NASA's 16 top technical challenges for the next 5 years

National Research Council report evaluates myriad NASA technologies, projects to focus path to future

Drastically reduce the costs of safely and reliably getting into space; more effectively mitigate the impact of space radiation on humans; develop more robust mobile robotics and build a new generation of space telescopes to more effectively study space are just a few of the 16 high-priority technologies NASA should be working on in the next five years.

The high-priority technology directions come from a NASA-commissioned National Research Council space technology roadmap report entitled "NASA Space Technology Roadmaps and Priorities: Restoring NASA's Technological Edge and Paving the Way for a New Era in Space," issued today that took over a year to complete and evaluated 83 high-priority NASA technologies.  NASA provided 14 space technology area roadmaps to the NRC - which included plans for everything from launch propulsion systems and Nanotechnology to Science Instruments, Observatories, and Sensor Systems -- and asked the council to examine and prioritize technologies for the agency.

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"The high-priority technologies were selected with input from the external technical community as part of NASA's draft technology roadmaps and include items such as radiation mitigation; guidance, navigation, and control; nuclear systems for both power generation and transportation; and solar power generation.   These priorities were chosen to align with three main facets of NASA's overall mission: extending and sustaining human activities beyond low Earth orbit; exploring the evolution of the solar system and the potential for life elsewhere; and expanding our understanding of Earth and the universe," the report states.

"It has been years since NASA has had a vigorous, broad-based program in advanced space technology development," said Raymond Colladay, president of RC Space Enterprises Inc., and chair of the committee that wrote the report.  "Success in executing future NASA space missions will depend on advanced developments that should already be under way."  

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The 16 high-priority technologies include: 

  • Improved Access to Space: Dramatically reduce the total cost and increase reliability and safety of access to space.
  • Space Radiation Health Effects: Improve understanding of space radiation effects on humans and develop radiation protection technologies to enable long-duration space missions.
  • Precision Landing: Increase the ability to land more safely and precisely at a variety of planetary locales and at a variety of times.
  • New Astronomical Telescopes: Develop a new generation of astronomical telescopes that enable discovery of habitable planets, facilitate advances in solar physics, and enable the study of faint structures around bright objects by developing high-contrast imaging and spectroscopic technologies to provide unprecedented sensitivity, field of view, and spectroscopy of faint objects.
  • Robotic Maneuvering: Enable mobile robotic systems to autonomously and verifiably navigate and avoid hazards and increase the robustness of landing systems to surface hazards.
  • Lightweight Space Structures: Develop innovative lightweight materials and structures to reduce the mass and improve the performance of space systems such as (1) launch vehicle and payload systems; (2) space and surface habitats that protect the crew, including multifunctional structures that enable lightweight radiation shielding, implement self-monitoring capability, and require minimum crew maintenance time; and (3) lightweight, deployable synthetic aperture radar antennas, including reliable mechanisms and structures for large-aperture space systems that can be stowed compactly for launch and yet achieve high-precision final shapes.
  • Long Duration ECLSS: Achieve reliable, closed-loop Environmental Control and Life Support Systems (ECLSS) to enable long-duration human missions beyond low Earth orbit.
  • Life Detection: Improve sensors for in-situ analysis to determine if synthesis of organic matter may exist today, whether there is evidence that life ever emerged, and whether there are habitats with the necessary conditions to sustain life on other
  • Rapid Crew Transit: Establish propulsion capability for rapid crew transit to and from Mars or other distant targets.
  • High Power Electric Propulsion: Develop high power electric propulsion systems along with the enabling power system technology.
  • Higher Data Rates: Minimize constraints imposed by communication data rate and range.
  • Autonomous Rendezvous and Dock: Achieve highly reliable, autonomous rendezvous, proximity operations and capture of free-flying space objects.
  • Design Software: Advance new validated computational design, analysis and simulation methods for design, certification, and reliability of materials, structures, thermal, EDL and other systems.
  • Mass to Surface: Deliver more payload to destinations in the solar system.
  • Structural Monitoring: Develop means for monitoring structural health and sustainability for long duration missions, including integration of unobtrusive sensors and responsive on-board systems.
  • Improved Flight Computers: Develop advanced flight-capable devices and system software for real-time flight computing with low

The idea is that in the next few months NASA's Office of the Chief Technologist will  lead an agency-wide analysis and coordination effort to update the 14  technology area roadmaps with the NRC report's findings and recommendations, NASA said.  

From the NRC: "During the next 5 years, NASA technology development efforts should focus on (1) the 16 identified high-priority technologies and associated top technical challenges; (2) a modest but significant investment in technologies at low technology readiness levels (TRL), on the order of 10% of NASA's technology development budget; and (3) flight demonstrations for technologies that are at a high-TRL when there is sufficient interest and shared cost by the intended user."

For technologies deemed closer to implementation, flight demonstrations, while expensive, are sometimes essential to transition a technology to an operational system, the report stipulates.  Such technology flight demonstrations should be considered on a case-by-case basis when there is ample support from the user, including a reasonable level of cost-sharing, the report stated.

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