NASA Teases A Mars Base Made Of Mushrooms, A Swarm Of Spacecraft To Venus And A Giant Dish On The Moon

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Space agency NASA has dished-out $5 million to seven concepts for future space exploration—and they include some exceptionally creative ideas.

They include space habitats made from fungi, “climbing robots” that could build a radio telescope on the far side of the Moon, a “swarm” of spacecraft to explore the clouds of Venus and spacecraft that can “jump” around Pluto.

These are all part of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program and not yet official NASA missions. In fact, the projects are in such early stages of development that most will need a decade to figure out.

“Creativity is key to future space exploration,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD). “Fostering revolutionary ideas today that may sound outlandish will prepare us for new missions and fresh exploration approaches in the coming decades.”

In February 2021, NASA released details of 16 equally ambitious Phase I NIAC proposals, each of which received up to $125,000 for a nine-month study.

They include swimming micro-robots for exploring ocean worlds, magnetic robots to transport cargo on the Moon and a sample-return mission to Saturn’s giant moon Titan.

Here’s everything you need to know about the seven sci-fi concepts that could be going skywards one day:

1. A space-based neutrino detector

A good chunk of NASA’s funding—$2 million—has been awarded to Nikolas Solomey from Wichita State University in Kansas to prepare a space-based neutrino detector that could be tested on a CubeSat. Neutrinos are one of the most abundant particles in the universe but are challenging to study because they rarely interact with matter—and a space-based detector could be a new way to study the structure of our Sun and our galaxy.

“A detector orbiting close to the Sun could reveal the shape and size of the solar furnace at the core,” said Jason Derleth, NIAC Program Executive. “By going in the opposite direction, this technology could detect neutrinos from stars at the center of our galaxy.”

2. A spacecraft ‘swarm’ to Venus

A previously-funded concept that needs more research, LEAVES (Lofted Environmental and Atmospheric VEnus Sensors) combines miniature sensors, electronics and communications on kite-like platforms to drift through the clouds of Venus.

Designed to withstand the harsh Venus atmosphere for about nine hours, LEAVES proposer Jeffrey Balcerski at the Ohio Aerospace Institute in Cleveland will continue work to mature the design.

3. Lunar Crater Radio Telescope (LCRT) on the Moon’s far side

Why do we need a telescope on the Moon? Our planet’s ionosphere—its upper atmosphere—reflects some wavelengths of light, essentially making it impossible to explore much of the Universe with ground-based radio telescopes.

Cue the 1km diameter wire-mesh parabolic reflector—the Lunar Crater Radio Telescope (LCRT)—which proposer Saptarshi Bandyopadhyay at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory wants to build in a 3-5km-diameter lunar crater on the Moon’s far-side.

It would be built by wall-climbing DuAxel robots, which could also be used to explore Mars. The Moon would also block radio interference from the Earth and the Sun.

4. Space-hoppers on Pluto

Humanity’s knowledge of Pluto comes from a brief flyby from the New Horizons spacecraft in 2015, which was moving at 52,000 mph/84,000 km/h.

Landing on planets is always about decelerating, but Pluto’s ultra-thin atmosphere would be exceptionally challenging. Kerry Nock at Global Aerospace Corporation in Irwindale, California has $500,000 to mature a possible way to decelerate and gently land on the surface of Pluto using “entrycraft” that use drag from the atmosphere and just a few pounds of propellant, inflating as it approaches the surface.

The spacecraft would then switch to “hopper” mode, able to jump tens or hundreds of kilometers at a time.

5. CubeSat solar sails for exploring deep space

Space missions take decades of development, years of flight and cost billions. So why not explore the solar system and interstellar space using CubeSat solar sails? Proposed by Artur Davoyan, an assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, this research project will study ultra-lightweight metamaterials that could withstand extreme environments.

It’s thought that super-light CubeSat solar sails could travel 60 times the Earth-Sun distance in a year, which is 20 times the velocity of Voyager 1—currently the farthest spacecraft of all—and could reach Jupiter in five months. That journey currently takes five years.

6. Fungi-based habitats for the Moon and Mars

When you think of the future you see images of sleek, shiny metallic cites, right? If NASA has its way its astronauts could be living in fungi-based habitats. Up for more study by Lynn Rothschild, a scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, this myco-architecture project now has more funds to explore ways to grow structures for future space habitats.

An international team will now test different fungi, growth conditions and pore size that could work on the Moon and Mars.

It’s thought that growing habitats would be much easier and cheaper than taking infrastructure to other planets.

7. Pack-hunting small asteroids

NASA is good at finding asteroids about 140m wide, but for every one of those it identifies there are an estimated 200 smaller asteroids that go unseen. Being proposed by Peter Gural at Trans Astronautica Corporation in Lakeview Terrace, California, is a mission concept to find small asteroids using a constellation of three spacecraft.

Together they would use hundreds of small telescopes and onboard image processing to conduct a coordinated search for these objects.

Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.

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