At JPL This Week, NASA's Advanced Concept Symposium Shows Off Incredible Innovation

Published : Wednesday, August 24, 2016 | 10:04 AM

Image Credit: ESA/J. Whatmore/NASA/JPL-Caltech

Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is hosting NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts symposium, a gathering where the space agency selects which early-stage projects they wish to fund that aim to push forward the boundaries of future space exploration in hopes of making them reality.

The symposium, which started August 23 and continues through August 25 will play host to 28 proposals, including five from JPL itself. According to JPL’s website, most of their concepts are Phase I concepts, meaning they are purely ideas right now. Their creators will have to explain each project’s technical challenges to convince NASA to advance them to Phase II, which would award them $500,000 and a two-year study to develop the project.

“The NIAC program is designed to let technologists stretch and create concepts that have never been considered by NASA before,” said Jason Derleth, NIAC program executive for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate to a statement released to the media on JPL’s website. “Each proposal is still required to be based on solid scientific and engineering principles and to advance NASA’s mission objectives.”

JPL’s five proposals at the symposium are as follows:

1) A Solar Oasis in Lunar Craters

Adrian Stoica of JPL has already taken this project into Phase II. Building mirrored “TransFormers,” a new class of shapeshifting mechanical structures that fold and unfold like origami to reflect solar energy, his new proposal examines how it could be possible to provide solar power to lunar bases — even lunar colonies filled with both human and robot workers. Long term goals for TransFormers include colonizing moon craters to make space travel to Mars and beyond easier and more affordable.

2) Looking inside Venus

Venus’ unforgiving, scorching hot atmosphere has claimed many landers throughout the years. With an average temperature of over 840 degrees, insane surface pressures and sulfuric acid clouds, even the best electronics die. Jonathan Sauder of JPL think he has the solution — getting rid of electronics. Sauder’s proposal, called the Automatic Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE), is a spider-like machine that would have its legs and science instruments controlled by a fully mechanical computer powered by a wind turbine. Readings would be transmitted back to Earth as Morse code via a radar tracker orbiting the planet.

3) Exploration of icy moons

Jupiter’s and Saturn’s icy moons have always been the center of speculation and rumors. Do they have oceans? Can they be colonized? Could they possibly harbor microbial life? We’ve never been able to find out because it takes so long for crafts to get there, and cracking each moon’s crust to pilot a craft down below has never been done. However, Masahiro Ono of JPL aims to solve this problem. His proposal, the Icy-moon Cryovolcano Explorer (ICE), is a robot that could land next to a cryovolcano and explore. Eventually, it could descend down to subsurface oceans, where it would release an autonomous underwater vehicle for more exploration

4) Asteroid exploration

Getting near enough asteroids to study them is difficult, which is unfortunate because they are so fascinating. JPL’s Marco Quadrelli’s Electrostatic Glider is a low-cost craft attached to foil-like streamers that will inflate and lift based on the static energy around them. This enables pilots to steer the glider around asteroids, making performing basic scientific readings on their compositions much easier.

5) Battery Recharger in Venus

Of the many challenges of sending crafts into Venus, one of them is having a plentiful power supply. Batteries only last a few hours on Venus due to its atmosphere, which weakens the efficiency of solar power. Ranakumar Bugga of JPL is proposing a weather balloon powered by chemical batters called the Venus Interior Probe Using In-Situ Power and Propulsion. It would use electrolysis to generate hydrogen from Venus’ atmosphere and store that power in its fuel cells. This would create an infinite loop where the battery recharges itself when its lowered in the Venusian atmosphere, effectively giving itself unlimited power.

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