Ep. 711: NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC)

NASA works on many missions using tried and true technology, but they also invest in creative ideas that could drive the future of space exploration. It’s called NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts or NIAC.


(This is an automatically generated transcript)

Fraser Cain [00:01:49] Astronomy Cast. Episode 711 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts. Welcome to Astronomy Cast for weekly facts. Space journey to the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know about how we know what we know. I’m Fraser Cain I’m the publisher of university. With me, as always, is Doctor Pamela Gay, a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the director of Cosmic Quest. Hey, Pam, how are you doing? 

Pamela Gay [00:02:12] I am doing well. I have lost custody of my bicycle to two cardinals who are turning it into a nest. That sounds great. I meant to move it or put a webcam up one or the other earlier than this. And now I’m trying to figure out. Can I still mount a Nest Cam, or is it too late when they have the nest? 

Fraser Cain [00:02:32] Oh, interesting I wonder. Yeah, yeah, I, I can’t wait to do that. I’m. My big plan this year is to, is to put in a pile of of nesting boxes. And I would love to sneak little cameras into them and, and watch see which ones get adopted. I’ve got a bunch of swallow nest boxes in front of my house and so I can watch the swallows. They keep the every year they come and they check them out and they find them lacking. And so I haven’t gotten swallows to commit to our nesting boxes yet, but I’m really looking forward to that day. And then, yeah, I’ll put some cameras in there and and watch them come and go. Be so cool. And bat boxes and bug boxes. I’ve got I got big plans. 

Pamela Gay [00:03:13] Apparently all I needed was a mountain bike. 

Fraser Cain [00:03:16] Yeah. NASA works on many missions using tried and true technology, but they also invest in creative ideas that could drive the future of space exploration. It’s called NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts, or Niac. And today we’re going to get into it. All right. So Niac where does this come from? 

Pamela Gay [00:03:37] I well, it stands for NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts. And and the idea started out back in 1998 where they made the decision that they wanted to fund independently. So all the funding went through universities, Space Research Alliance, USRA and and so they wanted an independent means of funding. Amazingly futuristic might be considered, two futuristic projects that would look decades into the future. And imagine what do we develop today to get to that future we want tomorrow. So from 1998 until 2007, USA managed this program for NASA. There there was projects ranging from, 100,000 up to half a million. They gave away 27.3 million to 42 projects over those years. But then in 2007, the project was canceled. So for a couple of years, there was nothing, but there was clamoring to continue that. We need to keep dreaming big ideas. We need to keep having things that are over and above. And Congress actually, in this case, requested a review be done independent of NASA, which means by the National Research Council. To see what can we do, what should we do? And and so the National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences did a review of is something like Niac necessary? And the answer was yes. But this time they funded it and reviewed it in-house. So since 2011, the Niac program has been funding phase one and phase two proposals. Phase one is just $175,000. These are not huge grants. But they’re there to provide the seed funding to first figure out. So what would it take to make my insane idea completely rational and then to work and seeing what can be tested? One of my favorites of the recent ones is just the idea of we need more massive mirrors in space. We need ways to do giant telescopes. And and there are two different proposals that I’ve really liked that really capture this thinking outside of the box idea. One of them is to blow up giant balloons that have part of the inside of the balloon, aluminum sized to create reflecting surfaces that can be shrunk down. Really tiny, blown up, really big. In space. It’s a lot easier than trying to fold up a mirror like they did, which would be awesome. And the other is they’re looking to make gallium liquid mirrors in space. This is the fluid telescopes concept. So they are essentially saying, what technology do we need to do and how do we get there? Now, the wildest ideas from NASA aren’t necessarily coming from the Niac, but the wildest ideas that will actually get funded and progress and get trialed and tested and put into orbit are often coming from Niac. 

