On This Episode
NIAC Program Executive
NIAC Deputy Program Executive
Principal investigator of lattice confinement fusion at NASA Glenn Research Center
Senior research scientist at NASA Ames Research Center
Aerospace Professor, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York
Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society
Planetary Radio Host and Producer for The Planetary Society
Join Planetary Radio host Sarah Al-Ahmed for part two of her trip to the 2023 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Symposium in Houston, Texas. You'll hear from Mike LaPointe and John Nelson, the NIAC Program Executive and Deputy Program Executive along with Theresa Benyo (NASA Glenn Research Center), Lynn Rothschild (NASA Ames Research Center), and Javid Bayandor (State University of New York). Stick around for What's Up with Bruce Betts, the chief scientist of The Planetary Society, to learn more about his favorite science conferences.
- NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Program
- Accessing Icy World Oceans Using Lattice Confinement Fusion Fast Fission
- A Flexible, Personalized, On-Demand Astropharmacy
- BREEZE- Bioinspired Ray for Extreme Environments and Zonal Exploration
- Make your gift to LightSail’s Legacy
- The Night Sky
- The Downlink
We love to hear from our listeners. You can contact the Planetary Radio crew anytime via email at [email protected].
Sarah Al-Ahmed: We are going back to NIAC, this week on Planetary Radio. I'm Sarah Al-Ahmed of The Planetary Society with more of the human adventure across our Solar System and beyond. Last week I shared some fantastic conversations from the 2023 NASA Innovative Advanced Concept Symposium or NIAC, which was held in Houston, Texas. In this episode, you'll hear from more NIAC fellows about their big ideas for the future of space exploration. You'll also hear my interview with Mike LaPointe and John Nelson, the NIAC Program executive and Deputy Program executive. Then we'll check in with Bruce Betts, our chief scientist for What's Up, and we'll learn more about his favorite space conferences. If you love Planetary Radio and want to stay informed about the latest space discoveries, make sure you hit that subscribe button on your favorite podcasting platform. By subscribing, you'll never miss an episode filled with new and awe-inspiring ways to know the cosmos and our place within it. The NASA innovative advanced concept program cultivates groundbreaking ideas with the potential to revolutionize NASA's future endeavors. I took a trip to this year's annual NIAC symposium, held from September 19th to the 21st. It was hosted in the Hilton Houston NASA Clear Lake Hotel in Houston, Texas. For three days, I got to host the event's webcast and meet the people behind the proposals. The NIAC program supports a wide range of mission concepts and technologies. For a refresher, NIAC encourages submissions from a broad spectrum of academic and commercial institutions. NIAC grants fellowships through phases one, two, and three. Each step gets even more competitive and awards the NIAC fellows and their teams more time to explore their ideas in depth. Last time we heard from the team's proposing ways to build on Mars, explore Saturn's Moon Titan, and build new telescopes that can expand our understanding of the universe. This week, we'll explore new ideas for melting our way through the icy crest of ocean worlds, how to make medicines for astronauts in space, and how to glide through the skies of Venus like a manta ray. But first, let's hear from Mike LaPointe and John Nelson, the NIAC program executive and Deputy Program executive. I got to talk with them on the third fantastic day of the symposium. We have here Mike LaPointe and John Nelson, the NIAC Program executive and deputy program executive. Thank you so much for talking to me and also for inviting me to be here. I've wanted to be at NIAC for quite a long time, so thank you so much.
Mike LaPointe: Thanks for joining us. We really appreciate you being here and interviewing our fellows and just participating in the interviews and session as well as the programs. Thank you.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I wanted to ask you first, actually, because I know that you were a NIAC fellow twice over. What is it like now moving on from that role into a place where you can now enable the dreams of a next generation of NIAC fellows?
Mike LaPointe: As you can tell from all the energy in the room, this is such an innovative community, but it's just awesome to be here and have the privilege of actually running this program with John is just outstanding. It's fun proposing because you have these ideas and you want to see them come to fruition, but it's even more fun when you get to see the broad range of ideas that everybody brings to the table. It's incredibly exciting.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: We've seen so many amazing proposals over the last few days, but I wanted to ask you both, what do you think were the standout moments so far during the symposium?
John Nelson: That's an unfair question. We like to say that we don't have favorite children with the NIAC, but we do sometimes, and I know I love Edward Balaban's work with the Fluidic Telescope, for example. But actually, this entire class of 14 phase ones that we have is incredibly strong, and obviously the phase twos are making great progress. So that's one that I'll call out, but yeah, they're all fantastic.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I guess it is a bit of an unfair question. We don't want to play favorites, but what about you?
