Innovations to help us conquer space

I just attended the NASA Innovative and Advance Concepts group (NIAC) symposium at Stanford — (I am on NIAC’s Council of External Advisors) — watching and appraising and questioning terrific presentations about future-potential “game-changing” space technologies.  In four days the recipients of NIAC seed grants, showed us how NASA’s small but strategic investments in exceptional… even risky… technologies might prove valuable — even vital — if given a chance.

NASA-NIACThe presentations, open to the public, were live-streamed and are now archived for your viewing pleasure.

Punctuating the technical talks, our first keynote speaker was Jamie Hyneman, famed producer and co-star of The Mythbusters TV show. He was most inspiring, logical, humble and sensible about seeking the proper balance between play and risk and responsibility… an excellent perspective, very apropos for NIAC.  (During break, Jamie also told me I had been one of his favorite authors, way back when… till the show took all his time and banished reading. Ah well!)

Other keynotes included my friend Peter Norvig, head of research at Google (also hugely inspiring) and SETI Institute chief scientist Seth Shostak, who gave a clever-dynamic speech about how likely it is that “everything will change.” We have our disagreements, but Seth does deliver high octane big-think. There was also an interesting reception and speech by two experts about venture capitalism in space, hosted at SETI institute HQ, of all places.

The talks by NIAC fellows themselves were way-interesting. Several innovators aim to use “tensegrity,” which gives separate roles to tension and compression elements in new kinds of light weight structures.  One group wants to make tensegrity “balls” that can cushion a landing payload, then controllers back on Earth might command the rover to tug-shrink various tension members, in order to roll around.  Another team wants to use tensegrity to make torus space habitats, starting at 10 meters then expanding all the way up to space colonies.  (The use of tensegrity in innovative structures is illustrated in my graphic novel: Tinkerers.)

image-volcanoOther talks were even more amazing. Can we see inside super-dangerous volcanoes like Vesuvius? Hiroyuki Tanaka of the University of Tokyo reasoned that the throat of a volcano could be “x-rayed” with energetic muons produced in cosmic-ray showers. The number of muons passing through the volcano would depend on the density of intervening rock, so measuring the number of muons passing through various parts of the volcano could yield a crude, 3-D view of the interior.  So, can we use this in space? One of the fellows with a NIAC grant showed us even more spectacular potential application… a way to peer inside asteroids!

Then there’s Red Whittaker who has made progress developing a robot that can lower itself (rappel) on a cable into some of the lava tube tunnels that we’re now pretty sure exist on the Moon and Mars, after we’ve spotted some of the “skylight” openings that have caved-open, exposing some of them… potentially ideal places for early human visitors and colonies to inhabit. Those settlers would then supplement the caves with other NIAC innovations! Like with “printed” concrete that uses sulfur to replace water.  Or polymers to bind regolith with water – only the water gets recovered for re-use.

torpor_inducing_transfer_habitatforhumanstasistomarsRobert Hoyt talked about his group’s truss-making “trusselator” … then a biomedical team reported on their scenario for using “torpor” — human hibernation — for spaceflight! (Just don’t leave a crazy AI in charge, while you sleep.) Another bio group has been studying ways to tailor and refine organically-derived useful materials in space. Then… how about combining fusion and fission, maximizing neutron use and getting the best of each for a very high ISP rocket!

Here’s a great one studied by two separate groups… 2-D “landers” that are like sheets of paper and flutter down to planets, needing no complex rockets etc… with printed circuits and instruments! Then we saw an effort to mimic Geoff Landis’s great sci fi story “A Walk in the Sun” by having a rover circumnavigate the poles of Mercury or the Moon, moving just fast enough to stay in twilight, where there’s solar power, but not so much you get scorched. Another team wants to use a base station lander to aim reflected empowering sunlight at its rover. (I actually quite liked that one).

590487main_strekalov_226Or how about balloons that are also telescopes, made from mirroring their spherical bottoms?  Or ultra thin film (and spectacularly broad) telescopes that keep perfect optical shape because their chemically-treated undersides are written-on by a laser? Or using the quantum diffraction of whole atoms to make an orbiting interferometer more than six orders of magnitude more accurate than any other, allowing detection of minute gravity waves? Think that’s weird? There was also a project to use “ghost imaging” to picture things in space that no one can see!  Compared to that, an ideas for a whirling-bola permanently-aloft aircraft and propulsion via photonic thrusters seemed positively mundane… (and I mean that in a good way!)

All along, there was lots of talk of using cubesats, inexpensive and very small satellites and probes that bring costs way down.  Interesting stuff!

And… even more important… examples of our tax dollars (mostly) well and efficiently spent on the seed corn from which future industries might grow.

== Other space news ==

Even if no rogue state attacks with an EMP… the sun eventually will.  We should have been hardening the grid and civilian electronics for 30 years.  Indeed, such hardening would make an attack less tempting and thus less likely.  It is called robustness and should be a core national – and civilization-wide – goal.

For two weeks, humans and a humanoid robot lived in a simulated Martian environment inside a habitat module– in Utah!

Take a kewl tour of just a few spectacular images from Mars.

A NASA experiment to seek ultra-low temperatures — as low as 100 pico-degrees Kelvin — will be put aboard the Space Station in order to eliminate the effects of gravity. The hope is to study deep quantum-statistical effects of matter, such as Bose-Einstein condensates.  The NASA research team believes that they will be able to create work in this proposed coldest known location in the universe in intervals of up to 20 seconds and that they may be able to create atomic wave packets that are capable of being seen by the naked eye.

TankFarmCoverNewIn other cool NASA news that gets far-out but plausible… a new series of “NASA-Inspired Works of Fiction,” has grown out of a collaboration between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and science fiction publisher Tor books. The partnership pairs up novelists with NASA scientists and engineers, who help writers develop scientifically plausible story lines and spot-check manuscripts for technical errors.  (See also my novella, Tank Farm Dynamo.) What is so cool is how this kind of return to the old, confident, can-do spirit is exactly what we need to counter act the swamp of dystopias and same-same hopelessness that currently infests YA fiction. 
Okay, saving the dreamiest for last. It seems that a whole new generation is being awakened to the delightful vision so many of us had, in the 1980s… of artificial colonies in orbit. Sure the recent movie Elysium portrayed a “Stanford Torus” serving as the ultimate enclave-metaphor for class oppression.  (It also had a magical force-field that somehow was useless against incoming ships.) But even in that case, the gorgeous habitat become a source of hope for all humanity.
This dream — which goes back to J.D. Bernal’s marvelous design of 1929 — is being given a kick by some low-scale NASA backing. e should all help re-introduce another generation to this notion, which is the ultimate expression of the confident, assertive, Can-Do Spirit we so desperately need, here on Earth.
Let “we can do it” be the theme for a century that begins this year!

And now… onward!

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