Fraser Cain [00:07:14] Yeah, and we’re now deeply in my knowledge base at this point. I’ve personally interviewed most of the people behind most of the Niac projects over the last couple of years. It’s weird to me at Universe Today, it is Christmas. It is the Super Bowl. It is the biggest event of the year when the new Niac awards are announced. We fall on it like hungry animals and divvy it up, and for the next couple of days, are reporting on each one of the individual projects and do a full story on each one of them, because they’re such cool ideas. Yeah. And there and nobody else does, because I guess they’re not in these big press releases, you know? I guess it takes more journalism, which is tough for for some organizations out there who have laid off their entire space science journalism teams. And this this gap, I think, is really important because on the one hand, we live in this world where ancient technologies are are still the method that you’ve got. We know chemical propulsion works, and so we know stage rockets work. And so you just end up with evolution on existing well known methodologies coal gas thrusters, various propellant systems that work in space. And we don’t see a lot a ton of evolution or really revolution in these ideas. And yet other ideas have been proposed. I think my sort of classic example, this is the ion engine, which has been around for decades. But it wasn’t until, I think Deep Space one that an iron Angel was finally actually tested on an actual mission, and it performed amazingly. And then from there we see them on the Dawn mission, and we see them on on all the star links, and there’s tons and tons of missions that have now had an ion engine attached. Now that it becomes this well known, tried and trusted technology. And so you always have this chasm where you go. What about light sails? What about tethers? What about electromagnetic shielding? What about fusion drive? So there’s all these ideas, but no one is willing to take a chance on that technology. They go with the tried and true. And NASA, as really part of its role, has said, okay, let’s not just give this lip service like have have people in NASA write papers and present it, but never put any funding behind it. Let’s put some actual serious funding behind this in in tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars to take the idea, but actually sit down, bring in additional consultants, bring in experts, double check your math, make sure that everything you’ve done is is correct and right, and there’s some there there that is worthy of doing to the next step. And because it has this phased approach, phase one is really just take your crazy idea and try to disprove it, just to find out whether or not your idea is right. Figure out which versions of it are the best ideas. Throw out those others and come up with a final proposal. Phase two takes it to the next level and says, okay, now what would it be that make this feasible? And and phase three, which very few projects be, can all the way to phase three, is take this idea as complete as possible so that it could be ready for actual development later on. And when I talk to people, you know, we call this graduating debt that you’ve graduated from the Nayak Project. You’ve taken this as far as you can. A fraction of what gets spent on large missions gets put in in your in your work, and yet you have something that someone could then pick up later on and go, okay, let’s actually try and test this out. I, I think it’s endlessly fascinating. I love the ideas. Each one strikes my imagination when I sort of consider the implications. And I’m so grateful that this exists within within NASA. So panel after my monologue, how do you feel? 

Pamela Gay [00:11:20] So the thing that gets me about this is there is no narrow little box that your proposal has to sit within for Niac, other than looking far into the future, it isn’t only funding propulsion ideas, it isn’t only funding observing ideas. One of the ones that like triggered me to go down the rabbit hole is they recently funded a project to look at hibernation. For the potential of humans hibernating later. But they’re starting out with squirrels. And one of the problems that they’ve had with studying hibernation, or animals that don’t go into a state of torpor is the more biologically appropriate way to phrase it. Is there aren’t any, biological labs designed for the International Space Station where they can simulate the conditions necessary to put an animal into torpor. And so one of the Niac awarded projects is going to look at what is necessary to put squirrels into torpor on the International Space Station so that we can see does it, as we hope, limit radiation damage, limit, bone decay, all these other things that happen to humans while in space. What can we potentially alleviate by figuring out how to put humans into torpor? 

Fraser Cain [00:12:49] Yeah, yeah. And that’s just one example. And. Yeah. And I think I forget the number they get, but they get about ten times or more of what they get to than what they select as, as the missions. But I just want to give you an example of, of what came. I’m a lot more familiar with the with the 2023 Niac selections. Yeah. But as you mentioned. So I just want to give you I only give you like a list so we can fire the imagination. You get that fluidic telescope that you mentioned. Can you take balls of metal, of liquid metal, spin it in space and turn that into some kind of of mirror? Can you use a fusion drive, a fusion reactor to melt down through the ice at Europa to try and reach the water down below? Can you use, sort of malleable metals to form large structures in space? Can you generate oxygen at the south pole of the moon for use in propulsion systems? Can you fire pellets of fuel at your spacecraft while it’s already moving in order to, to refuel it so it doesn’t have to carry all of its propulsion? Or can it pick up bits of propellant as it’s the pellets of propellant as it’s moving through space? So again, solving this problem. You know, are there weird kinds of fission fusion drive hybrids that you can use to make really fast transits to go between worlds in the solar system? Can you grow building blocks on Mars, by using combinations of various biological reactors, like using, bacteria or fungi or things like that to be able to actually grow structures into the shapes that you want. A can you make a solar system spanning very long baseline Array that, that would turn into a giant radio telescope? It just goes on and on and on in each one of these ideas, like if you each one fires the imagination and I would love I think my I would love to join the Niac committee just so I could see the all the proposals because because I feel so sad about the ones that I didn’t even get a chance to see. I mean, we know about the ones that that are chosen, but I would like some of the ideas that are there beyond that are just are just crazy. So so what then happens to this to this technology? I mean, do we know of any that have made it through and our. Starting to see actual development these days. 