Mike LaPointe: I agree with John. I think the presentations have been really spot on this year. I really have enjoyed the keynote speakers. I think they've done an outstanding job just bringing the energy to the room that we would hope they would, and it's just been a really fun symposium so far.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah, I was having this conversation last night, we were at a Women in Science conversation mixer, and we were talking about all of the different kinds of symposia and conferences that are involved in the science community and how the scale of this, this kind of small community allows it to feel kind of like more of a family reunion. You get to make these really deep connections with people, and that's been my personal favorite part. This is an interesting moment. We heard from Bobby Braun the other day that there was a moment when NIAC ended and then began again, and now you're building this robust, new generation of NIAC fellows. What do you see the future of the NIAC program becoming in, say, 10 years?
Mike LaPointe: Well, there's a lot of support within the agency. As John likes to call it, we're NASA's dream shop. And I think there's a definite place for that in any agency, but in NASA in particular, I mean, people expect us to be doing these future missions to look beyond Artemis even and look down the road and see what are we going to be doing 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years from now? Where are we headed? And these are the folks I think that are defining the technologies and the missions that we're going to be looking at down the road. So I think we're a robust program. We have a lot of support within the agency, as you heard from Administrator Nelson and Pam as well. And so I think there's a bright future for NASA. Obviously that all depends on budgets and such, and we're always looking to increase and improve, but I think there's a very strong and bright future ahead for NIAC.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I think something that's really interesting about it is, I don't know how many of you out there on the internet know this, but the NASA budget is maybe 0.5% of the federal budget, and NIAC is a smaller part of that. So with that amount of funding, you're seeing all of these amazing technologies pour out. So anything that you can do out there to try to support these programs is very much appreciated, it makes a big difference. And that is my next question. What can people out there online who are watching today due to support the NIAC program?
John Nelson: What you're doing now, participate. We've been looking at the numbers of the folks that have joined us online and we're extremely happy to have so many people join us. Come participate in symposia and propose. Send us really good ideas. We do capture the imagination of the public around the world. We're very aware of that and we don't want to change that. We want to only expand the program, and we're always looking for ways to reach new communities and new people. In fact, you're going to hear talks this afternoon about our commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and access, and we're looking for ideas there too, of ways we can better engage folks. So I encourage everyone to please get involved in NIAC.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: The more diverse crowd we have, the more ideas we can put together, the more wonderful, new innovations we can come up with. I'm sure that right now we have some younger folks that are in the audience, some aspiring scientists. What advice would you have for the people who want to propose to NIAC but don't even know how to begin right now?
Mike LaPointe: First option is, of course, come up with a good concept, something that we've done before. We have a NIAC website that's publicly available that lists all of the studies that have been funded since 2011, actually. They're all online. So you can get a sense of what NIAC funds in terms of technologies and ideas and concepts. Wide open, any ideas are welcome. But there's also on the website opportunities, key dates on how to propose ideas on how to write proposals. In addition to NIAC, there are opportunities within STMD for additional opportunities for funding and proposals. So there's just a wealth of information on our website as well as the STMD website on how to look for these kind of activities. John?
John Nelson: I'll amend that and say not only do we have descriptions of all the projects going back for this iteration of NIAC. On a non-NASA website through USRA, you can still access final reports going all the way back to 1998. So please, yeah, learn about what we funded in the past, understand the kinds of transformative concepts that we're looking for and, yeah, get involved.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: And as we did see in previous talks, some of these technologies do become the really cool innovations. I am personally in love with the ingenuity Mars helicopter. And of course, we're going to see other things like the Dragonfly copter going to Titan. So these things make a big difference. Other than ingenuity, which is an example I'm mind blown by, I can't believe how many flights that thing has gone through, what other NIAC technologies in the past have made a huge impact on our current missions to space?
Mike LaPointe: So again, NIAC is a program that looks very far in the future. So we're just seeing these things coming into fruition now, obviously. So one of the things you mentioned earlier was the cube sets that became the Marco missions A and B, which gave communication capabilities to the Mars orbital as it was flying out to Mars. That started as an NIAC concept of instead of taking these small little CubeSat and putting them in orbit and they last two weeks, how can we really make these deep space capable? And so that grew into a JPL parameter to the Marco satellites. We had a phase three NIAC with Carnegie Mellon University who is teamed with Astrobotic now. They were looking at lunar rovers to autonomously drive around lunar pits and craters, looking over the edges without falling in. The software that they developed for that is actually going to be used on a Viper mission later on, which is really cool. We have a University of Arizona cats hat going to be flying either later this year, early next year that started at this NIAC program to do 5G communication capability from a small CubeSat in orbit. So there are a lot of different examples along those lines. I think we're starting to see spinoffs, we're starting to see transitions coming forward. A lot of these still remain very far in the future, of course, and we're excited to see where they progress from there.
