The 2024 NIAC Nasa Innovative Advanced Concepts Phase II awarded studies

New NIAC Phase II Advanced Projects Selected by NASA

The agency will help these revolutionary NIAC projects with up to $600,000, for furthering humanity's exploration and research into the cosmos

NASA has been supporting interesting studies for space exploration innovation through its Innovative Advanced Concepts program, or NIAC, since 2011. Promising research has proceeded forward with the development of detailed use scenarios, technology simulations, and useful data analysis, advancing by successive concept study phases.

On May 2nd, 2024, the NIAC program announced the 6 breakthrough projects selected for a Phase II study for this year, to expand these wondrous ideas that could change how transportation and astronomy research are carried out in space in the near future. The program’s executive John Nelson stated “These diverse, science fiction-like concepts represent a fantastic class of Phase II studies”.

The 2024 NIAC Nasa Innovative Advanced Concepts Phase II awarded studies
Renders of some of NIAC 2024 Phase II awarded projects. Credits: NASA


This year’s awarded projects, all having aspects of novelty and ingenuity that distinguish NIAC, will be developing new ways to aid the transportation of resources on the Moon, potentially halve travel times to Mars with even greater mass vehicles, and leverage the void and weightlessness of space to advance astronomical studies of faraway worlds, asteroids and regions of the Solar System.

With their selection, all these projects will have access to additional funding to perfect and explore new sections of their concept studies, eventually preparing for a final, Phase III selection. Then these ideas could be considered for NASA missions.

Potential Breakthroughs in Space Transport

As humanity advances its return to the Moon, the JPL’s study of a Lunar Railway System has been awarded. The project, called “Flexible Levitation On A Track” or FLOAT, is proposing a new, adaptable, and non-invasive concept. It would consist of a flexible platform equipped for magnetic levitation of small trays. Such trays would be 1 meter across, to carry objects along the lunar surface.

A render of the FLOAT project by JPL, with the three layers of the extendable track described
An explanation of the FLOAT system. Credits: JPL

The long strips of material could be unrolled over the lunar surface and would consist of three separate layers. First, a graphite layer to allow diamagnetic levitation. Then a layer of flex circuits will allow for bidirectional thrust. Lastly, an optional upper layer of solar cells will generate power.

The trays would be autonomous and would be designed to accommodate ISRU resources, like regolith. Transportation of crew and tools between lunar facilities will also be possible. The project has been following the “Robotic Lunar Surface Operations 2” concept study for an organized lunar base. With a changing configuration of said lunar facilities in mind, these flexible tracks could easily be deployed and removed if need be, without building permanent infrastructure.

With the new round of funding from the Phase II NIAC award, the FLOAT project, led by Ethan Schaler, will further study the technologies needed, like the flex circuits, and the effects of the lunar environment on longevity. The team will also develop a concept for a robotic tray and could offer a demonstration in a simulated lunar environment. Eventually, further proof of concepts could even be included in future CLPS missions.

The other awarded project, led by Brianna Clements and Howe Industries, is expanding the concept of Pulsed Plasma Rockets. This epochal technology, when realized, could allow for a 100.000 N thrust. Coupled with a great specific impulse, it could make fast interplanetary travel a reality.


Bold Innovations for Astronomy Discoveries

The other four awarded projects, could all have a great impact on our study of remote areas of our Universe.

FLUTE, a NASA Ames study for using ionic fluids in space, to shape bigger primary mirrors for telescopes: instead of folding and deploying segments in space, as large telescopes need to do today, this project has studied the effects of using a single unsegmented liquid primary mirror, using a technology already proven with experiments on the ISS.

Eytan Stibbe examines a mirror created on the ISS with a ionic Liquid
Eytan Stibbe from Axiom-1 examines an ionic fluid-made mirror on the ISS. Credits: Axiom/NASA/Technion

Speaking of large structures in space, a study on using large solar sails’ surfaces as platforms for large spectrometers has also been awarded. The SCOPE project is led by Mahmooda Sultana at NASA Goddard and will continue to research ways to image Exoplanets with Quantum Dot-based sensors distributed on a solar sail.


Unlocking the Potential of Small Satellites

Small satellites are also considered, both for power generation and science observation. One such case is the Great Observatory for Long Wavelengths (GO-LoW). It would consist of small satellites, even in the order of 100.000 of them, used as a large-scale interferometer.

Working together, groups of these satellites would collect 100 kHz and 15 MHz frequencies with an innovative Vector Sensor Antenna, and relay them to bigger satellites designed for data transmission back to Earth with optical lasers. The mission concept will be easily deployable with just a few launches by super-heavy-lift launch vehicles like SpaceX‘s Starship.

An artist's concept of NASA's Advanced Composite Solar Sail System spacecraft in orbit. Credits: NASA/Aero Animation/Ben Schweighart
A spacecraft similar to NASA’s AC3S could be used by SCOPE. Credits: NASA/Aero Animation/Ben Schweighart

The last NIAC-awarded project is the Radioisotope Thermoradiative Cell Power Generator by Stephen Polly from the Rochester Institute of Technology. These cells convert heat to infrared light, generating electricity in return in a far more efficient way. Missions to the outer bodies of our solar system would be revolutionized and could be manageable with smaller form factor satellites.


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Marco Guardabasso

Marco Guardabasso

Engineering student with a passion for space, photography and arranging music.

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