NIAC Projects Target Mars, Venus & Pluto

Pluto Hop, Skip, and Jump mission. (Credit: Benjamin Goldman)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

An airship for Mars, two spacecraft capable of exploring the hellish environment of Venus, and a fusion-powered orbiter and lander for Pluto are three of the planetary-related research projects recently funded by theNASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.

In all, NIAC funded eight advanced projects focused on Mars, Venus and Pluto in its latest annual funding round. The space agency also funded two proposals aimed at identifying and extracting resources on planets, moons and asteroids.

NIAC Phase I Award: Continuous Electrode Inertial Electrostatic Confinement Fusion

Continuous Electrode Inertial Electrostatic Confinement Fusion (Credit: Raymond Sedwick)

Continuous Electrode Inertial Electrostatic Confinement Fusion

Raymond Sedwick
University of Maryland, College Park
College Park, Md.

Value: Approximately $125,000
Length of Study: 9 months


NASA recognizes within its roadmaps (specifically TA 3.1.6) that development of aneutronic fusion (such as p-11B) reactors with direct energy conversion (>80%) would be an enabling technology to achieve low specific mass (kg/kW) through the elimination of shielding and potentially the need for dedicated radiators. In addition, material activation due to neutron capture could be avoided.


NIAC Funds Advanced Propulsion Projects

Mach Effects for In Space Propulsion: Interstellar Mission. (Credit: Heidi Fearn)

The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program recently funded six proposals focused on futuristic propulsion systems for missions to Pluto, Venus and other solar systems.

There were four Phase I proposals that are worth approximately $125,000 apiece over nine months. NIAC also funded two Phase II proposals that are worth $500,000 each for two-year investigations.


NIAC Phase I Grant: Gradient Field Imploding Liner Fusion Propulsion System

Gradient Field Imploding Liner Fusion Propulsion System. (Credit: Michael LaPointe)

Gradient Field Imploding Liner Fusion Propulsion System

Michael LaPointe
NASA Marshall Space Flight Center
Huntsville, Ala.

Value: Approximately $125,000
Length of Study: 9 months

An innovative modification to magneto-inertial fusion is proposed in which the pulsed, high current magnetic field coil and stationary central fuel target are replaced with a fast moving fusion fuel target fired axially into a static, high gradient magnetic field. As the target passes through the magnetic field gradient it effectively experiences a rapidly changing axial magnetic field, which induces strong azimuthal currents in the target liner to implode the fuel and reach fusion conditions.Among other advantages, eliminating the need to pulse the magnetic field coil allows the use of energy efficient superconducting coils in a geometry that more naturally lends itself to in-space propulsion.

If successful, the proposed concept will substantially reduce Mars trip times and enable a robust architecture for human solar system exploration.

Full List of 2017 NIAC Awards




NIAC Phase II Award: Fusion-Enabled Pluto Orbiter and Lander

Fusion-Enabled Pluto Orbiter and Lander (Credit: Stephanie Thomas)

Fusion-Enabled Pluto Orbiter and Lander

Stephanie Thomas
Princeton Satellite Systems, Inc.
Plainsboro, NJ

Amount: up to $500,000
Length of Study: 2 years


The Direct Fusion Drive (DFD) concept provides game-changing propulsion and power capabilities that would revolutionize interplanetary travel. DFD is based on the Princeton Field-Reversed Configuration (PFRC) fusion reactor under development at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.


Airbus Safran Launchers, VINCI Group Partners Sign ITER Robotics Contract

Credit: Airbus Safran Launchers
Credit: Airbus Safran Launchers

• The total value of the framework contract, awarded by Fusion for Energy (F4E), amounts to almost 100 million euros over a period of 7 years.

• This is considered to be the largest robotics contract ever in the field of fusion.

• Airbus Safran Launchers will deploy its space technology know-how, Cegelec CEM will apply its expertise in mechanical engineering, and Nuvia Limited will use its proven-track record in nuclear technology to provide the state of the art equipment.

Issy-les-Moulineaux, FRANCE (Airbus Safran Launchers PR) — ITER is the world’s largest international energy research collaboration bringing together Europe, the United States, China, India, Japan, Russia and South Korea. This prototype reactor, currently under construction in Cadarache, north of Marseille (France), aims to demonstrate the scientific and technical feasibility of fusion as a new, viable and sustainable energy source for future generations.