John Nelson: Yeah, so I'll build on that a little bit. So on Red Whittaker's work and the work that was done by Wood Green and others at Carnegie Mellon, that's an interesting one because when we first funded it, it was NIAC-y to think about looking into lunar pits. That was 2011, 2012. Now it's not, and now it's actually going to the moon. So we're starting to see that even just a decade later, which is great. And I'll also add to that that some of the successes we've seen are not only infusions into space missions and not only inspiration of other space missions, but some terrestrial applications too, which are equally important. So you've heard from Lynn Rothschild, she had a phase two called mycotecture, looking at innovative ways of growing habitats on Mars based on fungal mycelia. Well, that work was done in cooperation with a group in Cleveland that has looked at using that technology in Africa for refugees. And we've had a few other examples like that and we'd love to see that, and we're very proud of that as well.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: And that's a great point. This is a NASA conference. NIAC only takes proposals from people in the United States because as we've seen with the Artemis Accords, there is so much interest in all of us working together to go to space to make this an international effort. And if you're coming to us from somewhere outside of the United States, there are so many ways that you can get involved with your space agencies as well. But I really wanted to thank both of you for joining me. And for anybody who wants to learn more about NIAC, you mentioned the website earlier, that's nasa.gov/NIAC. So I'm here right now with Theresa Benyo. You are from NASA Glen Research Center. You proposed yesterday a really cool idea for how we can actually explore some of these icy moons out there. I know a lot of us are really intrigued in the idea of trying to find life elsewhere in the universe, but it might be somewhere in our own backyard. And even if it's not, we need to find a way to get beneath the ice on Europa and Enceladus. So what is your idea?
Theresa Benyo: Oh, yeah. So we're working on a autonomous robot that would either melt through the ice, drill through the ice, or do a little bit of both and use a hybrid fusion-fission power reactor to make it all happen and get ourselves down underneath and explore the ocean world underneath there.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: So you're using this technology, lattice confinement fusion. What is that just more broadly for people who are intrigued to learn more?
Theresa Benyo: Yeah, sure. Lattice confinement fusion is a lattice of metal atoms that contain deuterium inside of it. And with a trigger like an electrical current or an X-ray or a photon beam, it will impart energy into the lattice system and the electrons from the metals will create a barrier between the two positively charged deuterium atoms and eliminate that cool on barrier that will not want them to go together. So they look neutral to each other and with enough kinetic energy, they'll fuse together.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: It's a really cool technology, but then you got to get to that world. How much ice are we talking about digging down through? Because these shells could be very, very thick.
Theresa Benyo: Yeah. With Enceladus, it's estimated to be 30 to 40 kilometers, so it could take many years to get down beneath the ocean there.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: But once you get down there, just imagine what you could see once we finally get into those oceans. It could be amazing, but I'm wondering, how are you going to communicate all that data you might gather back to the surface?
Theresa Benyo: Yeah, that's a big challenge. We haven't worked through the details on the communication right now, but we can use fiber optics, we can use different repeaters to rally the data there. We're still kind of working on those details of that.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah, that is a real challenge trying to communicate back through that ice, trying to power all those little transmitters all the way up. And then, of course, you might need some kind of a spacecraft above to communicate all that data back to Earth. So that's a complex problem to have.
Theresa Benyo: Oh yeah, sure, sure. But one of the exciting things that I learned here at NIAC is when we get down there, what are we going to do and how are we going to explore? And there was a group that has these swim... They're called swimmers. There's these little triangular pizza pie kind of shaped robots that could swim underneath and detect all kinds of things down there and stuff. So I'm really excited about another group working on that because I think that could really help with our mission.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Absolutely. I mean, there are so many people that have proposed some amazing research that we could do once we can actually sample those waters. As we've seen with Enceladus, the fluids that are spewing out into space suggests that there's hydrothermal activity, some kind of cool maybe undersea vents that could have life, but that's the next question, might there be life in those oceans that might be attracted to the heat of this technology or what kind of interesting things might happen there?
Theresa Benyo: Yeah, that's true. Yeah, that's something that could be very interesting. And who knows, we might have to go far and that life might come out and seek the robot that's going to be warm. Yeah, it's going to have to be warm to get through that ice. So yeah, that's exciting.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: We're probably talking about microbial life, not full shrimp swimming through the seas of Europa, but even then, just a little bit of life in those oceans could completely change the way we think of ourselves and our place in the universe. So this is a really useful technology.
Theresa Benyo: Yeah, that's true, yeah. But we also have to be careful because we don't want to damage any of the life forms that we encounter down there. So that's one of the other attractive things about our fusion-fission reactor is that it does not emit a lot of radioactivity from it. So that's another reason why we're pursuing that concept.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's a cool idea that you can use nuclear reactions in order to actually get down in there, but then hopefully not contaminate anything. But I'm wondering how you're going to test this. Are you potentially going to, say, Antarctica or some kind of ice sheet and just dropping something in and see what happens?
Theresa Benyo: No, Antarctica is a perfect place to test all this out. And yeah, eventually when we get to that point, we would love to do something like that.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Are you envisioning the shape of this spacecraft that you might be trying to use to drop beneath the ice, or are you still just in the phase where you're trying to figure out the actual melting technology that'll take us down?
