NIAC Phase I Awards Focused on Astronomy & Astrophysics


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 three Phase I awards focused on astronomy and astrophysics.

Modular Active Self-Assembling Space Telescope Swarms
Dmitry Savransky
Cornell University

Astrophysics and Technical Study of a Solar Neutrino Spacecraft
Nickolas Solomey
Wichita State University

Spectrally-Resolved Synthetic Imaging Interferometer
Jordan Wachs
Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation

Each award is worth up to $125,000 for a nine-month study. Descriptions of the awards are below.

Graphic depiction of Modular Active Self-Assembling Space Telescope Swarms (Credit: Dmitry Savransky)

Modular Active Self-Assembling Space Telescope Swarms

Dmitry Savransky
Cornell University

We propose a modular, self-assembling architecture enabling the construction of 30+ m diameter, reflective, space telescopes with active optics. The entire structure of the telescope, including the primary and secondary mirrors, secondary support structure and planar sunshield will be constructed from a single, mass-produced spacecraft module.

Each module will be composed of a hexagonal ~1 m diameter spacecraft topped with an edge-to-edge, active mirror assembly. The mirror will have at least thirty degrees of freedom, driven by mechanical actuators, so that the assembled primary and secondary mirrors will be fully active and can be phased and given the appropriate shape post-assembly.

Modules will be launched independently as payloads of opportunity, and navigate to the Sun-Earth L2 point using a deployable solar sail. The solar sails will then become the planar telescope sunshield during telescope assembly, which will proceed autonomously with no additional human or robotic intervention.

The target mission concept is a large-aperture implementation of the Large Ultraviolet/Optical/Infrared Surveyor (LUVOIR), which has been highlighted in the NASA Astrophysics roadmap and is currently being studied for the 2020 decadal survey. In the NIAC Phase I, we propose to carry out detailed simulations of the spacecraft flight and rendezvous dynamics in order to set requirements on the solar sail area and loading, along with analyses of the mirror assembly to validate the ability to achieve the required surface figure in the assembled primary and secondary mirrors.

This proposal is directly in line with the priorities of the NASA Technology Roadmaps in Science Instruments, Observatories, and Sensor Systems and Robotics and Autonomous Systems. This architecture provides a credible path to the construction of a giant space telescope, which would be infeasible using the design and assembly techniques employed for previous generations of space telescopes including Hubble and James Webb.

A space-based aperture of this scale would enable transformative and unprecedented science, including mapping the distribution of surface cover on Earth-like planets, resolved imaging of stellar populations over a span of 10 billion years, dark energy/dark matter searches, and much more. The demonstration of on-orbit autonomous assembly will also be directly applicable to a host of other NASA missions and of value to the broader aerospace community.

Graphic depiction of conceptual Idea for a first test detector for solar neutrinos. (Credits: Nickolas Solomey)

Astrophysics and Technical Study of a Solar Neutrino Spacecraft

Nickolas Solomey
Wichita State University

Both spacecraft and detector technology capable of operating close to the Sun would be achieved through this proposed NIAC project. This technology is needed to study our Sun’s solar interior for the purpose of better understanding our Sun, its future expected changes such as long term forecasting of solar energy output, as well as understanding fundamental physics such as nuclear fusion reaction rates, Dark Matter searches, Particle Physics Neutrino Oscillations and Nuclear Physics Matter effects of Neutrino interaction.

On the Earth the solar intensity of neutrinos is very low, but by going very close to the Sun in a close solar orbit of seven solar Radii the neutrino rate can be 1,000 times higher. In this NIAC project a small detector inside the de-coherence neutrino radius would be evaluated to explore its science potential for studying the interior nuclear reactions of the Sun.

Unlike light from the Sun, which comes from the same Nuclear fusion reactions inside the nuclear furnace core but that take energy 50,000 to 100,000 years to reach the surface, neutrinos, which weakly interact, with matter, come directly out of the solar core very quickly and they will tell us much more about the current solar interior than measuring any other particle emitted from the Sun.

This proposed new NIAC concept comes with some challenges for both the spacecraft and detector design. First, current neutrino technologies are limited and large detectors are needed to make a small number of measurements. Also, all current neutrino detection technology options are Earth-based and have never flown in space.

NASA has managed to do new science by using a simple technology such as the EGRET spark-chamber satellite flown in 1992. Once NASA put this satellite into an orbit high above the Earth, a new window into the universe of high-energy gamma rays was opened for scientific study.

By advancing and developing neutrino detector technology which will fly and operate in outer space, a novel opportunity to study the Sun will be created, one that will enhance our ability to predict both long-term Solar output and Solar storms as well as to perform fundamentally new science studies that are currently unattainable.

Wichita State University proposes this joint project involving NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) Astrophysics Center leader and the Advanced Concepts Engineering office along with South Dakota State University. The proposed NIAC project will enable an initial evaluation of technological challenges through simulations addressing the aspects of background event rejection, shielding and various possible options for neutrino signal identification.

Graphic depiction of Spectrally-Resolved Synthetic Imaging Interferometer. (Credit: Jordan Wachs)

Spectrally-Resolved Synthetic Imaging Interferometer

Jordan Wachs
Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation

A new architecture for spectrally resolved long baseline interferometry is presented. Utilization of a frequency comb reference allows coherent detection and digitization of the optical field within the full spectrum of the frequency comb.

The broadband, coherent nature of the frequency comb allows narrow frequency channels to be down-converted to and measured at RF frequencies, and coherently added in the digital domain — resulting in an SNR that is comparable to that of traditional direct detection interferometers, but without the need for nanometer scale optical path length control for beam combination purposes or the Terabit/sec data rates necessary for sampling the optical field directly.

Spectral sensitivity of the system allows radial velocimetry measurements sensitive to redshift on the order of several Hz, which is sufficient to resolve relative velocity change on the order of mm/sec. Direct spectroscopic measurements with this system will be sensitive enough to detect the presence water, methane, and other compounds with absorption features within the frequency comb spectrum. Due to the nature of this broadband coherent detection scheme, all spectral information is inherently present in all measured data, allowing simultaneous imaging, velocimetry, and spectroscopy measurements.

This paradigm shifting technology will provide extreme spatial resolution as well as direct spectroscopic and radial velocimetry measurements without the need for THz processing or nanometer class positional stability and control.