02:20 PM

NRC Identifies High-Priority Technologies For NASA

Council recommends focusing on 16 technologies, from radiation mitigation to solar power, in pursuit of NASA's goals relating to space exploration and better understanding of Earth.

NASA's Next Mission: Deep Space
NASA's Next Mission: Deep Space
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
The National Research Council (NRC) has identified 16 technologies that it considers vital to NASA's future as the space agency aims to "restore its technical edge."

NRC, a non-profit organization that advises the federal government, combed through 295 technologies that are part of 14 technology roadmaps created by NASA's chief technologist office. NRC identified 83 technologies it considered high priorities, then narrowed those to 16 top priorities.

The goals of NASA's Space Technology Program are to sustain human activities beyond low-Earth orbit; continue its exploration of the evolution of the solar system and life outside of it; and increase its understanding of the Earth and the universe, according to the NRC report.

To reach its goals, NASA should focus on 16 high-tech priorities, according to NRC. Those are:

-- radiation mitigation for human spaceflight;
-- guidance, navigation, and control;
-- optical systems;
-- long-duration crew health;
-- solar power generation;
-- high-contrast imaging and spectroscopy technologies;
-- environmental control and life support systems;
-- electric propulsion;
-- detectors and focal planes;
-- instruments and sensors;
-- fission power generation;
-- lightweight and multifunctional materials and structures;
-- nuclear thermal propulsion;
-- entry, descent, and landing thermal protection systems;
-- active thermal control of cryogenic systems; and
-- extreme terrain mobility.

NRC based its recommendations on tech roadmaps developed by NASA. The roadmaps encompass robotics, telerobotics, and autonomous systems; communication and navigation; science instruments, observatories, and sensor systems; and modeling, simulation, IT, and processing, among other areas.

[ Hurricane forecasting tech is being used to predict solar storms. See NASA Enhances Solar Storm Forecasting. ]

Since the agency retired its space shuttle program last year, NASA is turning its attention to maintaining technology leadership through the Space Technology Program. The agency has been responsible for numerous inventions and technological breakthroughs over the years and wants its near-term priorities to help restore this leadership, according to the report.

At the same time, NASA has set its sights on a number of future space missions, such as sending people to the moon, Mars, and other destinations beyond low-Earth orbit.

"Technological breakthroughs have been the foundation of virtually every NASA success," said the report, which cites historic events such as the Apollo landings on the moon as icons "for the successful application of technology to a task that was once regarded as a distant dream."

The report outlines specific technologies that will need to be developed to meet NASA's objectives. For example, to create more advanced instruments and sensors, NASA aims to build wireless technology into spacecraft avionics and instruments to enhance the effectiveness of spacecraft design, testing, and operations.

To improve spacecraft guidance, navigation, and control, NASA will minimize the need for contact with operations on Earth to make real-time decisions aboard space vehicles.

To do this, the agency hopes to implement advancements in communications and navigation infrastructure that will allow information to be gathered locally onboard spacecraft and computation to be performed either in the spacecraft or shared with local communications nodes.

NASA is not without challenges to achieving its technology goals. A November report by the National Research Council analyzing the space technology program roadmaps identified technology gaps the agency faces in reaching its objectives.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden also has acknowledged a delay in NASA's plan for commercial space flights, which were to begin in 2015. They might not happen until 2017 given the agency's current funding schedule, he told a Senate committee in November.

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