Theresa Benyo: Well, we do have some previous designs that were developed at NASA Glenn and also at NASA JPL. So we're looking at both those concepts and we would like to work with those a little bit and maybe add a couple more things to it. Like right now, the nose of the tunnel bot is very blunt, so I envision some kind of blade, like a heated blade, or even ultrasonic maybe heated blade. There's actually something that exists that helps cut frozen cakes that's an ultrasonic blade. So we're looking at that too to enhance the existing designs.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I know we've tried to deal with this issue before when we've gone to places like Mars, say, and tried to dig beneath the ground. We've had issues, if anybody remembers the InSight mission, that Mole was trying to get into the ground. We don't know why it didn't manage to do it, but there was a lot of concern, what if it hits a rock or something? What would we do in this scenario to try to navigate around obstacles within the ice that we might not be able to see from space?
Theresa Benyo: No, no, that's a very, very good question. We haven't fully explored that possibility yet because... And we do estimate that the ice on Enceladus is very granite-like, so it's kind of like a rock anyway, but we can melt that rock, we think. But yeah, no, that's definitely something that we need to keep considering and make sure that our navigation system can process those kinds of things and that we can navigate around those obstacles while we get to the ocean below.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I think what's cool about this too is that this is just a technology that can actually allow us to get into the ice, but as we go, we might be able to take samples of the ice as we go down, learn more about what it's made out of, how it might be different and the different layers on the way down. Because there's so much we don't know about the source of ices on these moons, whether or not the water formed with these moons or whether or not it was seeped out of the rocks later. There are a lot of mysteries we could solve with these things.
Theresa Benyo: Oh yes, definitely. I mean, we know a lot right now with the Cassini mission, with the plumes that you mentioned, which means there's a really hot core to this thing and the estimates of the ice crust, the thickness. But yeah, there's so much more that you kind of need to be there to really explore and see how this moon was made and what it contains.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: It would be cool to envision a future where we could pair this technology with something like Europa Clipper or the Enceladus Life Finder mission that people are thinking of doing because we can learn a lot from orbit. We're on a long timeline here, so maybe in the interim, this technology could allow us to drop a probe down there and then maybe test those waters a little.
Theresa Benyo: Oh yeah, definitely, definitely. Yeah, we've followed the mission that's proposed, it's going to do like what you're saying, orbit around Enceladus and check out the whole thing closer. And then a follow-on would be to actually find a good landing spot. Because we don't really want to land in the plume areas because the velocities of those plumes are estimated to be 500 meters per second, so it would be really hard for that robot to fight that plume coming out. Those kinds of missions are going to definitely help this tunnel bot mission as well.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: And what's really interesting about this is a lot of the information we know about the outer Solar System is actually quite old. We have not been back to Neptune or Uranus. We've only been to Pluto once. It's been quite a long time. So potentially, there are a lot of other icy bodies out there that we could use this technology for. I wish we had all the funding in the world to go to every single world.
Theresa Benyo: Oh, me too, me too. I mean, there's just so much still to explore out there, even though we've done a lot so far. But yeah, it's amazing what we could learn. I'm looking forward to it.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I know, right? I was myself very motivated by the first exoplanets that were discovered. So now that we have so many of them, I'm so excited to be able to compare them to the things that we know and love here in our Solar System. So thank you for ideating on this technology. This is a huge problem that Ed has been plaguing me since I was a child. How do we figure out what's down in there? Thank you so much, Theresa.
Theresa Benyo: All right, thank you very much, Sarah. It was great talking with you.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: We'll be right back with the rest of my adventures at the 2023 NASA Innovative Advanced Concept Symposium after this short break.
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Sarah Al-Ahmed: This is Lynn Rothschild from NASA Ames Research Center. You may have watched her wonderful talk the other day about a mobile astro pharmacy. I got to ask you, what inspired this idea and why is this so necessary for our future out there in space?
Lynn Rothschild: Well, I can tell you the truth what inspired it, I got encouraged by a pharmacist who had been thinking about this for a while, Phil Williams, he's part of our team from the University of Nottingham. But the other way to think about this, and that's NASA's needs that we have astronauts who will ultimately get sick in space and you can't take an entire pharmacy with you. It takes up a lot of room, it's heavy. You don't know who's going to get sick or what they might need or how much of it, and a lot of drugs just simply go bad. You can't leave drugs in your medicine cabinet for 10 years. They just don't last that long. So we started to think, "Well, the way to solve the problem is to just simply make the drugs when you need them."
Sarah Al-Ahmed: But how are you going to manufacture these drugs in space? It's a very complicated process even here on Earth to make the drugs to make sure they're safe. What is your technique to do this? Because I feel like this is really clever.