Pamela Gay [00:15:41] I don’t. And I was hoping that you did. 

Fraser Cain [00:15:44] So I yeah, I don’t either. And yeah, there are some ideas that I think people are quite familiar with that actually got their start in Nyack. I’ll give you a few examples. The solar gravitational lens concept by Slava Schiff. This is where you send a spacecraft out to between beyond 500 astronomical units from the sun. The sun turns into a giant telescope that you can use, and you could image the surface of a planet orbiting another star system with, like megapixel resolution that you could see mountains and oceans and forests and cities on the surface of another world by using the sun as a telescope. And this started as a Niac grant, made it to phase two, made it to phase three, has graduated, and now you see this idea percolating out into other places. Another example is actually way back in the day during the first Niac, you had the lunar elevator concept. So we’ve talked quite a bit about space elevators here on Earth. But the problem is the technology to do this is still science fiction, but regular materials would work as an elevator off the surface of the moon. And so you could have a lunar elevator that is gathering material and carrying it up into lunar orbit. No problem with spectrogram, you know, various kinds of composite fabrics that we have today. And again, that sort of made its way all through various phases. So I don’t think we’re there yet in being able to take these really great ideas and actually see them get implemented, which is too bad. 

Pamela Gay [00:17:19] But what’s interesting is you have ideas. And here I’m thinking Project Starshot, which is one where the idea is to launch little teeny tiny bitty, solar sails and hit them with lasers to accelerate them towards Alpha Centauri. Proxima Centauri b, in particular, to send spaceships essentially within the lifetimes of today’s just getting born children arriving roughly 2075. So there’s this idea that has a timeline attached that has people now chasing down funding and trying to figure out, okay, so we have the phase one development. We have the start. How do we make this a reality? And this is an idea that’s been kicking around for several years. And now finally has its Niac grants to work on transforming the idea. And and so we have the potential now for commercial companies also to start chasing these ideas. 

Fraser Cain [00:18:33] Yeah, I think it’s interesting. I mean, I think that life cycle does make sense that you’ve got someone who has been proposing an idea. For a long time and but it’s but they they had to do in the spare time their an astrophysicist in their day job. But then they work on this proposal for lightsail spacecraft or whatever. but then they’re able to propose this idea to NASA. NASA gives them a Nayak grant. They’re able to dedicate some time and work and bring and pay for some consultants, do some of the metamaterials analysis or whatever, and then they can then qualify for another one and then another one. And it just takes what is a nascent idea that is standing the test of time and get it to a place that then some commercial company can come along and go, okay, yeah, we would like a electromagnetic tether that could be used to carry payloads from lower orbits to higher orbits. That’s interesting. Maybe will roll this out, but even even that. Doesn’t seem to happen much from my perspective. I mean, maybe it’s happening and I’m not aware of it, but I but I still see like if you go through the entire list of Niac awards. Very few, if at all, any take it to the next level, and maybe we’re just too soon in the process that we’ve merely had. 15 years of people thinking about these creative ideas and we need another. And more cycles for this technology to get adopted. 

Pamela Gay [00:20:10] So one of the things that I’m waiting to see is this year, and I just had small commercial company after small commercial company involved and and ideas like for flute with the liquid mirror telescope. These are ideas that started in academia. That one originated out of Rice University. Or at least that’s where the earliest publications I could find came from. And I the question that I have, and the thing that I’m going to be watching is by having these ideas essentially get incubated with, with federal funds, with small companies that, frankly, have less paperwork than working at a university. Are we going to see some of these ideas, like the liquid telescopes, like the balloon based telescopes? Are we going to see them have a better chance of becoming a reality, where the life cycle of the project is driven by commercial goals instead of by can I get tenure? 

