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Research team approved for NASA grant for early-stage space technologies

A photo of the proposed Mars dust storm data collector concept.

Proposed Mars global dust storm data collector concept. Background photo courtesy of NASA.

A research team from West Virginia University has been approved for a grant from a NASA fund designed to determine the feasibility of early stage technologies that could go on to change what’s possible in space.


Associate Professor Yu Gu and Assistant Professor Piyush Mehta from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering were one of 12 teams selected to receive a $125,000 Phase One grant from NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Program. NIAC nurtures visionary ideas that could transform future NASA missions with the creation of breakthroughs — radically better or entirely new aerospace concepts — while engaging America’s innovators and entrepreneurs as partners in the journey.

Inspired by spiders’ ballooning capabilities, the project, Micro-probes Propelled and Powered by Planetary Atmospheric Electricity, envisions the deployment of thousands of micro probes to study planetary atmospheres. Each micro probe will have a small payload pod hanging under a string loop, which provides both atmospheric drag and electrostatic lifts. Two electric booms will sense the atmospheric potential gradient and harvest a small amount of electricity for powering the probe.

“The payload pod will contain energy storage and conversion devices; an actuator for replenishing and regulating the static electric charge on the string loop; and integrated microprocessor, radio and sensors,” Gu said. “The motions of the micro probes will be uncontrolled along the horizontal directions but can be regulated to a limited degree along the vertical direction.”

According to Gu, the onboard control system will allow extending the mission time and increasing the probability of keeping the probe in the desired atmospheric layer. If successful, the proposed micro probes can support several future planetary missions by gaining large spatial-scale atmospheric sensing capabilities.

“Understanding the composition, structure, dynamics and evolution of the atmosphere for different extraterrestrial bodies has always been an important part of NASA’s planetary missions,” Gu said. “The proposed micro probes are ideal assets to supplement other orbiters and probes in reducing mission risks and gaining large-scale measurements.”

The funded technologies have the potential to transform human and robotic exploration of other worlds, including the Moon and Mars. Only about 6 percent of the concepts submitted are selected for Phase One awards. If initial feasibility studies are successful, awardees can apply for Phase Two awards.

“Our NIAC program nurtures visionary ideas that could transform future NASA missions by investing in revolutionary technologies,” said Jim Reuter, acting associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. “We look to America’s innovators to help us push the boundaries of space exploration with new technology.”



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