Lynn Rothschild: Well, it turns out most drugs are or certainly can be made by living organisms. And in fact, many of them are made by bacteria today anyway. Your insulin no longer comes from a cow, so then it comes from a bacterium that makes it for you. And bacteria are very small, so in fact, there are whole classes of drugs that are really easy to make in a bacterium that are the ones that actually go bad the fastest. These are ones that are based on proteins and they go bad in about six months, even if you refrigerate them. So if you've got a two and a half year round trip to Mars, that's a no go. And so it's just ideal, the easiest ones for us to make are the ones that are the least stable. And so they're the ones that we're starting with and these are so-called protein-based biologics.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: And this is really wonderful too because there's so many reasons we're going to need this. A), if we're going to send people to the moon and to Mars, we're going to need to have drugs that last longer than six months because it's going to take a while to get there. But also in the spirit of this conversation about DEIA we were just having, there might be things that we can do with this technology to allow people who previously wouldn't be able to go into space to then have the medications that they need to come along for the ride with us.
Lynn Rothschild: Absolutely. But even on Earth, we have a problem in that pharmaceutical companies, it's no secret, want to make money, of course, there are companies. And it turns out that in the United States, an orphan drug is defined as having 20,000 Americans who need that drug. 20,000 is a lot. So we're doing exactly the opposite. We're worrying about very tiny numbers of people, but they might need it now. And so I like to think that that's a big application that we're going to have on the Earth. The pharmaceutical companies don't need to worry about making 2 million doses. This is something that in principle could be available for even one person who needs a particular drug. Why should we ignore them just because their disease happens to be classified as an orphan drug?
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I know that this has been a huge problem for us here on Earth. There are so many drugs that go through shortages because we just simply don't have enough of them for people. And this is going to be a major issue as we go to space as well. You never know what you're going to encounter out there.
Lynn Rothschild: Absolutely. Or one of the applications I hadn't thought about that was suggested to me by actually the Department of Defense, but it could be more widely applicable, is antidotes for poisons. Now, they're thinking in terms of warfare, but I started also thinking, "What about a snake bite? What if you had a kit to be able to make the anti-venom right away?" Wouldn't that be amazing?
Sarah Al-Ahmed: That could save a lot of lives. Even though you can use a simple bacteria to do this, do you have to, say, create specific bacterial strains that can make specific drugs and then bank them all together? How does that work?
Lynn Rothschild: So we don't know each other well enough for me to kick you, but there is no such thing as a simple organism. Every organism has these capabilities to take DNA, read it, and make it into RNA and then ultimately into proteins. And these are the drugs that we're focusing on in the proteins. So it is relatively simple to program these cells to make different drugs. Now, because we need to then purify these, we ideally want the organisms to make them, these bacteria to make them and then export them out into the medium. Now, it turns out when we started working on this in phase one, we did so well in some of these drugs that it actually poisoned the bacterium because they were getting such a big dose of the drugs. And so there are going to be alternate ways that we may have to approach this, or actually we may have to go with strains that are not the best producing for their own health, but we just get enough for the humans and that's good enough. So I think this is a really promising route. Now, as I've been alluding to, we've been focusing on drugs, but there are lots of other things that you could make in small doses. Now, this may sound fun and trivial, but fragrances, flavors. Once you have this little tiny biological production system, there might be all sorts of things. So in a funny way, imagine you're an astronaut a year from home and it's like, "Oh, if I could only have that smell of coffee or chocolate or some cologne," or whatever, wouldn't it be amazing? Or a glue, you need to glue something, you can make a biological glue or, or, or, or. So wouldn't that be amazing if you had this little tiny bioproduction system? So I really see that even though the Astro pharmacy is the real need that the agency has, that there are a lot of potential spinoffs from this.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I'm flashing back to that moment in Star Trek Voyager where they ran out of coffee and Jane Way looks up at that nebula and goes, "There's coffee in that nebula." No, but really, though, when you're out in space, it's these little things that we take for granted.
Lynn Rothschild: Absolutely. And one person's flavor that they miss may be not what the other person misses. I personally am not a coffee drinker, I'm a tea drinker. And so what I may be lusting for after a year and a half in space might be a chai that you wouldn't even touch if you had a truckload in the driveway. And so the beauty of these small personalized systems is you don't have to load something and imagine the astronauts are all one homogeneous group because we're not. We as humans are all different and we have different needs. And so if you can address the personalized needs, how much better that would be.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: And I was going to say, kick me whenever you want because there's so much about biology that I don't know. I studied astrophysics, you studied a whole different branch of science, and I feel like that is what's so awesome about places like NIAC. We're coming together with our different disciplines to create these technologies that any one of us might not have thought of together.
Lynn Rothschild: Next year we'll know each other well enough for me to kick you.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: For sure. Well, thanks for joining me, Lynn. And I really hope that this technology works because I feel like it's not only really useful for space, but so essential for what we do here on Earth. It could improve so many people's lives.
Lynn Rothschild: And thank goodness the NIAC program recognizes these crazy ideas.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Before I let you go, what are the next steps in phase two? Now that you've gone through this, what are your next big projects with this?