Fraser Cain [00:21:15] Yes. That’s interesting. Well, I mean, we know that there’s this whole idea of the publish or perish model. Yeah, academia, that your job is to write papers that. That will then show up in the high quality journals nature, science, etc. and then that helps you get tenure. But like, what paper can you write about? You demonstrating that a high altitude airplane works on Mars? Like until you do the actually make the mission and send it there and demonstrate that the technology works there, you’re not going to know for sure what the true issues are. And and the paper only gets you so far that you can’t do experiments. This is hardware engineering. These are these are practical ideas. And and when you look at the budget that’s set aside for them, I don’t know what Nikes total budget is. It’s got to just be a couple of million dollars. Like, yeah, if you set, you know, $100,000, $150,000 for 13 projects, that’s just that’s only a couple of million dollars. That is such a fraction of near of NASA’s total budget. And yet imagine if they then set aside maybe the phase four as a prototype and that and then there’s a guaranteed prototype that has to be then adopted into some one upcoming mission for the next phase. 

Pamela Gay [00:22:45] So so here’s the thing. You can see them taking some of these ideas and then applying to the discovery program, some of the existing large scale. Let’s fund more complicated ideas where graduating from Niac can potentially allow you to apply for your own mission. There’s unfortunately not a lot of funding in the grand scheme of things to go for trying things out. We need we need more ways to bridge from up to $175,000 for phase one to a few million to try out a spacecraft. You have to you have to have the bridge. And that’s currently the kind of funding that gets eaten by things like Mars sample return. But things like ingenuity had their hearts, had their core ideas coming out of Niac. And we have in particular with the gallium liquid telescope, the idea that this is something you can test with a CubeSat, right. So as we go from 175 Max to do it on paper to let’s try it with a CubeSat to let’s deploy to scale. There is the potential that you just have to jump programs to a different program somewhere along the line, right? Or get venture capital in the case of some of these commercial companies. 

Fraser Cain [00:24:17] But the but the venture I mean, we know that asteroid mining companies just go out of business is what they do. 

Pamela Gay [00:24:23] That’s true. 

Fraser Cain [00:24:24] So there’s still there isn’t. We’re not there yet. We don’t have that level of investment in and yeah, and infrastructure in space to be able to support these kinds of investments that are going to make sense for existing companies. 

Pamela Gay [00:24:39] Right. 

Fraser Cain [00:24:40] And so this is where this is kind of the role the government does. And and I’m really heartened to see that that the government is starting to get out of, say, let’s send humans to and from the International Space Station. Right. They pay for seats on Dragon flights, but also dragons are used to send millionaires to space. And with the clips program that we talked about last week, that now NASA doesn’t have to really think about how they’re going to land payloads on the surface of the moon. They just pay for the the flight and they call it a day. 

Pamela Gay [00:25:14] And it does gymnastics. 

Fraser Cain [00:25:16] What it does achieved at six. Yeah yeah yeah yeah. Hopefully the next version will be a little a little more successful, but but I think there are all these technology, all these ideas and they are risky. And so there will there’s no amount of, of funding from companies going, oh yeah, we would really like a new four. We would really love to build a gallium telescope because there’s no money to be made. I mean, it’s just astronomy. Like even if you had the most inexpensive, incredible technology for building really beautiful astrophysics experiments in space, there’s no return. There’s no reason why a company would want to invest in that. But you can imagine future astrophysicists taking advantage of a 30 meter telescope that was that started out as a 30 meter space telescope that started out by a bucket of liquid on a spaceship that was then spun out into this ten atom thick telescope. So it’s it’s really rough to think about how this moves on to the next phase. And I think that’s my that’s my dream. Like, I really think that NASA’s role, if you know, if I was in charge of NASA, I think NASA’s role is to de-risk, to take ideas that that seem like magic and make them feasible so that then scientists and engineers and even companies can get their hands on them and take them to the next level that we know they’re the future of humanity, and that they can shorten the timeline to go from, boy, it sure would be great if we could get, bring a sample from Titan home to, okay, here’s a bunch of practical technology that will actually perform this task, and everybody’s too scared to do it because it requires you need a vision rocket to be able to get you out there in time. You need a new techniques for aerobraking. As you pass through the atmosphere of Titan, you need a, some kind of balloon that can float in Titan’s atmosphere to deliver the sample to a whatever. Like whatever it is, it’s going to be crazy. So I think NASA really struck the perfect balance with Niac, and I personally wish that they would be able to continue this journey into the actual prototyping and development of more of the technology in a very specific pathway to development. And, and I feel, you know, I’ve talked to a lot of and AI people, people have won Nayak Awards and they’ve they’ve completed their phase three and and then and you’re like, so what’s next. And like more. Yeah, yeah I’ve graduated now I have to go get a job. Right. They don’t know what comes next, but what comes next is this amazing idea that passed through three rounds of deeper and deeper development that has been sharpened to a fine edge now has to be implemented. Or the all of that work and research is lost. It’s wasted. 

