The technologies needed to get humans deeper into space and safely on another planet are continuing apace, and will take financial commitments for years to come, a NASA official says.
But NASA's partnerships with industry and academia to develop and hone those technologies will also reap benefits on this planet, as well, he said.
"A deep-space exploration mission is, in some ways, imminent," Michael Gazarik said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters to give updates on developing technologies and upcoming missions that will eventually enable manned exploration — to an asteroid, Mars or the moon of another planet.
Gazarik is the associate administrator for space technology at NASA headquarters. The broad umbrella of his Space Technology Mission Directorate includes the Game Changing Development Office at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, headed up by Steve Gaddis.
Gaddis helped spotlight some of those game-changing technologies Tuesday when Sen. Tim Kaine visited the center for an informational tour. There, Kaine said he was committed to NASA's proposed $17.5 billion budget for fiscal year 2015, and even to see it increased in future.
According to Gazarik, over the last few years NASA evaluated more than 9,000 proposals from universities and private companies of all sizes, then selected more than 2,000 to partner with, providing funds and resources.
"That's what we're here for," Gazarik said. "Technology and development with a purpose."
Targeted technologies boil down to eight areas that are "critical" for space exploration and also valuable for countless private industries and other government agencies.
•High-powered solar electric propulsion will harness the power of the sun for space thrusters rather than rely on costly liquid or solid fuel sources. A solar propulsion system will power NASA's planned mission to retrieve part of an asteroid, he said, and on Mars missions can power space "tugs" to move and position cargo.
"It will really change the way the nation operates and moves in space," Gazarik said.
Two companies are partnering on large solar array projects, he said, including one to be tested in California in June.
•Deep-space optical communications systems would not only enable more advanced communications from Earth to space-based crafts or other planets, but would also benefit the commercial communications industry, Gazarik said, as well as "other government agencies that we can't say too much about here."
•Advanced life support and resources technologies are needed to significantly improve closed-loop oxygen recovery in spacecraft. Gazarik said the recovery rate now is about 40 percent, and NASA is soliciting proposals for oxygen regeneration systems with a recovery rate of about 75 percent.
Also needed are systems that can convert carbon dioxide to oxygen. The Martian atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide, and when NASA sends another science rover to Mars in 2020 as planned, Gazarik said a CO2 conversion demonstration system will be aboard.
•Safe entry, descent and landing systems are crucial to getting humans on other planets. Current technology has gone about as far it can, Gazarik said, and now NASA and its partners are developing large inflatable systems that can operate effectively at supersonic speeds. He said they're about to test an inflatable system over the Pacific Ocean, dropping a vehicle from a high-altitude balloon at 180,000 feet.
NASA Langley had a pivotal role in the unique entry, descent and landing system of the Mars Curiosity rover in 2012, including the design of the re-entry parachute, instruments embedded on the craft's heat shield to study the atmosphere during descent, and the mini-computer that controls the firing of a laser to blast apart rocks for study.
•Advanced avionics and robotics would enable autonomous rovers to operate at much higher speeds — traveling in a week what it's taken early Mars rovers to travel in 10 years, for instance — and allow humans to work side-by-side with humanoid robots.
•Lightweight composite materials used to build fuel tanks — or even rockets and spacecrafts — would make space travel far cheaper.
•A deep-space atomic clock could be flying in 2015, Gazarik said, greatly enhancing deep-space navigation "by an order of magnitude" via more precise time-keeping. An atomic clock uses X-rays and pulsars to navigate in space.
•And space observatory systems that work with coronagraphs to determine exoplanets "will change the way we see the universe," Gazarik said.
A coronagraph is a telescope that masks a star's brightness, enabling astronomers to see Earth-like planets that otherwise would be lost in the glare of the suns they orbit.
©2014 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)