The program is calling for innovative studies and technically feasible designs that are readily applicable and have the potential to transform the entire course of space exploration.
The projects submitted need to have a strong potential impact and have to be able to be turned from idea into a working solution in a manageable, objective time frame.
As it is a contest, each of the 15 chosen projects for this year’s edition will earn its candidate an award of $100000 to fund the research and implementation of their idea during a nine month initial study.
Jason Derleth, the NIAC’s executive director, said it is very difficult to select from the multitude of Phase I finalist concepts as they are all outstanding, but concentrating on only the few that have the greatest potential will allow NASA and the projects’ creators to focus their efforts for better and faster results.
After the initial 9 month trial, a few ideas that prove the highest likeliness of succeeding will enter Phase II of the program when an additional $500000 will be awarded for future in depth studies during a two year scheme.
This year’s star project is an articulated flexible squid-like moving robot that can be used in missions and scenarios where a vehicle with wheels would be useless. The first thing that comes to mind is underwater exploration and the craft is designed to have the propulsion module at one end and a series of tentacle shaped structures at the other which would act as electro-dynamic power harvesters from the surrounding electromagnetic fields to supply the machine with electrical current. At the same, time the tentacles could act as arms that could be equipped with tools to interact with the environment and take samples of various inorganic and possibly organic compounds.
Already a goal has been set for this project to culminate in a usable craft that would be used in underwater exploration of ice covered moons like Enceladus, the sixth largest moon of Saturn, and Europa, the smallest Galilean Satellite of Jupiter.
Both of these moons have been displaying water vapor jets and plumes, which means there is liquid water under the thick ice sheet, possibly an entire ocean. The water is kept liquid by the insulation provided by the ice cap and the gravitational friction and influence of the large planets around which the satellites orbit. The scientists hope that by exploring these oceans they could find the first extraterrestrial life forms. There is strong evidence to encourage them to think this, as there have been detections inside these plumes of organic molecules, such as propane, methane, formaldehyde and acetylene, all carbon containing compounds.
These satellites are under continual study and observation and more future missions of exploration have been proposed by the scientific community.
The Enceladus Life Finder mission, for example, has been proposed in 2015 and if selected it will be assigned funding to materialize it in an exploration program in 2021. A launch date is even set for the 31st of December 2021.
Europa, on the other hand, has been the subject of many disputes amongst space scientists and, although an initial mission called Europa Jupiter System Mission has been set to launch in 2020, only to be dismissed in the early 2010s, all is not lost. On the 13th of January 2014, $80 million in funding has been assigned to continue the research on the possibility of a mission focusing exclusively on this ice covered moon.
As the start date for these space missions is set so distantly in the future, it is plausible to conceive that the projects seen at the annual NIAC competition, especially the extraterrestrial aquatic exploration robotic craft from this year, could find their way into the mission’s structure, potentially proving invaluable in the search for the first alien, even if that alien is a single cell organism.
Image Source: NASA