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Five projects make progress on final frontier

The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts provides more funding for an unorthodox space telescope project and four other way-out ideas.
An artist's conception shows the New Worlds Imager's "starshade" placed between a distant star system and a space telescope. The starshade would help funnel the dim light from distant planets into the telescope.
An artist's conception shows the New Worlds Imager's "starshade" placed between a distant star system and a space telescope. The starshade would help funnel the dim light from distant planets into the telescope.NASA / Univ. of Colorado
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A space telescope that could theoretically resolve weather patterns and continents on Earthlike planets around other stars is among five ideas selected by the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts for more detailed study over the next two years.

The funding announcement was made Wednesday, in the wake of the institute's annual meeting in Colorado. The institute was created in 1998 to solicit revolutionary ideas that could greatly advance NASA's missions from people and organizations outside NASA.

The proposals push the limits of known science and technology, and thus are not expected to be realized for at least a decade or more.

The institute sponsors research in two phases. Proposals selected for Phase 1 awards typically receive up to $75,000 for a six-month study that validates the viability of the concept and identifies challenges that must be overcome to make the proposal a reality.

The results of the Phase 1 studies are evaluated, and the most promising are selected for further research into the major feasibility issues associated with cost, performance, development time and technology through a Phase 2 award. Phase 2 studies can be up to two years long and receive as much as $400,000.

"These NIAC Phase 2 awards have overcome their initial obstacles and fit well into possible long-term NASA plans," Sharon Garrison, NIAC coordinator for NASA at the Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a written statement. "NASA integration beyond Phase II will ultimately be necessary for the successful fusion of these concepts into NASA's missions."

Five proposals were selected for the 2005 Phase 2 studies, with the performance period from Sept. 1, 2005 to Aug. 31, 2007:

  • "New Worlds Imager," with Webster Cash of the University of Colorado at Boulder as principal investigator. The project calls for creating an orbiting "starshade," as big as a soccer field and shaped like a daisy, which would funnel light from distant planets between its petals to a second spacecraft trailing 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers) behind.
  • "A Deep Field Infrared Observatory near the Lunar Pole," with Simon Worden of the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory as principal investigator. This is a project looking into the feasibility of developing a liquid-mirror telescope for infrared observations from near the moon's south pole.
  • "Redesigning Living Organisms for Mars," with Wendy Boss of North Carolina State University as the principal investigator. The study would look into the possibility of making genetic modifications in plants so that they would be more suited for survival in the high-radiation, low-temperature conditions found on Mars.
  • "Microbots for Large-Scale Planetary Surface and Subsurface Exploration," with Steven Dubowsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as principal investigator. Researchers are studing the feasibility of using a large number of small, spherical mobile robots to range over a planet's surface and subsurface, including caves and crevasses. The approach is seen as an alternative to the current system of rovers and landers used for planetary exploration.
  • "Investigation of the Feasibility of Laser Trapped Mirrors," with Elizabeth McCormack of Bryn Mawr College as the principal investigator. This concept involves using two sets of laser beams to give structure to an ultra-thin layer of particles, which could serve as a mirror surface for astronomical observations. Theoretically, a laser-trapped mirror measuring 115 feet wide (35 meters wide) could be just 100 nanometers thick — a tiny fraction of the width of a human hair — and require less than 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of material.

"These awards will encourage NIAC Fellows to continue the development of their concepts that may have a revolutionary impact on future missions for the exploration of space," said the institute's director, Robert Cassanova of the Universities Space Research Association. "These concepts may not only directly impact future missions, but will inspire other creative members of the technical community to leap vast intellectual distances to set a new course for others to follow."

The Universities Space Research Association runs the institute for NASA.

This report includes information from NASA, MIT and the University of Colorado at Boulder.