NASA provides funding for space projects, including a flying boat for Titan

The graphic shows a probe flying in the sky of Titan, one of Saturn's moons.  (Photo via Quinn Morley)

The graphic shows a probe flying in the sky of Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. (Photo via Quinn Morley)

NASA says it will give up to $2.45 million to 14 teams to support experimental projects that would fit perfectly into the pages of a science-fiction novel — including a plan to send a flying boat to explore Titan’s smogy atmosphere and hydrocarbon-rich lakes.

The unconventional Titan probe was proposed by a former Boeing mechanic in Gig Harbor, Washington, who says his space venture, Planet Enterprises, is “almost a one-man team,” at least for now.

Two other Seattle-area scientists also won Phase 1 grants in the latest round of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program awards. Each nine-month Phase 1 learning grant is worth $175,000, with successful projects eligible for additional funding in subsequent phases.

The NIAC program is designed to support out-of-this-world ideas that can eventually become reality. “These preliminary studies of NIAC Phase 1 are helping NASA determine if these futuristic ideas could lay the groundwork for future space exploration opportunities and enable amazing new missions,” Michael LaPointe, NIAC Program Director at NASA Headquarters, explained in a press release.

NASA administrator Bill Nelson said the NIAC program helps provide “forward-looking scientists and engineers with the tools and support they need to energize the technology that will enable future NASA missions.”

“NASA dares to make the impossible possible. This is only possible with innovators, thinkers and activists who help us envision and prepare for the future of space exploration,” said Nelson.

The grant for the TitanAir flying boat project is the second NIAC award for Quinn Morley, who founded Planet Enterprises in 2001 while he was in high school. A few years ago, Morley and his co-researcher won a Phase 1 grant to study the development of a low-cost robotic system capable of deep drilling on Mars.

“Both projects have a lot of public domain IP because I am a developer and I believe in open hardware ideals,” Morley said in an email to GeekWire.

Morley’s TitanAir proposal calls for the construction of a winged craft with a network of capillary sampling tubes built into the leading edge of each wing. The craft would be dropped into the thick atmosphere of Titan, a smog-shrouded moon of Saturn, and take air samples as it flew.

TitanAir can also dive and sample Titan’s cool lakes, which are believed to consist of liquid methane and ethane.

In a LinkedIn post, Morley said the idea was inspired by “a cosmic cup of coffee and a messy spill in the fridge.” He said the TitanAir team also includes Narasimha Boddeti, an engineering professor at Washington State University; Purdue engineering professor Steven Collicott; and Laura Seward Forczyk of Astralytical.

NASA is already supporting a mission known as Dragonfly, which would place a plutonium-powered, rotor-equipped flying machine on the surface of Titan in 2034. There is no guarantee that TitanAir will ultimately get a similar nod from the space agency, and the same disclaimer applies to other projects supported by NIAC.

An artist's concept of a lunar rover using USNC-Tech's EmberCore flashlight to analyze the composition of matter on the moon.  (Photo via Christopher Morrison)

An artist’s concept of a lunar rover using USNC-Tech’s EmberCore flashlight to analyze the composition of matter on the moon. (Photo via Christopher Morrison)

Christopher Morrison, an engineer with Seattle-based Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies, also known as USNC-Tech, won a Phase 1 grant to study modifying the company’s EmberCore radioisotope battery to create a “flashlight” capable of producing a powerful beam of X-rays or gamma rays .

USNC-Tech is already developing EmberCore as a potential heat and power source for lunar rovers. According to Morrison’s proposal, the EmberCore flashlight “would have a beam that is orders of magnitude greater than that previously deployed in space.”

“This intensity provides a significant source of light that will be able to travel for miles, interact with the ground, and then reflect back towards the sensor. The signal that is returned to the sensor is like a fingerprint that can be used to identify substances such as water.

Such a system could characterize frozen water deposits at promising lunar sites such as Shackleton Crater and Mare Tranquillitatis. USNC-Tech says the EmberCore flashlight can also be used to study the geology of other airless celestial bodies, such as asteroids and the planet Mercury.

Airgel is one of the lightest substances you can hold in your hand.  (NASA photo via Ryan Weed)

Airgel is one of the lightest substances you can hold in your hand. (NASA photo via Ryan Weed)

NASA also awarded the NIAC Phase 1 grant to Ryan Weed, co-founder of Positron Dynamics. Weed, who lives in Seattle, worked as an engineer for Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture and is a program manager for the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit. In 2018, he received a NIAC grant to study the feasibility of a radioisotope positron drive concept.

The newly awarded grant will be used to explore a propulsion concept that would involve embedding fuel particles for a nuclear fission rocket engine in a very low-density airgel matrix. The motor would also take advantage of a breakthrough in high-field, high-temperature superconducting magnets.

In his project proposal, Weed says such a propulsion system could provide enough power to send a space telescope on a 15-year journey to the sun’s gravitational lensing point, which is tens of billions of miles from Earth. At such a vantage point, the Sun’s gravitational field could theoretically bend light to sharpen the surface features of extrasolar planets.

Here are links to information on 11 other NIAC Phase 1 grants:

  • Edward Balaban, NASA’s Ames Research Center: Fluidic Telescope: Enabling the Next Generation of Large Space Observatories

  • Igor Bargatin, University of Pennsylvania: Photophoretic drive to explore the mesosphere

  • Theresa Benyo, NASA’s Glenn Research Center: Accessing the World’s Icy Oceans Using Fusion Fast Fiss Web Trapping

  • Zachary Cordero, Massachusetts Institute of Technology: bending formation of large electrostatically actuated space structures

  • Peter Curreri, Lunar Resources Inc.: Oxygen Pipeline at the Moon’s South Pole

  • Artur Davoyan, University of California, Los Angeles: Pellet beam propulsion for groundbreaking space exploration

  • Ryan Gosse, University of Florida, Gainesville: New Class of Bimodal Nuclear Thermal/Electric Propulsion with Wave Rotor Refill Cycle for Rapid Transit to Mars

  • Congrui Jin, University of Nebraska, Lincoln: Self-growing building blocks enabling biomineralization to equip habitats on Mars

  • Mary Knapp, MIT: The Great Long Wave Observatory

  • Heidi Newberg, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York: Diffractive Interfero Coronagraph Exoplanet Resolver: Detection and characterization of all Earth-like exoplanets orbiting Sun-like stars within 10 parsecs

  • Stephen Polly, Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York: Radioisotope thermoradiative cellular energy generator

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