Lynn Rothschild: So there are all different aspects. There's the programming the cells to make more drugs, and actually there's even before that, doing paper studies to see how many drugs we in principle could make on the astronaut med list or maybe drugs that ought to be on it. So what's the general utility? And then the actual technical of programming the bacteria and then these alternate routes that I alluded to. And then we're kicking in with two wonderful engineers, one who's a student who's applying to grad school right now and another is an engineer who's worked with them over the years and that is building a very tiny purification system because we can't take an entire pharmaceutical industrial plan. So I've challenged them into making this purification systems small enough that it would fit in two syringes. I mean, really tiny. Then obviously another step to this has to be to check the purity of the drugs. We're certainly not going to promise the end of phase two to have something that you could inject in a human, but it would be good to know how close we are. And then, of course, we have to have this in a mission context. So we have a doctor on the team, my colleague David Loftus and NASA Ames who's specifically looking at how you might activate the system in the event of a solar particle event. And then finally, we also are doing a little bit of thinking about these applications for non-NASA uses, as I say, and antidotes maybe to poisons or maybe when you're on a submarine or in a remote area or camping or there's a supply chain issue where you can't keep medication cold all the way through for years on end. You don't need to worry about the supply cold chain anymore, which something we became very aware of during the area of COVID that our supply chains are sensitive. And so we're specifically working on trying to make this system so it does not need refrigeration. And that also is a huge part of it, which we haven't been pumping up, but I think it's ultimately a huge part of it.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's so cool.
Lynn Rothschild: We're busy.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Very, very busy. I can't wait to hear where this goes in the future. You've got a couple years to ideate on it and maybe fingers crossed, phase three. We'll see.
Lynn Rothschild: Fingers crossed. Thank you so much.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Thanks for joining me, Lynn. The last people I spoke with at NIAC were Javid Bayandor and his amazing group of grad students from State University of New York. I wanted to take a very special moment to talk with this group of people here. Javid, thank you for bringing all of these amazing grad students with you. Why did you feel it was so important to bring everyone who's on the team with you here today?
Javid Bayandor: Well, of course, these are our future professionals and it's extremely important for them to feel and see themselves as part of the adventures that we go through to develop the technology and all that. So this is part of their education. I hope it's a quality education.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I wanted to ask you, because this is my first time here at NIAC, can I get a show of hands, who's here for the first time? See? Every single one of you. I love that. That's fantastic. So the project that you guys are all working on is something called Breeze. I thought this was a really cool project because as many of you know out there, one of the priorities of the Planetary Decadal Survey recently was the exploration of Venus. And in order to do that, that is really, really complicated. So you've created an interesting idea on how to do this that's inspired by a manta ray. Would one of you like to tell me, who came up with that idea?
Javid Bayandor: They're too young to remember. Initially, I had two teams. One was the robotic teams and the other one was the mission development teams. And we were working on different planets. And once we got to Venus, we realized that Venus has an extremely thick atmosphere. And in order to be able to sustain flight in that atmosphere, we need to have a system that swims rather than flies. So we thought, "Okay, so how about we use our manta ray in that environment and see how it performs?"
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Is this thing going to just be shaped like a manta ray or is it going to literally flap as it soars through the clouds?
Javid Bayandor: So it's inspired by manta ray. It may not exactly do what manta ray does. It soars with the zonal winds and then uses the flapping system to course correct and stabilize itself, but very rarely. So it's not very energy intensive.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Is this the reason why you decided to go with a kind of flexible inflatable craft so that it could do this kind of flapping motion? Who would like to take that one?
Speaker 7: So I mean, with an inflatable system, you have a really high pack ability. And for a buoyant system, we're going to need a lot of volume to be buoyant in that regime, maybe about 50 to 60 kilometers. And so that's kind of like combining those two factors together. Inflatable system made perfect sense. I mean, there's been Venus balloons previously and kind of adding capabilities upon that, we can expand the mission scope from just a balloon that would be pushed by the winds.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: And Javid, you just mentioned this, that you're going to be sailing on the zonal winds around Venus. How does that work and what is that going to allow you to achieve travel-wise around Venus? How fast can you move?
Javid Bayandor: For zonal winds, because there are a driving force and really fast, especially at the altitudes of between 50 and 70 kilometers from the terrain, we would be able to circumnavigate the planet in less than six days. So this would provide us with a unique opportunity to see the dark side as well, because if you send a drone or a robot to the dark side, you have to wait for about 120 days, 116 days before it can come to the light. And you may have lots of complications before you can restart the system, but this one can have enough reserved to go to the dark side and then basically show up in a couple of days on the other side. And it provides a unique opportunity for us to do repeat measurements from areas that we are very interested in, and any other drone or any other probe would be able to just do one maybe measurement at best.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: But see, this is another challenging thing. If you're going to try to be measuring again in the same location later, you're going to need to know where you are on Venus, which is very difficult. So how are you going to figure out the position of this spacecraft as you're going around the planet?
