The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program is an American government-funded program run by NASA that funds and supports early-stage technology development. The goal of the program is to invest in transformative ideas that have the potential to change the future of aerospace, and to explore concepts that are considered too early in their development to be funded through conventional channels. The program supports studies of innovative, technically credible, advanced concepts that could significantly impact future aerospace missions, and encourage the development of disruptive technologies for NASA’s future missions and goals.
The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program awards funding to selected proposals through a competitive process. Researchers submit their concepts to the program, and a panel of experts reviews and evaluates the submissions based on their technical feasibility, potential impact, and alignment with NASA’s goals and priorities. The panel selects the most promising concepts for funding.
Projects supported by NIAC span a wide range of disciplines including propulsion, spacecraft design, and planetary exploration, among others. The program provides seed funding for high-risk, high-reward concepts, with the aim of advancing the technology to a point where it becomes viable for further investment and development.
NIAC operates through two phases of funding. Phase I provides funding for a nine-month concept study, during which the feasibility and potential impact of a proposed concept is explored. If the concept is deemed promising, the researcher can apply for Phase II funding, which provides up to two years of funding to further develop the concept.
Awards for NIAC Phase I studies typically range from $125,000 to $500,000 for a nine-month study period. Phase II awards can be up to $2 million for up to two years of development work.
The number of awards given out each year varies, but typically a few dozen concepts are selected for funding. The program has supported a wide range of innovative ideas and has helped to advance technology in many different areas of aerospace research.
some of the latest technologies supported by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program include:
- In-Space Assembly and Manufacturing: This technology aims to enable the on-orbit assembly and manufacturing of large space structures, such as antennas, mirrors, and habitats, using robots and other automated systems.
- Mars Sample Return: NIAC is supporting several concepts for the development of new technologies for the safe and efficient return of Mars samples to Earth for scientific analysis.
- Solar Electric Propulsion: This technology is aimed at developing new, more efficient, and more capable electric propulsion systems for use in deep space missions.
- Autonomous Systems for Planetary Exploration: NIAC is supporting the development of autonomous systems that can be used to explore and study other planets and moons, reducing the need for human involvement in these missions.
- Interstellar Precursor Mission Studies: NIAC is funding studies of innovative concepts and technologies that could be used to explore and study other star systems, including the development of new propulsion systems and sensors.
NIAC also provides opportunities for researchers to collaborate with NASA engineers, scientists, and technologists, as well as to engage with the broader scientific and engineering communities. The program encourages innovative thinking and helps to foster a culture of innovation within NASA.
Latest NIAC Awards
The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program fosters innovation by funding early-stage studies to evaluate technologies that could support future missions. The latest round of awards will provide $175,000 grants to 14 visionaries from nine states. Ten of the selected researchers are first-time NIAC recipients.
“NASA dares to make the impossible possible. That’s only achievable because of the innovators, thinkers, and doers who are helping us imagine and prepare for the future of space exploration,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “The NIAC program helps give these forward-thinking scientists and engineers the tools and support they need to spur technology that will enable future NASA missions.”
The new Phase I projects include innovative sensors and instruments, manufacturing techniques, power systems, and more.
A concept envisioned by Quinn Morley of Planet Enterprises in Gig Harbor, Washington, could investigate the chemistry of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Flying on Titan would be relatively easy thanks to its low gravity and thick atmosphere. Morley conceived a flying, heavily instrumented boat that would seamlessly transition between soaring through Titan’s atmosphere and sailing its lakes, much like a seaplane on Earth.
Mary Knapp from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge proposed a new kind of space observatory comprised of thousands of identical small satellites. Precisely positioned in deep space, they could work together to detect radio emissions at low frequencies from the earliest epochs of the universe and measure magnetic fields of terrestrial exoplanets, helping identify planets outside the solar system that are rocky like Earth and Mars.
Since 2011, NIAC has nurtured ideas like these that sound like science fiction, but – if successful – just might be possible. The program sits within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) and explores technically credible, early-stage aerospace concepts. NIAC researchers, called fellows, form an advanced, collaborative research community. Under their NIAC awards, the fellows investigate the physics of their concepts, roadmap necessary technology development, identify potential limitations, and look for transition opportunities to bring these concepts to reality.
“These initial Phase I NIAC studies help NASA determine whether these futuristic ideas could set the stage for future space exploration capabilities and enable amazing new missions,” said Michael LaPointe, program executive for NIAC at NASA Headquarters.
All NIAC studies are in the very early stages of conceptual development and are not considered official NASA missions.
The researchers selected to receive NIAC Phase I grants in 2023, their institutions, and the titles of their proposals are:
- Edward Balaban, NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley: Fluidic Telescope: Enabling the Next Generation of Large Space Observatories
- Igor Bargatin, University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia: Photophoretic Propulsion Enabling Mesosphere Exploration
- Theresa Benyo, NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland: Accessing Icy World Oceans Using Lattice Confinement Fusion Fast Fission
- Zachary Cordero, MIT: Bend-Forming of Large Electrostatically Actuated Space Structures
- Peter Curreri, Lunar Resources, Inc. in Houston: Lunar South Pole Oxygen Pipeline
- Artur Davoyan, University of California, Los Angeles: Pellet-Beam Propulsion for Breakthrough Space Exploration
- Ryan Gosse, University of Florida, Gainesville: New Class of Bimodal Nuclear Thermal/Electric Propulsion with a Wave Rotor Topping Cycle Enabling Fast Transit to Mars
- Congrui Jin, University of Nebraska, Lincoln: Biomineralization-Enabled Self-Growing Building Blocks for Habitat Outfitting on Mars
- Mary Knapp, MIT: Great Observatory for Long Wavelengths
- Quinn Morley, Planet Enterprises in Gig Harbor, Washington: TitanAir: Leading-Edge Liquid Collection to Enable Cutting-Edge Science
- Christopher Morrison, Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation – Space, in Seattle: EmberCore Flashlight: Long Distance Lunar Characterization with Intense Passive X- and Gamma ray Source
- Heidi Newberg, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York: Diffractive Interfero Coronagraph Exoplanet Resolver: Detecting and Characterizing all Earth-like Exoplanets Orbiting Sun-like Stars within 10 Parsecs
- Stephen Polly, Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York: Radioisotope Thermoradiative Cell Power Generator
- Ryan Weed, Positron Dynamics in Seattle: Aerogel Core Fission Fragment Rocket Engine
NIAC is funded by STMD, which is responsible for developing the new cross-cutting technologies and capabilities needed by the agency to achieve its current and future missions.
In conclusion, the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program is an important mechanism for fostering and supporting early-stage research and development in aerospace technology. By funding bold and visionary ideas, the program helps to ensure that NASA remains at the forefront of technological innovation and continues to push the boundaries of what is possible in space exploration.
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