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From asteroid spaceships, to exploring ice volcanoes, let's look at a few of the NIAC's recently approved Phase I projects!

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Enceladus’s tiger stripes

Enceladus geysers

Illustration of Europa’s subsurface ocean

Illustration of asteroid spaceship

Made In Space testing microgravity 3D printer

The 3D printer that’s on the ISS

Illustration of New Horizons approaching Pluto

Testing Direct Fusion Drive (images on page 5)

New Horizon’s trajectory to Pluto (showing it moving further out in its orbit)
[SciShow intro plays]

Hank: You ever wonder what it would take to turn an asteroid into a spaceship? Or what you might see if you climbed inside the mouth of an ice volcano? The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, or NIAC, invests in projects like these -- research that almost sounds like science fiction, but could help change what’s possible in space exploration.

This past April, they approved 13 new projects for the first phase of the program, giving them each $100,000, to see if the idea is even possible. All the new mission concepts are pretty extreme, but three of the coolest ones involve asteroid spaceships, robots diving into ice volcanoes on distant moons, and a fusion-powered Pluto explorer. If turning an asteroid into a spaceship sounds challenging, that’s because it is.

But that’s the goal of one project, called Reconstituting Asteroids into Mechanical Automata, or Project RAMA for short. It was proposed by the company Made In Space, which designed the first 3D printer that works in microgravity. That printer has been on the International Space Station since September 2014, and it’s been working pretty well so far.

Project RAMA would take 3D printing in space to a whole new level. Asteroids already have lots of raw material on them, like rock and heavy metals. And -- with the help of a few robots -- 3D printers might be able to use those materials to build engines capable of powering and steering the asteroid.

Astronauts could use these asteroids as a rest stop to refuel or change directions between missions. Plus, this technology might even be able to intercept asteroids that are on a collision course with Earth, and push them away. The idea for one of the other NIAC projects goes back to 1864, when French novelist Jules Verne published the book Journey to the Center of the Earth.

In the story, three explorers climb into one of Iceland’s volcanoes to see what lies underneath. So naturally, the NIAC mission is called Journey to the Center of Icy Moons, and it’s led by Masahiro Ono at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He wants to send a team of robots into icy cryovolcanoes, which would be one way to explore the subsurface oceans on moons like Europa or Enceladus.

Ono’s plan would involve sending three types of robots to an icy moon, and using each one for a different part of the journey. The first robot, called the surface module, would land on the edge of a cryovolcano, or near some sort deep crack where we’ve seen water vapor coming out, like Enceladus’s tiger stripes. The surface module would set up camp on the moon’s surface and be in charge of generating power for the second robot -- the descent module -- which would climb into the volcano’s mouth.

Now, when you think about the rovers we have on Mars, like Curiosity or Opportunity, they might not seem like they're cut out for that kind of adventure. And they’re not. This descent module would need to have the skills of a human rock-climber, so that it could rappel down the icy walls, and still carry the third set of robots with it.

That third set of robots would be made up of autonomous underwater vehicles, or AUVs. Their mission would start when they reached the moon’s subsurface ocean. They’d explore its waters and look for signs of life.

Of course, there are plenty of challenges involved in getting this plan to work. One problem, for example, is that radio waves don’t work well for communicating underwater. Instead, the researchers are experimenting with acoustic communication -- communication that uses sound.

That project would be one way to explore icy moons. But another new NIAC project wants to explore an icy dwarf planet: Pluto. The mission would take advantage of an unusual energy source, and use fusion for rocket fuel.

The project, proposed by researchers at Princeton Satellite Systems, is called the Fusion Enabled Pluto Orbiter and Lander. And not only would it go back to Pluto -- it would cut the travel time in half, and still have enough power to bring along a surface lander. NASA’s New Horizons mission, which flew past Pluto in July 2015, was awesome.

But the spacecraft took nine and a half years to get there, and then whizzed by in less than two minutes. So the next time we visit Pluto, it would be nice to stick around a little longer. This new mission would use an engine powered by fusing two types of heavy hydrogen.

The fusion would give the spacecraft an extra power boost that would both let it travel faster, and send more information back to Earth at once. Once the spacecraft got to Pluto, it would go into orbit, then send a lander down to the surface. Right now the researchers are still working on the engine design, trying to figure out how to get the most power out of it.

They’re also looking for the best path to get back to Pluto, now that its orbit is taking it further from the sun. Even though these three projects are getting a little seed money from NASA, they’re still just concepts, for now. And as cool as they sound, we probably won’t be climbing into ice volcanoes, or flying asteroid spaceships around any time soon. But researching these possibilities helps us understand the limits of what we can do, and how to push past them.

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