Speaker 9: We're basically going with multiple approaches. We can either look up or look down, basically. So we would be going with terrain based navigation, try to find landmarks and substantial features on the Venusian surface and be able to track those while we're flying, or we can look up into the stars and things that are always there.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Which is really useful because some of the main mysteries about Venus is what kind of vulcanism is going on there, is there lightning? Are all those things that we're seeing actually just little bits of meteorites or something burning up in the atmosphere? We're going to have to look at the dark side in order to learn these things, which is really cool. But my next question has to do with just the nature of Venus itself. As many people know, Venus is kind of a hellscape, to put it lightly. If you get down on the ground, crushing pressure, melting heat, literally it rains sulfuric acid. So what material are you going to be putting on the outside of this craft to prevent it from literally melting on Venus?
Speaker 11: We have done many material selection studies, but the altitude which we have picked as [inaudible 00:38:01] said about 50, 60 kilometers, which is very Earth-like. So we might not even need to do that. We might be just facing slight acidic environment, but of course, we are working on layered fabric materials and we are looking into coatings which can prevent the weathering in the Venusian surface.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's really cool. We're going to need the technology to shield things as we're going into Venus. That planet is so mysterious despite being literally right next to us.
Javid Bayandor: Concerning what you just mentioned, at the altitude that we fly, there is a estimation that the temperature and the weather may look very much similar to what we have here on Earth. So we get to actually test that as well and see if any organisms, microorganisms actually live in those altitudes.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Which is a mystery. I know everyone is very puzzled by this potential detection of Phosphine on Venus. We need to know what's going on there. There are so many things we don't know yet. Was there water on the surface? Was it Earth-like at some point and now it's Venus? So I'm really glad that you guys are coming up with this technology. I do have one last question to ask you guys. What was your experience like here at NIAC over the last few days? I can't ask every single one of you, but would any one of you like to speak on your experience here?
Speaker 12: It was absolutely amazing. It was so incredible to meet a bunch of professionals who are working in the field and developing these very intriguing and new concepts. It inspires a great new level of creativity, and I've just love making these connections. So it's been very wonderful to be here.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I feel very similarly. It's my first time here at NIAC, and over the last few days, I've met so many amazing and passionate humans with so many beautiful ideas that could really help us revolutionize the future of space travel. And I'm glad to see you're all here. I hope we see you again in future years. I know I'll be back here at NIAC in the future as well. If you want to learn more about any of the projects that you've seen here over the last few days, or you want to learn how to contact teams like the Breeze team to suggest your ideas or volunteer your time or work on the projects, go to nasa.gov/NIAC. That's N-I-A-C for NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts. This program is one that I think we really all should be a part of because your ideas, their ideas, all of us together can really take this all to the next level. Thanks, everyone. I've done a lot of cool things in my time as a science communicator, but getting to host a NASA symposium webcast was next level. I want to thank the NIAC fellows for speaking to me and for their dedication to advancing space science and exploration. Thanks to everyone at the NIAC Program office who let me be part of the event and a massive shout-out to the AV and tech people at NASA 360. All of you are awesome. There are so many great space conferences that are free to watch online. I've been tuning into these webcasts for years and highly recommend them. They offer a great way to stay updated on the newest ideas and discoveries, but they also let you meet the people behind the science. Now let's check in with Bruce Betts, the chief scientist of The, Planetary Society for What's Up. I want to hear what space cons he enjoys most. Hey, Bruce.
Bruce Betts: Hey, Sarah. How you doing?
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Back from NIAC. That was an adventure.
Bruce Betts: Did you have a wild and crazy time?
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Wild and crazy. I mean, as much as scientists can get. I mean, it was just a gauntlet of really cool ideas. And I don't know about you, but whenever I come out of an event like that, I'm always a little, I don't know, emotionally enlightened, but mentally drained. I'm just exhausted from too much thinking
Bruce Betts: Yeah, and people.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Oh, it was a lot of peopling. But I got to meet Mae Jemison, so I'm not complaining.
Bruce Betts: You can check that one off?
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah, that's one of those life experiences there and it was really beautiful. They had a talk on DEIA at NASA, and there was a moment where Mae Jemison was up there and she was speaking with one of the speakers up there who's an African-American woman who's blind. And watching them bond together and talk about how Mae's experience in life helped this other person become one of the DEIA coordinators for NASA was just such a moment. Anytime you get behind the scenes and watch these people and their actual interactions with each other, that's kind of like the magic of these conferences, I feel.
Bruce Betts: Or like watching sausage be made, but not in this case. This sounds like a really cool moment.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah, it was a cool moment. I did want to ask you, because you've probably been to a lot more of these events than me, I'm just kind of starting out with my going to conferences, but what are your favorite space conferences and events?
