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.

Lockheed Martin Closes In On Shrinking the Telescope

Artist’s conception of SPIDER telescope in orbit (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

PALO ALTO, Calif. (Lockheed Martin PR) — Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) today revealed the first images from an experimental, ultra-thin optical instrument, showing it could be possible to shrink space telescopes to a sliver of the size of today’s systems while maintaining equivalent resolution.

Weighing 90 percent less than a typical telescope, the Segmented Planar Imaging Detector for Electro-Optical Reconnaissance (SPIDER) opens a path for extremely lightweight optical instruments, allowing for more hosted payloads or smaller spacecraft. More broadly, the sensor technology has applications for aircraft and other vehicles—anywhere that depends on small optical sensors. The future could see UAVs with imagers laid flat underneath their wings, and cars could have imaging sensors that are flush against their grills.


NIAC Phase I Award: Direct Multipixel Imaging and Spectroscopy of Exoplanets

Direct Multipixel Imaging and Spectroscopy of an exoplanet with a Solar Gravity Lens Mission. (Credit: Slava Turyshev)

Direct Multipixel Imaging and Spectroscopy of an Exoplanet with a Solar Gravity Lens Mission

Slava Turyshev
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Pasadena, Calif.

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


We propose to study a mission to the deep regions outside the solar system that will exploit the remarkable optical properties of the Solar Gravitational Lens (SGL) focus to effectively build an astronomical telescope capable of direct megapixel high-resolution imaging and spectroscopy of a potentially habitable exoplanet. Although theoretically it seems feasible, the engineering aspects of building such an astronomical telescope on the large scales involved were not addressed before; we propose to do that.

Our main question for this study is not “how to get there?” (although it will also be addressed), but rather “what does it take to operate a spacecraft at such enormous distances with the needed precision?”

Specifically, we propose to study I) how a space mission to the focal region of the SGL may be used to obtain high-resolution direct imaging and spectroscopy of an exoplanet by detecting, tracking, and studying the Einstein’s ring around the Sun, and II) how such information could be used to unambiguously detect and study life on another planet.

Full List of 2017 NIAC Awards







SwRI Unveils Solar Observatory for Suborbital Human Space Missions

SwRI Solar Instrument Pointing Platform (Credit: Southwest Research Institute)
SwRI Solar Instrument Pointing Platform (Credit: Southwest Research Institute)

SAN ANTONIO, Dec. 11, 2014 (SwRI PR) — Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) is preparing to unveil a new, miniature portable solar observatory for use onboard a commercial, manned suborbital spacecraft. The SwRI Solar Instrument Pointing Platform (SSIPP) will be on exhibit at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), Dec. 16-19, at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, Calif.

Using reusable suborbital commercial spacecraft for the SSIPP development effort improves on a traditional space instrument development process that goes back to the dawn of the space age, according to principal investigator Dr. Craig DeForest, a principal scientist in SwRI’s Space Science and Engineering Division.

“Development and testing of space instrumentation has been essentially unchanged since World War II: New instruments were mated to sounding rockets, which are hand-built, miniature spacecraft that fly five-minute missions but require months, and sometimes years, between flights because the payloads typically need reconditioning after each flight.


Ariane 5 Launches Two New Telescopes

Ariane 5
Ariane 5


Two of the most ambitious missions ever attempted to unveil the secrets of the darkest, coldest and oldest parts of the Universe got off to a successful start this afternoon with the dual launch of ESA’s far infrared space telescope Herschel and cosmic background mapper Planck on an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana.