57

Totally agree with Tim. Seems ridiculous to limit it to the the postcode lottery of where you were born. If someone in Europe or South America etc comes up with a working fusion reactor or Warp Drive they wouldn’t be allowed to enter? Totally hypothetical but seems abit stupid to limit yourself to 1/21 the population of the Earth. A wider net catches more fish.

Nick January 20, 2012 at 18:34

Let’s see the people of Europe or South America come up with the money. It is stupid that only 1 out of every 21 taxpayers is being told to foot the bill.

Tom January 21, 2012 at 18:39

So if the next Wernher Von Braun (German) was a young up and coming engineer in todays world you wouldn’t accept his proposal because he wasn’t american? Even though his ideas and technology may be far superior to your own? Seems to have protectionism written all over.

Nick January 22, 2012 at 2:18

I wouldn’t use U.S. tax money to fund Nazis to force prisoners/slaves to build rockets to bomb our allies? No I wouldn’t. Silly me.

Tom January 22, 2012 at 17:31

The same man who helped realise the greatest achievement in all american history and probably mankinds. But then again he was born on the wrong side of the tracks so his ideas dont count as much as ‘American’ ideas. When did the Land of Hope and Freedom become so insular.

Eniac January 22, 2012 at 23:15

@Tom: It hasn’t really. Look at the websites of the top research groups at top American universities, and you will find them studded with foreign names. Chinese mostly, these days, but also plenty of other nationalities. They are all funded by American taxpayer money, and they are the ones helping keep this country great. Their US born contemporaries, meanwhile, work in business and finance, where the pay is better, with somewhat less spectacular results for the greatness of the country.

Tom January 23, 2012 at 13:57

All im saying is that all ideas count. Our currently technology is simply crap at interstellar level so being picky over passports isn’t going to help us progress as species.

Eniac January 23, 2012 at 21:32

Tom, I agree with you, of course. All I’m saying that more or less we are already doing as you ask, judging from the international make-up of research groups. I suppose what we are asking is that people who want to be funded by the US come and work in the US. Even Wernher von Braun did so, and it most likely helped his work more than it hurt.

Tiffany February 10, 2012 at 21:44

I’m curious as to why a US governmental agency should fund a foreign proposal?

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