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8/23/2011
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NASA Invests $175 Million In Next-Gen Space Technologies

Space agency plans to build an optical communications system, an atomic clock, and a solar sail as part of its Technology Demonstration Missions.

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NASA will invest $175 million to build a space-based optical communications system, a deep-space atomic clock, and a space solar sail as part of its aim to create technologies for next-generation space exploration.

NASA will demonstrate the technologies in several years as part of its Technology Demonstration Missions, which aim to prove how innovations will perform in an actual space environment and help the agency take projects from concept to deployment.

Now that the agency's Shuttle program has completed its missions, NASA is eyeing sending new spacecraft and even humans deeper into space. The technologies it will demonstrate are aimed at achieving some of its goals in this area, as well help the agency explore more sophisticated scientific experimentation and new approaches to U.S. space operations, it said.

The agency chose the technologies because they can be built in a relatively short amount of time and have the potential to "infuse high-impact capabilities" into future space missions, according to the NASA. Officials also believe by investing in technologies the space industry doesn't have today, it can lower the cost of future government and commercial space activities.

"These technology demonstration missions will improve our communications, navigation, and in-space propulsion capabilities, enable future missions that could not otherwise be performed, and build the technological capability of America's space industry," NASA Chief Technologist Bobby Braun said in a statement.

Braun also highlighted NASA's plans in a post on the White House blog, in which he underscored President Obama's support for the agency's interest in seeking technological breakthroughs that can propel its space research forward.

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center came up with the idea for the optical network--called the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration. The goal of the demo is to fly and validate a cost-effective optical communications technology that can provide data rates up to 100 times higher than today's systems.

NASA will need this type of data-transfer speed for future human and robotic space missions, as well as to create a next generation space communications network, according to NASA. It expects the system to take about four years to complete.

The California Institute of Technology and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory created the proposal for the Deep Space Atomic Clock, a miniature, mercury-ion atomic clock that is that the agency aims to be more than 10 times more accurate than today's systems.

The technology--which NASA expects to take about three years to develop--will enable ultra-precision timing in space and also will have benefits for one-way radio navigation. It will fly as a hosted payload on an Iridium spacecraft and use GPS signals to achieve a precise orbit as well as its timing-performance goals, which NASA said will be critical to deep-space exploration missions.

L'Garde Inc., a company in Tustin, Calif., creates inflatable space structures and proposed what it's calling a "Mission-Capable Solar Sail," which is expected to be seven times larger than any ever flown in space, according to NASA.

The agency believes the sail will be applicable to next-generation technologies such as an advanced space weather warning system for solar flare activity, as well as missions to remove orbital debris and explore deep space without using propellants.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will collaborate with NASA and L’Garde to demonstrate the technology in about three years’ time, according to NASA.

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