A Closer Look at NIAC Phase II Awards for Asteroids & Moons

Graphic depiction of Triton Hopper: Exploring Neptune’s Captured Kuiper Belt Object (Credits: Steven Oleson)

The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program recently awarded 25 grants for the development of visionary new technologies. Here we’re going to take a closer look at the following three Phase II awards focused on new ways of exploring asteroids and moons.

Dismantling Rubble Pile Asteroids with AoES (Area-of-Effect Soft-bots)
Jay McMahon
University of Colorado, Boulder

Triton Hopper: Exploring Neptune’s Captured Kuiper Belt Object
Steven Oleson
NASA Glenn Research Center

NIMPH: Nano Icy Moons Propellant Harvester
Michael VanWoerkom
ExoTerra Resource

Each award is worth up to $500,000 for a two-year study. Descriptions of the awards are below.

Graphic depiction of Dismantling Rubble Pile Asteroids with AoES (Area-of-Effect Soft-bots) (Credit: Jay McMahon)

Dismantling Rubble Pile Asteroids with AoES (Area-of-Effect Soft-bots)

Jay McMahon
University of Colorado, Boulder

This proposal seeks to continue development of a new type of soft robotic spacecraft that is specifically designed to move and operate efficiently on the surface of, and in proximity to, rubble pile asteroids. These spacecraft are termed Area-of-Effect Soft-bots (AoES) for their large, flexible surface area that provides three key advantages for this environment: it conforms to the surface to provide adhesion-based anchoring; it enables surface mobility via crawling without pushing itself off the asteroid; it enables fuel-free orbit and hopping control using solar radiation pressure (SRP) forces.

The central bus of AoES contain a mechanism to liberate material from the asteroid and launch it off the surface. The purpose of these radical new robots is to enable a realistic and robust in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) mission to a near-Earth asteroid (NEA). In this concept, one or more AoES would be deployed from an orbiting spacecraft to the surface of the target asteroid. The AoES will move after landing to find and liberate desirable material, which is then launched from the surface for collection by the orbiting resource processing spacecraft.

In Phase I, significant strides were made across a variety of topics to prove the basic feasibility of the AoES concept. Most significantly: an initial AoES design and model was created; HASEL actuators will be used in the soft actuation surfaces; AoES will incorporate electroadhesion to ensure sufficient anchoring; orbit and hopping control with SRP is feasible for the AoES design.

The proposed Phase II study will build on the momentum of the Phase I study to continue reducing the chief risks of a feasible AoES design. To this end, we will address the following primary objectives:

  • Testing of adhesive anchoring with asteroid regolith simulants
  • HASEL actuator refinement for asteroid environment
  • Regolith digging/launching system design and mechanics
  • Thermal control to ensure operational soft robotic material temperatures
  • Robust navigation and control for landing and hopping
  • Landing simulation – investigation of energy absorption
  • Testing and demonstration of actuated soft robotic legs

Addressing these objectives will result in the advancement of two areas of research with a potentially massive future impact: asteroid mining and soft robotics in space. The work will be carried out by a collaboration between the labs of PI McMahon and Co-I Keplinger, who invented the HASEL actuators. This project will also support a 2-year Aerospace Graduate Projects class of 20+ MS students who will carry out system design, manufacturing and testing tasks.

Development of AoES has the potential to drastically improve the capabilities of harvesting water and other resources from the variety of small, plentiful, easily accessible NEAs – enabling further exploration and economic profit in the solar system.

Graphic depiction of Triton Hopper: Exploring Neptune’s Captured Kuiper Belt Object (Credits: Steven Oleson)

Triton Hopper: Exploring Neptune’s Captured Kuiper Belt Object

Steven Oleson
NASA Glenn Research Center

Phase II for the Triton Hopper will focus on retiring the risks identified in Phase I and providing better detail and alternate conceptual options. The three main risks to be addressed include Triton hopper mission, propellant collection, and propulsion performance. For the Triton mission both delivery to Triton in a timely manner ~ 15 yrs and safe takeoff and landing of the hopper on the Triton terrain will be explored.

For propellant collection a bevameter experiment will be performed on a small sample of frozen nitrogen to assess ways to best gather the frozen nitrogen propellant. For the propulsion performance ways will be explored to heat the propellant to higher temperatures and or to reduce dry mass to enable further hops. Using these three products two Compass concurrent engineering runs will be performed; the first of which focusses on integrating the findings of mission/propellant collection and the second on integrating the findings which increase hop distance.

Phase II will end with roadmapping technology development solutions as well as using such techniques for other icy worlds to gather propellants for hopping.

Graphic depiction of NIMPH: Nano Icy Moons Propellant Harvester (Credit: Michael VanWoerkom)

NIMPH: Nano Icy Moons Propellant Harvester

Michael VanWoerkom
ExoTerra Resource

According to the decadal study, a key component of the next 10 years of exploration will be sample return missions. However, these missions are exponentially more expensive than traditional exploration missions because they need two times the delta-V, resulting in exponential growth of its initial mass due to the rocket equations. A key to offsetting this increased cost is through in-situ resource utilization and miniaturization.

The NIMPH project develops a micro-ISRU system for producing LOx and LH2 for return propellant. The system takes advantage of developments in the cubesat arena to reduce the dry mass of the ISRU system by 90% compared to current systems. This will allow missions to refuel at their destinations, such as Europa, Mars and the Lunar poles, drastically reducing the size and cost of the mission.