NASA awards $100,000 for space exploration power systems

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Michael V. Paul, space systems engineer with Penn State's Applied Research Laboratory, has received a $100,000 grant under the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program and been named a Fellow of this recently reformed program in NASA's Office of the Chief Technologist.

Paul, who leads the Penn State Lunar Lion team -- part of the Google Lunar X PRIZE competition -- receives his grant for "Non-Radioisotope Power Systems for Sunless Solar System Exploration Missions." Several targets of scientific interest in solar system exploration require nonsolar power sources because of permanent shading from craters or clouds, or extreme distances from the sun. A typical choice for these missions is a radioactive power source, but these fuels are scarce so the number of missions in a decade is limited.

The advanced concepts selected for study under NIAC were chosen based on their potential to transform our future space missions, enable new capabilities, or significantly alter current approaches to launching, building and operating space systems.

Paul and collaborators James Kasting, distinguished professor of geosciences, and Timothy Miller, senior research associate with ARL, will explore designs for missions to the Moon's southern Aitken Basin; the surface of Titan (one of Saturn's moons); and the surface of Venus that do not rely on plutonium for power, but instead use metal-combustion engines. Penn State's ARL has been developing advanced metal combustion systems for power generation using turbines and Sterling engines that have significantly higher energy density than chemical batteries.

The researchers will choose one of these missions to study in detail at the NASA Glenn Research Center's COMPASS lab, resulting in a mission concept report. Proving the feasibility of using metal combustion to power spacecraft in sunless regions would shift expectations of what is possible in low-cost planetary exploration and what can be accomplished without relying on radioisotope power sources.

For its first NIAC awards in this reestablished program, NASA chose 30 projects that are technically substantiated, but at least 10 years from potential incorporation into space missions.

The original NIAC program, known as the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, ran from 1989 to 2007. In 2008, Congress directed the National Research Council to conduct a review of NIAC's effectiveness and to make recommendations. The council recommended that NASA and the nation would benefit by maintaining a mechanism to investigate visionary, far-reaching advanced concepts as part of NASA's mission. NASA reestablished the program for fiscal year 2011.

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Last Updated September 19, 2011