NASA Funds Interstellar Probe and Space Habitats Made From Fungi

NASA Funds Interstellar Probe and Space Habitats Made From Fungi
Artist's conception of a radio dish built inside the crater on the far side of the Moon. (Illustration: Vladimir Vustyansky)

The latest round of NASA funding to boost the development of advanced concepts includes a space-based neutrino detector, an interstellar probe powered by solar sails, and a radio telescope built inside a crater on the far side of the Moon.

NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program is one of my favourite things in the world, as it offers a potential sneak peek into the future. Sure, not every proposal will get approved in the end, but some of these concepts might actually take flight. And for those ideas that die on the vine, at least they gave us a chance to dream of what might actually be possible.

Such is the case with the most recent round of approvals, in which NASA allocated $US5 ($7) million worth of funding to several groups seeking to advance their concepts to the next stage. All projects in this round are either advancing to Phase II or Phase III contracts, as NASA announced last week.

The current list of proposals are at least a decade or more away from completion, and none are official NASA programs at this stage. The general idea is to pitch concepts that will “change the possible,” as NASA puts it. The selection process is done by peer review, and each project is evaluated according to scientific importance and technological viability.

The big winner in this latest round is a neutrino-detecting mission concept, which now gets to proceed to Phase III. Nikolas Solomey and his team from Wichita State University in Kansas are receiving $US2 ($3) million, which they will spend over the next two years to develop their space-based neutrino detector.

“Neutrinos are a tool to ‘see’ inside stars, and a space-based detector could offer a new window into the structure of our Sun and even our galaxy,” Jason Derleth, NIAC Program Executive, explained in a NASA statement. “A detector orbiting close to the Sun could reveal the shape and size of the solar furnace at the core. Or, by going in the opposite direction, this technology could detect neutrinos from stars at the centre of our galaxy.”

Phase III for this project will involve a flight-ready neutrino detector that will ideally be tested on an actual CubeSat.

The remaining projects in this round will all receive $US500,000 ($655,150) for Phase II contracts.

Kerry Nock from Global Aerospace Corporation in California can proceed with his concept to land a probe on Pluto or some other celestial body with low-pressure atmospheres, while Jeffrey Balcerski with the Ohio Aerospace Institute in Cleveland will continue to develop an idea in which robotic kite-like drones would explore the clouds in the Venusian atmosphere.

Roboticist Saptarshi Bandyopadhyay from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory can advance his idea to build a radio telescope inside a crater on the far side of the Moon. Bandyopadhyay envisions a wire mesh deployed by a team of robots to create a large parabolic reflector dish. His team must now “focus on refining the capabilities of the telescope and various mission approaches,” according to NASA. I’m personally excited to see the Lunar Crater Radio Telescope (LCRT) advanced to Phase II, as it hit my radar, so to speak, when it was announced for Phase I last year.

A plan to deploy CubeSats powered by solar sails will also move forward. The idea, proposed by Artur Davoyan from the University of California, Los Angeles, would enable an entirely new way of exploring the solar system and possibly even interstellar space.

“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,” according to a UCLA statement. “That journey currently takes five years.”

Davoyan and colleagues must now manufacture and test ultra-lightweight sail materials capable of withstanding extreme temperatures and other demands of space.

The NIAC program encourages out-of-the-box thinking. An idea proposed by Lynn Rothschild, a scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Centre in California, does exactly that, as NASA explains:

[The team] will further study ways to grow structures, perhaps for future space habitats, out of fungi. This phase of research will build on previous mycelia production, fabrication, and testing techniques. Rothschild, along with an international team, will test different fungi, growth conditions, and pore size on small prototypes at environmental conditions relevant to the Moon and Mars. The research will also assess terrestrial applications, including biodegradable plates and rapid, low-cost structures.

So yeah, lunar and Martian space habitats built from fungi. Definitely out there, but it’s so weird we just have to see this work.

Finally, Peter Gural with Trans Astronautica Corporation in California will continue to develop a method for detecting small asteroids in a way that’s quicker than current approaches — like, upwards of 400 times faster than “all existing surveys combined,” according to Gural’s proposal. His plan calls for a constellation of three spacecraft, each of which will be equipped with hundreds of small telescopes and onboard image processing. For Phase II, Gural and colleagues will have to develop their proposed filter technology.

It would be nice to see all of these concepts become reality, but only time — and the efforts of these scientists and technologists — will tell. Best of luck to all the teams involved.