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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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This concept is currently being developed by an associate professor at the University of Buffalo and it would maneuver similarly to how birds fly over the ocean.  Birds take advantage of the fact that wind speed changes at different altitudes, with air moving faster the higher you go.  To increase velocity, they fly downward, picking up speed from the descent and wind (?~2:26) their tail.  Then, they loop around to fly back into the faster-moving air using their higher velocity and tail wind to create lift.

It's a pretty efficient flying method, so it makes sense that engineers would want to adapt it for their spacecraft, too.  In this case, BREEZE would use the zonal winds that travel around Venus parallel to its equator.  Internal cables would control its altitude and flap its wings and the planet's atmosphere would do the rest.  Using a variety of instruments, BREEZE would travel around and collect data on weather patterns, chemistry, volcanoes, and even the planet's geography.  

We'll need to wait until 2020 to see if the mission pans out, but even if it doesn't, the physics it uses could someday be incorporated into future missions.  Another Phase I concept taking inspiration from nature is called MP4AE, which stands for Micro-Proves Propelled & Powered by Planetary Atmospheric Electricity.  It's being developed by a West Virginia University associate professor and it's ultimate goal is to study planets' atmospheres by deploying thousands of tiny probes.  Since this is only a Phase I study, the project doesn't have a specific planet in mind, but the researcher does have an idea about how they would work.

These probes would imitate a flying technique that some species of spider use.  It's called ballooning and evidence suggests it happens when the spiders spin a sail-like trail of web and use it to ride the wind on the atmosphere's electric field.  The fact that the atmosphere has its own electric field might seem a little weird at first, but it's because the Earth's surface and its upper atmosphere actually have different charges.

The surface of the planet has a slight negative charge, while the higher region of the atmosphere, called the ionosphere, has a positive charge.  This creates a global electric circuit that's maintained by thunderstorms and varies in strength depending on the weather.  You almost definitely won't notice it during your daily life, but some spiders take advantage of it all the time.

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Because spider silk has a negative charge, it's repelled by the ground and actually generates enough lift to propel the spider upwards.  This seems to allow these spiders to travel kilometers through the air and these Phase I microprobes are hoping to do the same thing.  The 50mg probes would consist of a small payload pod hanging from a 200m loop of string.  The string would provide drag, which would slow the probes and cause them to drop through the air.  An electrostatic lift would raise them up.  Researchers would even be able to control their altitude, at least somewhat, by regulating the strings' electric charge through a device on the probe.

Today, if we're going to study a planet's atmosphere, we'd typically use a space telescope or a single-orbiting satellite, but MP4AE would allow us to study huge chunks of an atmosphere at once, and in a lot more detail.  These concepts were inspired by animals, but this last one seems like something straight out of science fiction.  

It's a propulsion method where the spacecraft is powered by lasers.  It's being developed by a member of the Texas A&M Engineering Experiments Station and it was accepted as a Phase II study in April of 2019.  It's called PROCSIMA, and while it could someday help spacecraft travel to places like Pluto and the outer solar system, it's specifically designed to go to Proxmia Centauri B.  This is a planet orbiting the closest star to our Sun, and if PROCSIMA works, it would enable humanity's first trip to a planet outside of our solar system.

This project is a form of beamed-energy propulsion, which is pretty much what it sounds like.  Some kind of remote power source beams energy to the spacecraft and that heats up the spacecraft's propellant and creates thrust.  Since PROCSIMA's only a Phase II project, there's a lot left to figure out, like where in space that remote power source would go, but ultimately, this method offers a big advantage for long-distance spacecraft, since not having an onboard power source will make them much lighter. 

The researcher even has a strategy for how to keep PROCSIMA's laser beam narrow and focused over long distances using a few types of beams.  So maybe when we send the first spacecraft to another solar system, it could be powered by a method like this.  At the end of the day, there's a chance that none of these Phase I or II projects will make it to the next round, but even if this is the last you hear of them, they're worth knowing about.

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Creative ideas like this and programs like NIAC are shaping the future of space exploration one mission concept at a time.  Every amazing mission you know about today started off as an idea like this, so whether these missions get fully developed or just inspire future concepts, we're glad people are thinking about them. 

Developing a new mission obviously takes a lot of engineering talent, but it also takes soft skills you might not think of, things like how to communicate well, and honestly, those skills apply to any field, not just space exploration.  If you wanna work on your soft skills, you can check out Crash Course: Business Soft Skills, a show produced by Complexly.  This series is hosted by Evelyn from the Internets, and over the course of 17 episodes, she'll teach you how to tackle the job search and use skills you already have to stand out in the workplace . Check out their first video about the key to all things business: building trust.  The link is in the description.