Credit: NIAC

The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program has unleashed a new volley of creative concepts, selecting study efforts that receive Phase I, Phase II and Phase III funding.

A number of the just announced NIAC-funded initiatives focus on Moon exploration objectives.

NIAC’s role is to nurture visionary ideas that could transform future NASA missions with the creation of breakthroughs — radically better or entirely new aerospace concepts — while engaging America’s innovators and entrepreneurs as partners in the journey.

NIAC is under the wing of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, or STMD for short.

Courtesy: Saptarshi Bandyopadhyay/JPL

Lunar radio telescope

An ultra-long-wavelength radio telescope on the farside of the Moon has tremendous advantages compared to Earth-based and Earth-orbiting telescopes, suggests Saptarshi Bandyopadhyay of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Courtesy: Saptarshi Bandyopadhyay/JPL

The proposal is to deploy a one kilometer diameter wire-mesh antenna in a three to five kilometer diameter farside lunar crater. To do so, wall climbing DuAxel robots would deploy the antenna.

Called the Lunar Crater Radio Telescope (LCRT), the radio telescope would be the largest filled-aperture radio telescope in the Solar System! “LCRT could enable tremendous scientific discoveries in the field of cosmology” Bandyopadhyay explains, in frequencies that have not previously been explored by humans.

Courtesy: Matthew Kuhns/Masten Space Systems


Instant landing pads

A technique to create instant landing pads for future NASA Artemis lunar missions was selected by NIAC, a proposal from Matthew Kuhns of Masten Space Systems.

The engine plume or multi-engine plumes from large lunar landers may pose a range of risks, from high-velocity ejecta abrasion damaging the lander to ejecta damaging other lunar landers or orbital assets, or even creating a crater under the lander as deep as the columnated engine plume, Kuhns explains.

Courtesy: Matthew Kuhns/Masten Space Systems

“The Masten in-Flight Alumina Spray Technique (FAST) Landing Pad changes the approach to landing on planetary bodies by mitigating the landing plume effects by creating a landing pad under the lander as it descends onto a surface,” Kuhns adds. “This approach uses engineered particles injected into the rocket plume to build up a coating over the regolith at the landing location.”

The FAST concept enhances overall lunar access and access to other planetary surfaces, including Mars, Kuhns explains in his proposal, where loose regolith characteristics pose critical mission risks.

Courtesy: Philip Metzger/University of Central Florida

Lunar water extraction

A new method to extract lunar water is tagged as Aqua Factorem. This ultra-low-energy lunar water extraction idea is proposed by Philip Metzger of the University of Central Florida.

This proposal takes advantage of the processing that the unique lunar geology has already performed, Metzger says.

“Micrometeoroid bombardment has already broken most solid material in the upper part of the regolith into fine grains. This includes solid material of all compositions, including the ice, which is as hard as granite at PSR [permanently shadowed region] temperatures and is therefore essentially another type of rock,” Metzger reports. “These ice grains are intermixed with all the other minerals, so a simple, ultra-low-energy grain-sorting process can extract the ice without phase change.”

The ice can then be hauled to a chemical processing unit in solid phase and converted into rocket propellant.

The Aqua Factorem idea is eyeing the mining of propellants commercially for space tugs that boost commercial communication satellites from Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO) to Geostationary Orbit (GEO) then return to the lunar surface for refueling.

“The study will also test the innovative Aqua Factorem process through laboratory experiments, and this will produce basic insights into the handling of lunar resources,” Metzger says.

Harrison (Jack) Schmitt collecting a sample at Station 5 (Camelot
Crater) during the second extra-vehicular activity (EVA) of the
Apollo 17 mission in December 1972.
Credit: NASA

Weight off the back

Another NIAC-supported, lunar assisting idea is the offloading of astronauts for more effective exploration making use of a “BioBot.” This is an autonomous robotic system to handle life support umbilicals on planetary surfaces in the vicinity of obstacles and snag hazards.

The BioBot system concept from David Akin, University of Maryland, College Park, consists of a robotic rover which is capable of traversing the same terrain as a spacesuited human. It carries the primary life support system for the astronaut, including consumables, atmosphere revitalization systems (e.g., carbon dioxide scrubbing, humidity and temperature management, ventilation fan), power system (e.g., battery, power management and distribution), and thermal control system (e.g., water sublimator, cooling water pump), along with umbilical lines to connect to the supported astronaut via the autonomous umbilical handling system.

Courtesy: David Akin, University of Maryland, College Park


“No parameter in the design of spacesuits for planetary exploration is more important than ‘weight on the back’- the weight of the suit system which must be supported by the wearer under the gravity of the Moon or Mars,” Akin explains. “The added weight of the spacesuit garment and portable life support system (PLSS) drives the required exertion level of the wearer, and ultimately sets limitations on EVA duration, distance traveled on foot, and productivity of the exploration mission,” he says in advocating the BioBot system.

Courtesy: Joel Sercel, Trans Astronautica Corporation

Sun flowers, dynamic mining

A Lunar Polar Mining Outpost (LPMO) architecture has been detailed by Joel Sercel of Trans Astronautica Corporation. LPMO promises to greatly reduce the cost of human exploration and industrialization of the Moon.

“LPMO is based on two patent pending inventions that together solve the problem of affordable lunar polar ice mining for propellant production,” Sercel points out.

Sun Flower is a deployable, lightweight reflecting tower that provides nearly continuous solar power into areas where likely ice-rich regolith resides in perpetual darkness. The second enabling innovation is Radiant Gas Dynamic mining to solve the problem of economically and reliably prospecting and extracting large quantities (1,000s of tons per year) of volatile materials from lunar regolith using landed packages of just a few tons each.

Sercel also notes that a large lander — such as the Blue Moon vehicle proposed by Blue Origin — can sit on mineable ice at ground level in perpetual sunlight provided by lightweight reflectors. A single Blue Origin New Glenn launch can deliver a Sun Flower with over one megawatt of solar arrays, tower, and reflector in an integrated package.

Overall, Sercel says his NIAC-funded work “promises to vastly reduce the cost of establishing and maintaining a sizable lunar polar outpost that can serve first as a field station for NASA astronauts exploring the Moon, and then as the beachhead for American lunar industrialization, starting with fulfilling commercial plans for a lunar hotel for tourists.”

For more information on the entire suite of NIAC 2020 awards, go to:

One Response to “Innovative Concepts Focus on Moon Exploration”

  • Larry Young says:

    These are dramatic examples of the way innovative, “far out” concepts can be brought to bear on mid-term space exploration – espectially of of the Moon

Leave a Reply