NIAC: Exploring subsurface oceans – “Doing the hard thing”

Over fifty years ago John Kennedy articulated one of the most important reasons for exploring space:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. . . “

NASA has a program which seeks out the things which are not easy, which are hard and which organize and measure the bet of our energies and skills: NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concept program (NIAC).

Earlier this month NIAC awarded a Phase I grants to several projects, giving each $100,000 and nine months to prove the feasibility of some aspect of the proposal.

One of the Phase I awardees was a project submitted by Dr. Masahiro Ono, a research technologist at JPL. Dr. Ono proposes exploring the oceans of Enceladus and Europa using a lander with three separate modules.

The Surface Module (SM) would land on the surface and navigate to a volcanic opening. On these worlds the volcanic opening leads to the ocean beneath the ice crust, unlike their lava spewing cousins on Earth.

The second component, the Descent Module (DM), would descend into the volcano using in NASA’s words “ . . . a combination of roving, climbing, rappelling, and hopping, like an experienced human alpinist.”

In turn the DM would release an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) into the ocean to achieve the significant exploration objectives.

The AUV would be tethered to the DM. The DM would be tethered to the SM. The SM using either solar energy or a radioisotope thermoelectric generator would supply power to the other modules and would transmit information back to Earth.

If this seems complicated it is because at the moment there may be no other way to explore these subsurface bodies of water. As NASA notes:

“Since water blocks radio waves, communication and localization are particularly significant challenges for AUVs. DM . . . communicates with AUVs though acoustic communication. DM then transfers the data though an optic cable to SM, from which the data is transmitted to Earth by radio.”

Dr. Masahiro has nine moths to prove the feasibility of some of the basic technology before the project is reviewed for Phase II funding.

NIAC in its present iteration is a follow on to another program with an identical acronym.

In 1998 NASA created the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) to serve as a funnel for ideas from the academic community.

Quoting the Institute about its mission:

“ NIAC is . . . a program that values both technical acumen and imagination, inspired by curiosity and the quest for knowledge. We encourage innovators to be creative and attempt great leaps forward in aerospace endeavors. (NASA has other programs for “next-step” research.) NIAC calls for visionary concepts that may be expansive in scope, may inspire new classes of enabling technologies, and may feature disciplines outside of the mainstream aerospace fields. A good NIAC concept seeks to “Change the Possible” or offer revolutionary improvement.”

The Institute was looking at the ten to forty year time frame for developing ideas submitted for funding consideration.

A project had to meet four criteria:

1. An Aerospace Architecture, System, or Mission Concept that contributes to NASA strategic goals

2. Exciting: Enables an entirely new kind of mission, or great leap in capabilities; worth studying now, even if far-term or high risk

3. Unexplored: Breaks new ground, changing the conversation about future possibilities or significantly contributing to science/understanding

4. Credible: Technically sound – based on solid scientific/engineering principles; plausibly implementable i.e., not requiring any extremely unlikely changes to NASA or U.S. budget, priorities, etc.

Projects selected by the Institute received a Phase I grant of $100,000 to develop the concept over nine months. A Phase II approval awarded $500,000 for a two year study to explore and develop the concept.

The Institute funded projects that touched virtually every area of space exploration from propulsion to habitat construction to food. In all the Institute provided over $27 million to 126 Phase I projects and 42 Phase II projects.

In August of 2007 the Institute was discontinued for budgetary reasons. NASA’s focus at that time was a return to the Moon and there was not enough money to continue the program.

Following a Congressional study on 2008 and a new Administration coming to office in 2009, NASA reinstituted its search for revolutionary ideas. The NASA Innovative Advanced Concept program, with slight revisions, continues the work of its predecessor conveniently using the same acronym, NIAC.

NIAC has the same criteria for evaluating projects for further study, and basically the same funding rules as its predecessor.

Dr. Masahiro project meets another criterion as well. Putting a three module rover to work exploring a sub-surface ocean half way across the solar system would certainly meet President Kennedy’s definition of choosing to do the hard thing.