¶Another round of NIAC awards. Another round of NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) awards landed a few weeks ago, continuing NASA’s support of some interesting and speculative early-stage studies and technology evaluations. This time there were 12 new Phase I projects ($175,000 awarded over 9 months) and five Phase II follow-up awards ($600,000 over two years). Phase II awards (most of which we’ve previously mentioned when they won a Phase I award): designs for an aircraft to fly above the clouds of Venus, inspired by manta rays (BREEZE); high-expansion-ratio deployable structure mechanical metamaterials for building massive structures in orbit (HERDS); a hybrid radioisotope battery (APPLE); robots with extendable booms to explore Martian caves (ReachBot); and, tiny swimming robots for exploring ocean worlds (SWIM). Of the new Phase I awards, here are our favorites:
| Starship saves humanity with impactors released along the path of a meteor, using its own velocity against it in the Phase I NIAC PI - Terminal Defense for Humanity award.|
| ¶Venturi Astrolab FLEXes. Coming out of stealth mode, startup Venturi Astrolab announced their Flexible Logistics and Exploration (FLEX) lunar rover. The 500 kg rover can carry up to 1,500 kg of box-shaped cargo that it straddles and then lifts gantry-style—Astrolab hopes that this cargo form-factor will become a standard similar to shipping containers or ISS cargo transfer bags. FLEX can drive autonomously, piloted by two onboard astronauts, or by remote control. “We want the hardware to be super robust so that they can essentially drive it like they stole it and not have to worry about it.” An Earth-adjusted (e.g. beefier) prototype rover is currently being tested near Death Valley, not too far from the company’s Hawthorne headquarters. The rover could be delivered to the lunar surface via an Astrobotic Griffin lander (although Astrobotic pegs Griffin’s payload capability at 475 kg, meaning some bits might have to be shipped separately). The timing isn’t coincidental, NASA will be soliciting Lunar Terrain Vehicle proposals in the near future and both Lockheed and Northrop have announced their own concepts. Astrolab has developed its rover in partnership with electric vehicle developer Venturi, who will also provide flight components. The company’s long-term hope is that they can operate FLEX using a “rover-as-a-service” business model as opposed to selling rovers outright, although this perhaps envisions a larger number of potential customers near a rover’s location than is actually likely any time soon. Watch their 4K intro video for lots of action shots of their full-size prototype rolling around the desert on its flexible airless tires.|
| Michelle Lin and ex-astronaut/company advisor Chris Hadfield taking a spin on FLEX. The vehicle conveniently carries a spare tire.|
| ¶News in brief. Russian saber-rattling about abandoning the ISS continued on social media ● The SLS rocket for Artemis I is scheduled to be rolled out of the VAB for the first time starting tomorrow for wet dress rehearsals at pad 39B over the next few weeks ● Tomorrow.io’s SPAC merger was terminated, citing "market conditions” even as SatixFy proposed an $813M SPAC merger of their own ● The US Omnibus spending bill allocated $700M more to NASA than in 2021 (although $760M less than requested), with Congress providing $113M more than requested for SLS, $185M less than requested for Earth science, and adding a specific unrequested allocation of $110M for nuclear thermal propulsion development—meanwhile, HLS received its requested $1.19B along with a mandate to explain ‘how it will ensure safety, redundancy, sustainability, and competition in the HLS program within the resources provided by this Act and included in the fiscal year 2023 budget request.’ ● Slingshot Aerospace closed a $25m fundraising round for shared orbital collision-avoidance software ● Camden County, GA voters rejected a proposed spaceport—it’s been in planning since 2012 ● Hermeus, a startup developer of a hypersonic passenger aircraft, raised $100M Series B ● Ingenuity flew for its 21st time on Mars(… are we somehow getting bored of hearing about a drone helicopter flying on a planet with just 1% of the atmospheric pressure of Earth?) ● China announced intentions to open its space station to commercial activity ● Quickly returning to the game, Astra announced a multi-launch partnership deal with Spaceflight Inc. and successfully launched Astra-1 on rocket LV0009 as the first of those missions from their Kodiak, Alaska launch site—it carried a payload for NearSpace Launch, the S4 CROSSOVER, Portland State Aerospace Society’s OreSat0, and at least one classified payload.|
| LV-0009 launches into the Kodiak morning sky. Credit: Brady Kenniston / Astra|
- 96 years ago today, in 1926, Robert Goddard launched the first liquid-propellant rocket from Auburn, Massachusetts. The rocket flew for 2 seconds to a height of 12.5 meters. In 1920, Goddard had published his paper ‘A Method for Reaching Extreme Altitudes’ in which he mentions that rockets could eventually reach the Moon. “Unfortunately, the press got wind of this, and the next day, the New York Times wrote a scathing editorial denouncing his theories as folly. [...] A day after Apollo 11 set off for the Moon, in July of 1969, the New York Times printed a correction to its 1920 editorial section, stating that ‘it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.’”
- Fly your name around the Moon (in a flash drive) on Artemis I.
- This 360° video tour of the ISS is really cool. As is this 4K (non-360°) tour. Man, those cupola views. 🗾
- Register for ESA's Living Planet Symposium in Bonn, one of the largest annual Earth Observation-focused events, happening at the end of May.
- For just the 5th time, an object has been spotted before it collided with the Earth. ESA’s NEOCC has an interesting play-by-play. The 3-4 m wide object exploded near Iceland with a 2 to 3 kiloton yield.
- A good summary of r-process nucleosynthesis, which produces heavier elements like gold and platinum. This process probably occurs mostly during neutron star collisions, but may also happen when rapidly spinning massive stars collapse into black holes, an event called a collapsar. When this happens, rotating mass from the spinning star briefly forms an accretion disk around the new black hole and blows away a neutron-rich wind which is thought to support the formation of heavy r-process elements.
- NASA’s Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis Program (SERVI) program is about to open the last remaining sealed Apollo-era lunar material sample, collected by Apollo 17 and thoughtfully sealed in the lunar vacuum until future (today’s) analysis technology could unlock new secrets from old samples. 🌕 🪨