Seaplane on Titan, lunar pipeline: this is what NASA is considering

To prepare for future space exploration and develop cutting-edge technologies, NASA has funded for a dozen years an extremely innovative research program that pushes the limits of science fiction and current technological possibilities: NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC). ). The idea is to identify and select a series of projects carried out by US companies or research organizations that could, if feasible, mark a breakthrough in the goals or implementation of space missions.

Development in three stages

Initially, they are funded for nine months in the amount of $175,000 in order to formalize the conceptual studies. Those who pass this first stage then receive a new grant of up to $600,000 over two years to develop a more specific development program. The finalists finally benefit from two years of work and additional testing associated with a two million dollar envelope. Thus, when they come to an end, these groundbreaking studies continue for nearly five years.

Making the impossible possible

The 2023 harvest is no exception to the rule. Unveiled on January 9, 2023, it includes 14 of the most daring proposals such as a seaplane exploring various geological features on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, a gas pipeline bringing oxygen to the Moon, or even a much smaller and more compact power source. effective for space flights. “NASA dares to make the impossible possible. And that can only be achieved with the help of thinkers and innovators who help us imagine and prepare for the future of space exploration,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said on the occasion. The NIAC program provides these forward-thinking scientists and engineers with the tools and support they need to develop technologies for NASA’s future missions.”

Exploring the cycle of organic chemistry on Titan

The flying boat project, called TitanAir, is being run by Planet Enterprises, based in Washington. The concept of a seaplane hull he developed made it possible both to fly in the dense atmosphere of Titan and to navigate the lakes of this moon of Saturn, the only star in the solar system that has lakes and seas on the surface, even if the latter consists not of water, but of hydrocarbons (methane and ethane). The machine will be equipped with numerous scientific instruments and will carry out research missions that can last several hours every day. Thus, by analyzing samples of lakes and the atmosphere, he studied the cycle of organic chemistry on Titan, which, according to some exobiologists, could combine the conditions necessary for the emergence of life.

Aluminum lunar pipelines

While the Moon has once again become a popular destination for international space agencies, and the US, Europe or China are planning to build habitable bases there, Lunar Resources, based in Huntsville, Alabama, has for its part imagined gas pipelines to deliver oxygen. to these stationary stations… But also all-terrain vehicles piloted by cosmonauts or even rockets! Oxygen will be extracted from water molecules present at the South Pole of the star Selene in the regolith. It will then be transported in gaseous form through a network of aluminum pipelines at least five kilometers long, with a flow of about two kilograms of oxygen per hour.

Artist’s impression of a pipeline delivering oxygen to the moon. Credits: Peter Curreri

Energy sources 1000 times smaller

Finally, we mention a project proposed by the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York State. It aims to revolutionize the technology of “radioisotope fusion generators” (RTGs) that have powered many of NASA’s space probes since the 1960s, such as the Pioneer, Voyager, Cassini or New Horizons landers ” Viking or the Curiosity rovers. . Composed of indium, arsenic and antimony, among others, the new generators could be ten times more powerful (30 W/kg) than their predecessors because they are much more compact. Their volume will indeed be only 0.2 liters compared to more than 200 liters at present. These generators would be extremely useful for powering research nanosatellites (CubeSats) for distant planets like Uranus or permanently shadowed areas like some craters on the Moon.

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