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Every amazing mission you know about today started off as just an idea, and some of 2019’s early phase NIAC concepts could mean big things for our future.

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Hosted by: Caitlin Hofmeister


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Venus Flier


Beamed Propulsion


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Caitlin: The universe is a big place, and there's a lot to explore out there.  There are distant icy moons and fiery atmospheres and everything in between, and understanding how all these places work can teach us more about Earth and open our eyes to some wonder along the way, except exploring space is not easy and the most groundbreaking missions usually require some really creative engineering, so that's where the NIAC program comes in.

It stands for the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program and it gives scientists and engineers a chance to explore ideas that can transform future missions.  In earlier episode, we talked about some of 2019's most advanced NIAC projects, but it's worth giving some attention to the other concepts, too, because even though they're in the early stages of development, they could mean big things for our future.  Also, they're just really cool.

For context, the NIAC program is broken into three phases.  When a researcher thinks they have a good idea, they can apply to phase one.  If they get accepted, they win $125,000 and get nine months to figure out if their idea is actually feasible.  If it is, they can apply to phase two.  In this phase, researchers are given $500,000 and two years to start to develop their project, and finally, if all that goes well, they can apply to phase three.  In this last stage, they're given $2 million and another two years to work, and by the end of this phase, NASA or another organization should be able to pick up their project for further development.

Every year, there's a new class of phase one, two, and three concepts, but no matter what phase they're in, all of the projects are fascinating.  Take one of 2019's phase one projects called BREEZE.  It stands for Bio-inspired Ray for Extreme Environments and Zonal Exploration, and it's a flyer designed to withstand the harsh winds of Venus that also looks a lot like a cute little stingray.

Although Venus is our closest neighbor and about Earth-sized, its atmosphere is vastly different.  Around the planet,  winds blow at hurricane force and because of all the greenhouse gases that trap the sun's heat, surface temperatures can reach more than 470 degrees Celsius.  That's hot enough to melt lead.  Venus is kind of a barren wasteland but scientists believe that studying it may help us better understand the effect of greenhouse gases as well as how planets evolve in general, and with a maneuverable flyer like BREEZE, we could study areas all around the planet.

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