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NIAC Redux: A Visionary Future

The decision to close NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) in 2007 was a blow to the research community, especially given the fact that the agency’s Breakthrough Propulsion Physics project had been shelved some years previously. These twin haymakers to the study of futuristic technologies emphasized the lack of support for spending money on anything beyond the near-term, and reminded us that forty years after the fact, we still can’t manage even a return to the Moon.

NIAC seemed to offer better. Established in 1998, the Atlanta-based program offered non-NASA scientists a chance to delve into revolutionary space and aeronautics concepts, with a multi-tiered funding strategy and the potential for the best ideas to receive further study within the agency (or in a number of cases, from sources outside it). NIAC was hardly a budget-breaker, totalling $36.2 million spread across the nine years of its existence.

A New Report Looks at Invigorating Research

Now we have a new report on NIAC’s effectiveness and possible future iterations, one commissioned by the NASA administrator and performed by the National Research Council. Fostering Visions for the Future: A Review of the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts is available online, either readable there or (the better choice) via a quick download. The report takes a critical look at the current situation:

In the 1980s, under the pressure of limited budgets, NASA retreated from its exciting, risk-taking, high-technology culture. At present, its big programs, all very costly, relate either to continued low-Earth-orbit human spaceflight with little cutting-edge technology involved, or to the planned return of humans to the Moon in a manner that looks remarkably like the Apollo program with an infusion of existing 21st-century technology. Today, NASA’s investment in advanced concepts and long-term technological solutions to its strategic goals is minimal.

What to do? Getting research on longer-term technologies back into the NASA playbook is critical. NIAC not only sparked ideas, but led to solid results. The program supported 126 phase I studies and 42 Phase II studies in the course of its brief existence, and about 29 percent of the Phase II efforts went on to secure additional funding from NASA and other sources. The NIAC Web site, still available, offers the corpus of this work. And the report highlights three projects that appear to have had an impact on NASA’s long-term plans.

Mini-Magnetosphere Plasma Propulsion

We’ve looked at M2P2 several times on this site, fascinated with Robert Winglee’s work on using energy from space plasmas to accelerate payloads. Winglee’s team at the University of Washington used Phase II funding to perform laboratory tests on their proposed magnetic-inflation process and to confirm the effect, work that led to further evaluation at Marshall Space Flight Center. Here’s a quick precis from the report:

These experiments were able to quantify the performance of the prototype through comparative studies of the laboratory test results with the simulation results and provided strong evidence that the high thrust levels (1-3 N) reported in the original description should be achievable for low energy input (~500 kW) and low propellant consumption… Further testing to measure the thrust levels attainable by the prototype, however, did not confirm measurable thrust. In the 2001 to 2002 time frame, the M2P2 concept was considered a viable, emerging technology by the NASA Decadal Planning Team and the NASA Exploration Team. Through peer review, the M2P2 effort was deemed highly innovative and technically competent. In 2002, a review panel that included plasma experts concluded there were additional unresolved technical issues that centered around magnet field strengths, mass, and power requirements. While partially addressed by the M2P2 team, this work came to a stop due to changing priorities within the agency.

Micro-Arcsecond X-ray Imaging Mission

This is Webster Cash’s work at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Phase I work validated the idea of using an array of x-ray mirrors on free-flying spacecraft that would be coordinated to focus the x-rays on a set of beam-combining and detector spacecraft. Additional work at MSFC was promising and the x-ray interferometry proposal went into Phase II funding, being incorporated in 2000 into NASA strategic plans. From the report:

Dubbed MAXIM, the concept appeared in the NRC decadal survey of astronomy and astrophysics released in 2000, which identified x-ray interferometry for $60 million in funding over the following 10 years. Cash has selected as a long-range goal to image the event horizon of a black hole. While the technical implementation remains extremely challenging, the fact that the laboratory demonstration of this capability was published in Nature testifies to the significance of this accomplishment.

Indeed. The concept seems more than workable, and went on to further study:

NASA has continued support to further define and develop high-resolution x-ray imaging missions, and Cash’s interferometry concept has remained among the leading contenders. The MAXIM Pathfinder mission was the subject of a NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) Integrated Mission Design Center study in 2002. In 2004 MAXIM received a $1 million 3-year grant from NASA’s Astronomy and Physics Research and Analysis Program to further develop the optics for this concept. Today, the technology of x-ray interferometry that was the subject of the initial NIAC study is the first of three competing methods that NASA is pursuing under its Black Hole Imager mission.

New Worlds Observer

This again is a Webster Cash proposal, and one we’ve examined under various names (all incorporating ‘New Worlds’) on this site (a search will pull these up). Now we’re into Terrestrial Planet Finder territory, with a project that was refined through NIAC funding to study pinhole camera and occulting mask designs for direct imaging of planetary systems around other stars. This one also went into Phase II and the results were strong:

During Phase II, Cash and his collaborators demonstrated suppression performance (reduction of starlight intensity) <10-7 in a laboratory test of a miniature occulter. Both a publication in Nature in July 2006 and the laboratory demonstration testify to the significance and technical competence of the basic concept and the research supported by NIAC.