Bruce Betts: Comic-Con. Planetary Defense Conference, I have a sweet spot in my heart. I don't know, that's one of my favorites because I've watched it grow and mature and the field mature over the last 20 years or so since they started holding them. And we've come a long way in planetary defense and asteroid threat. And it's neat because it's the one conference that brings together all the different aspects of the problem. Even like disaster preparedness and assessment and trying to involve the political side of it, but also the observers and the theoretical people. So it's a great mixture of all the aspects of a very weird different problem compared to most of what we think about in planetary science. And then just the solid planetary focused things. So DPS, Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society. LPSC, Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, those guys. There's so many others. There's so many letters that I could rain from the sky.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's awesome, though. I really want to go to all of these. I've only ever been to now NIAC and the AAS I got to go one year, that was a dream come true. I really wanted to go to that, which is just as nerdy as it sounds.
Bruce Betts: And this was the AAS, American Astronomical Society, not to be confused with the AAS, the American Astronomical Society, which is a whole different bunch of engineering types.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: It's a lot of fun, and it was nice being behind the scenes with those people and nice to host a NASA webcast for the first time, and I hope I get to go back. So that'll be a good time in the future.
Bruce Betts: Cool, cool, cool. Well, good. Should we do a little bit of... Space fact!
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Oh, that was a good one. I can envision you flying down the highway on a motorcycle that just screams random space facts.
Bruce Betts: Wow.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: What do you got for us, Bruce?
Bruce Betts: A mind blown, that's what I've got. But going from new tech to old tech, that works really, really well. Voyager 2, of course, ended up doing the so-called Grand Tour, which lines up once every 175-ish years where you can use one planet to get to the next and the next. Voyager 1 did not. And why did Voyager 1 not? It went to Jupiter and Saturn and then headed off. It's because they decided on a priority to get data about Titan as the one thick atmosphere moon in the Solar System. And the way the orbits worked out, once you did that, you went flying off in different directions. So that is why only one of the two visited Uranus and Neptune. And they actually considered other permutations like redirecting the Pluto, but the decision was made that Titan was the party.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I didn't know that, and I'm honestly glad that they made that decision because I mean, come on, Titan is so cool. Would we know how cool Titan was if they hadn't pulled that off?
Bruce Betts: That's an interesting question that would be interesting to learn. Certainly at the time, we learned more. Titan also was a little shy, and so it was covered in smog and they couldn't see the surface. So that was a drag, but they learned a lot about the atmosphere and what to do when they came back with Cassini and lit it up with a radar and infrared to see through. Yeah, Titan, cool place. And Voyager's cranking out there as the fastest and farthest human-made object. Well, it's fastest that's leaving the Solar System. They keep slowing down as the sun tugs atoms as they go. Yeah, Voyager, cool.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: It really is, though. I mean, I know it's highly unlikely that any intelligent creatures out there are ever going to find it, but if they do, how confused and awesome would that be? I mean, we're only just beginning to send things into interstellar space. I feel like that's a big moment for us as a species.
Bruce Betts: Yeah, we've made it. We still have a few tens of thousands of years before we leave the Solar System's gravitational effects, but we've made it to past all those shocks and pauses and made it out of the influence of magnetic field, and it is, it's profound.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I think that is something that's interesting, when people talk about Voyager, a lot of people say that the Voyager spacecrafts have exited our Solar System, which I feel isn't entirely correct. They're definitely in interstellar space, but they're still under the gravitational influence of our sun.
Bruce Betts: Yeah, and they will be for a long time. And that's typically how we kind of define the Solar System. So I too, that's why I can't help but start explaining that. But it's super cool because they're beyond the primary influence of the sun's magnetic field, which goes way the heck out there. So we're actually into the space between the stars.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: It's going to be so cool when we just have a whole bunch of probes out there measuring interstellar space. Or someday maybe, maybe, maybe we'll have little solar sails that go out to other systems. I don't know how far away that will be in the future, but clearly there are people at places like NIAC that are thinking about it all the time. So that's heartening even if those technologies don't work out.
Bruce Betts: Yes. No, the future looks bright and dark if you're that far away from the sun. Ba dum tsh. All right, everybody go out there, look up at the night sky and think about dog ears versus cat ears. One night only, smack down. Thank you, goodnight.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: We've reached the end of this week's episode of Planetary Radio, but we'll be back next week to celebrate OSIRIS-REx's successful sample return from asteroid Bennu. You can help others discover the passion, beauty, and joy of space science and exploration by leaving a review and a rating on platforms like Google and Apple Podcasts. Your feedback not only brightens our day, but helps other curious minds find their place in space through Planetary Radio. You can also send us your space thoughts, questions, and poetry at our email at Planetary [email protected]. Or if you're a Planetary Society member, leave a comment in the Planetary Radio space in our member community app. Planetary Radio is produced by The Planetary Society in Pasadena, California and is made possible by our dedicated members. You can join us as we work together to understand the cosmos and our place within it at Planetary.org/join. Mark Hilverda and Rae Paoletta are our associate producers. Andrew Lucas is our audio editor. Josh Doyle composed our theme, which is arranged and performed by Pieter Schlosser. And until next week, ad astra.