Pamela Gay [00:28:21] So and this is where we have to remind people that that space exploration is playing the long game. The Colombo mission to Mercury was named in 1999. Right. Still are there still not there? Yeah. It takes a long time to go from idea to let’s name it to let’s launch it to, let’s actually have it succeed. These projects are today figuring out how to to sample return from Venus. That’s one of the projects that was funded. They’re figuring out how to do tomorrow’s projects today and hoping that within their lifetime, the technologies do become feasible. They’re likely going to have to move on and work on other things in the interim. But some of these folks are going to be able to graduate to the CubeSat programs, to the discovery missions, and we’re here for it. We are absolutely here for it. 

Fraser Cain [00:29:17] Yeah, yeah. And so hopefully in the future, when you see that word, that Niac word, you’ll be like, oh, cool, there’s some new Knight Grants. Let me check them out. Whether you know, it’s press release from NASA or wall to wall coverage from Universe Today. 

Pamela Gay [00:29:30] Yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:29:31] Definitely stop and take a look. And sort of because it’s, oh, it’s that science fiction coming back to reality that we, I think most of us were so excited about what the future of space could be thanks to science fiction. But we’ve learned that the reality is, has is always a lot more difficult than we ever thought. And these are the ideas. These are people trying to turn the science fiction ideas into practical reality. And as you said, we’re here for it. 

Pamela Gay [00:30:00] Yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:30:01] Thanks, Daniel. 

Pamela Gay [00:30:02] Thank you, Fraser, and thank you to all of you out there on Patreon. And as always, I’m going to read out select names. If you would like me to mispronounce your name, please join our Patreon. Read the levels. It’s only a certain level and up that gets this honor. This week I would like to thank Dean, Nate Detwiler, Kimberly Raich, Tim Gerrish, disaster, Trina, Jeff Wilson, Paul De Disney, Michelle Cullen, Philip Walker, Veronica Cure, Dwight L, Benjamin Davies, Brian Kilby, Sydney Walker, David Bugatti, Bacardi, Justin S, Maxim Levitt, Rubin McCarthy, Larry Daut, Bob Czapski, Daniel Donaldson, Jason Cardew, kiss, Ryan Thorson, Jordan. Turner, Robert. Humble, Christian. Golding, Paul. Esposito, time Lord, IRA, Frank Stewart, Will Hamilton, Sterling. Gray, Adam W Samson, Tor. Forson, Mark Snyder, Michael Posada, Jeff McDonald, Lee Harbaugh and Katie Byrne. Cody Nietzsche, Conrad Holling, Thomas. Gazeta, Tushar McKinney. Jarvis. Earl. Slug, Hal McKinney. Bebop. Apocalypse. Bruno. Letts, John. Drake, Jimmy. Bergeron, Bob. Carl, Robert. Cordova, John Baptiste, la la martini, Noah Albertson and emissary nine. Thank you all so much. You allow us to have folks like Richard Drum and Beth and Ali who allow this show to happen. Thank you. 

Fraser Cain [00:31:47] Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next week. 

Pamela Gay [00:31:49] Bye bye. Astronomy Cast is a joint product of Universe Today and the Planetary Science Institute. Astronomy cast is released under a Creative Commons Attribution license. So love it, share it, and remix it, but please credit it to our hosts, Fraser Cain and Doctor Pamela Gay. You can get more information on today’s show topic on our website. Astronomy. Cars.com. This episode was brought to you. Thanks to our generous patrons on Patreon. If you want to help keep the show going, please consider joining our community at Patreon.com Slash Astronomy Cast. Not only do you help us pay our producers a fair wage, you will also get special access to content right in your inbox and invites to online events. We are so grateful to all of you who have joined our Patreon community already. Anyways, keep looking up. This has been Astronomy Cast.