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.