NASA backs concepts for deep-drilling Mars rover and interstellar-object probe

Alan Boyle
·5 min read
Borebot at work on Mars
An illustration shows the deployment of an autonomous borebot into a layered deposit on Mars. The inset shows a closeup of the borebot drive system. (Planet Enterprises Illustration / James Vaughan)

The latest crop of NASA-backed concepts for far-out space exploration includes “borebots” that could drill as far as a mile beneath the Martian surface in search of liquid water, and a nuclear-powered spacecraft that could intercept interstellar objects as they zip through our solar system.

Researchers in Washington state are behind both of those ideas.

The borebots and the interstellar-object checker are among 16 proposals winning Phase I funding from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, or NIAC.

For more than two decades, NIAC (which started out as the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts) has backed early-stage projects that could eventually add to NASA’s capabilities for aerospace technology and space exploration.

“NIAC Fellows are known to dream big, proposing technologies that may appear to border science fiction and are unlike research being funded by other agency programs,” Jenn Gustetic, director of early-stage innovations and partnerships within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said today in a news release.

“We don’t expect them all to come to fruition but recognize that providing a small amount of seed-funding for early research could benefit NASA greatly in the long run,” Gustetic said.

Phase I grants typically amount to $125,000 for a nine-month concept study, and promising concepts can go on to receive another $500,000 in Phase II support for two years of further development. The best ideas can win Phase III grants of $2 million for a two-year transition to commercial or government applications.

Here’s a rundown of the Phase I fellows announced today, leading with the Washington state projects:

Autonomous Robotic Demonstrator for Deep Drilling, or ARD3: Quinn Morley of Planet Enterprises in Gig Harbor, Wash., proposes sending a rover to Mars to serve as a mobile drilling rig. The rover would deploy self-contained robots, nicknamed “borebots,” which could drive up and down a borehole autonomously.

Borebots could take their turns drilling out cores, about 150 millimeters (6 inches) at a time. The proposed mission would drill 20 to 50 meters (65 to 165 feet) deep in Mars’ south polar layered deposits, but if the initial 90-day mission is successful, an extended mission could press on to a depth of roughly 1.5 kilometers (or nearly a mile). Orbital readings suggest that Mars may harbor liquid water — and perhaps subsurface life — at such depths.

Extrasolar Object Interceptor
An artist’s conception shows the Extrasolar Object Interceptor. (USNC-Tech Graphic / Christopher Morrison)

Extrasolar Object Interceptor and Sample Return Enabled by Compact, Ultra Power Dense Radioisotope Batteries: Christopher Morrison, a researcher at Seattle-based Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies (USNC-Tech), proposes building a compact spacecraft that could catch up with an interstellar object like ‘Oumuamua or Comet Borisov, collect samples and return them to Earth in a 10-year timeframe.

The Extrasolar Object Interceptor would make use of an electric propulsion system powered by an innovative radioisotope-based power source known as the chargeable atomic battery, or CAB. Morrison says the CAB is easier and cheaper to manufacture than the current generation of plutonium-based thermoelectric generators, and the safety case is greatly enhanced by the CAB’s encapsulation of radioactive materials within a carbide matrix.

Regolith Adaptive Modification System (RAMS) to Support Early Extraterrestrial Planetary Landings (and Operations): Selective reinforcement and fusing of lunar materials for construction projects on the moon. Proposed by Sarbajit Baneerjee, Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station.

Exploring Uranus through SCATTER: Sustained ChipSat/CubeSat Activity Through Transmitted Electromagnetic Radiation: Studying the capability for a parent spacecraft to transmit power and remotely manipulate a small probe through a laser transmitter. Proposed by Sigrid Close, Stanford University.

Ablative Arc Mining for In-Situ Resource Utilization: Extracting useful material from the moon’s surface, ranging from water to metals, with the aid of an ablative arc mining process. Proposed by Amelia Greig, University of Texas at El Paso.

Kilometer-Scale Space Structures From a Single Launch: Developing lightweight and deployable structures that could serve as the backbone of a large rotating spacecraft capable of producing artificial gravity. Proposed by Zachary Manchester, Carnegie Mellon University.

PEDALS: Passively Expanding Dipole Array for Lunar Sounding: Designing an expandable sounding-radar system that can roll itself out at lunar sites. Proposed by Patrick McGarey, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Atomic Planar Power for Lightweight Exploration (APPLE): A solar-sail spacecraft with electric power provided by a radiation-hardened battery and a radioisotope-based power source. Proposed by E. Joseph Nemanick, The Aerospace Corp.

A Titan Sample Return Using In-Situ Propellants: This mission to Titan, a smog-cloaked moon of Saturn, would make use of hydrocarbon compounds present at the surface to fuel a sample-return vehicle. Proposed by Steven Oleson, NASA Glenn Research Center.

ReachBot: Small Robot for Large Mobile Manipulation Tasks in Martian Cave Environments: Developing a long-reach crawling and anchoring robot with extendable manipulator arms to explore difficult terrains on other celestial bodies, with a focus on Martian caves. Proposed by Marco Pavone, Stanford University.

FarView – An In Situ Manufactured Lunar Far Side Radio Observatory: Using lunar materials to build the infrastructure for a radio observatory on the “quiet” far side of the moon. Proposed by Ronald Polidan, Lunar Resources Inc.

FLOAT – Flexible Levitation on a Track: Rolling out magnetic-levitation tracks to build the first lunar railway system, for the purpose of autonomously transporting cargo on the moon. Proposed by Ethan Schaler, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

SWIM – Sensing With Independent Micro-swimmers: Using 3-D printing to manufacture micro-robots equipped with sensors to explore subsurface oceans on Enceladus or Europa. Proposed by Ethan Schaler, JPL.

Making Soil for Space Habitats by Seeding Asteroids With Fungi: Using fungi to break down carbon-rich material from asteroids and turn it into tillable soil for space settlements. Proposed by Jane Shevtsov, Trans Astronautica Corp.

Light Bender: A system to capture, concentrate and focus sunlight using telescope optics, in order to generate and distribute power on the moon. Proposed by Charles Taylor, NASA Langley Research Center.

Solar System Pony Express: A multispectral, high-resolution planetary surveyor, supported by regular visits from a cycler satellite network that could relay huge amounts of data to Earth. Proposed by Joshua Vander Hook, JPL.

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