In fact, the various New Worlds designs Cash has studied make it clear that former NASA administrator Dan Goldin’s dream of imaging and even mapping an extraterrestrial world is not out of the question in coming decades. NASA liked this one a lot:

With the completion of the NIAC Phase II study, NASA provided significant additional support for Cash’s occulter concept, and it is now one of the competitive concepts for the Terrestrial Planet Finder program. In addition, both Ball Aerospace Corporation and Northrop Grumman Corporation have made internal investments to further develop the concept in conjunction with Cash and his team. In February 2008, NASA announced that a team led by Cash was awarded $1 million for the New Worlds Observer as one of its Astrophysics Strategic Missions Concept Studies (ASMCS). That study has been completed and the results will be used to prepare the New Worlds Observer mission concept for the NRC’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey, Astro2010.

Solid Results, and a Problem

While these three projects in particular stand out, it’s interesting to see that fourteen Phase I and Phase II projects received an additional $23.8 million in funding from a wide range of organizations, demonstrating (in the language of the report) “…the significance of the nation’s investment in NIAC’s advanced concepts.” The report also identifies a key problem:

One of the weaknesses of the NIAC program was the lack of sufficient funding to mature the selected concepts to the point that a NASA program could take substantial interest. By design, NIAC concepts completing Phase II were certainly not at a technology readiness level that allowed adoption by a NASA flight program. This technology-readiness disconnect between the external innovators and NASA program personnel made infusion of NIAC concepts into future agency missions or strategic plans exceedingly difficult.

The NRC report recommends that NASA reestablish an entity something like NIAC, recognizing that the agency needs open methods to secure access to new mission and system concepts from any source, and not just those developed within NASA. The agency also needs to develop effective processes for evaluating new ideas for future missions and bringing these ideas to fruition. A new program, the report calls it NIAC2, would be a key to this.

Recognize this: At present, there is no NASA organization responsible for soliciting, evaluating and developing advanced concepts and infusing them into NASA planning.

A new NIAC would help, but would it look like the old one? More on this tomorrow.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Paul Titze October 28, 2009, 10:27

    Recognize this: At present, there is no NASA organization responsible for soliciting, evaluating and developing advanced concepts and infusing them into NASA planning.

    I find this very strange for an organisation who is at the cutting edge of space exploration and associated technologies… is it because they just run out of money? Bring back the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics program!

    Cheers, Paul.

  • george scaglione October 28, 2009, 13:16

    in my opinion,yes a mistake.we need all the organizations we can get to consider the future of space exploration.and in almost literally every way imaginable. break through propulsion physics most certainly should never have been closed either!! lol,should “it all” have to depend on just us here!? respectfully to one and all your friend george

  • James Benford October 28, 2009, 13:25

    I worked on a NIAC project that led to follow-on efforts with positive consequences: The work, with Geoff Landis, provided the plans for demonstrating flight of carbon-carbon sails driven by microwaves. Those plans led to my Microwave Sciences proposal that was funded. The resulting experiment and theory were successful achieving the first flight of photon-driven sails using a microwave beam in April 2000. That led to our teams demonstration of stable beam-riding by a sail, microwave-driven spin of sails (useful for stability) and the MAX experiment to push the Cosmos-1 sail in orbit from the ground. The sail didn’t orbit, but we did the work to prepare to drive the sail.

  • John Kavanagh October 28, 2009, 15:55

    Recognize this: At present, there is no NASA organization responsible for soliciting, evaluating and developing advanced concepts and infusing them into NASA planning.

    If one follows the interrupted path preceding the design of the NASA Human Spaceflight Exploration Systems Architecture Study, you’ll find the NASA actively discarded advanced technology and highly innovative architectures in favor of those internal NASA concepts and technology that depended on the the existing capabilities of NASA Centers (Heavy Lift from Marshall, for example) and preserved requirements for the existing Shuttle workforce.

    Successful adoption of innovative concepts inside of NASA requires exceptional leadership. Otherwise, parochial Center and Contractor interests will prevail.

  • Connie McManus October 28, 2009, 20:46

    I have been really frustrated by the lack of more moon missions and plans for other explorations from NASA. I am still curious why NIAC was disbanded and I fear it may have something to do with Mr GW Bush’s administrative policies that concerned NASA. Does anyone know if there will be a new developing / planning organization in or associated with NASA? I hope so. I really really really want more out of NASA missions than shuttle stops to the ISS.


  • Administrator October 28, 2009, 22:00

    Connie McManus writes:

    Does anyone know if there will be a new developing / planning organization in or associated with NASA?

    The NRC report goes into this at some depth. I’ll have more to say on its recommendations tomorrow. Right now, though, it’s the recommendation of a single report rather than a definite commitment by NASA.

  • Anton October 30, 2009, 14:15

    It would be interesting if there was a DARPA like organization for space-related technologies. With their 3.2 B$ budget they can and do throw money at all sorts of crazy ideas. Compare that to 36M$ over nine years for NIAC.
    Come to think if it, maybe some propulsion projects etc. could probably funded by DARPA, because it seems that all they really want is that the projects are radically innovative.

  • ljk December 1, 2009, 1:23

    November 30, 2009

    The Next Generation of Heat Shield: Magnetic

    Written by Nicholos Wethington

    Heat shields are an important part of any space vehicle that re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere. The next generation of heat shields to protect astronauts and payloads on their re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere may use superconducting magnets to deflect the plasma that forms in front of spacecraft as they travel at high speeds in the air.

    The first test of such a heat shield could happen as early as ten years from now, and the basic technology is already in development.

    Full article here: