Recent exploration of Mars using small, technologically advanced spacecraft is an example of the budget-conscious missions NASA plans to undertake over the next several decades. The agency is cutting costs and improving mission capabilities by adapting space technologies developed by other government agencies and private industry for communications, data gathering, and other activities.
However, NASA is directing too few resources toward development of additional critical systems needed for other types of future space activities, such as studying planets beyond the solar system, says a new report by a committee of the National Research Council. Although its resources are limited, the space agency should devote some funds toward technologies that have the potential to bring many long-term benefits with a relatively small investment, the report says. Technologies needed for some possible space activities are unlikely to be pursued by private industry or other government agencies, because they offer little immediate financial incentives or will be used only by NASA.
The committee identified six technological areas for which additional research and development should be prioritized. Significant advances could be made in each of these fields with investments of $3 million to $5 million a year for up to five years.
> TOOLS FOR MINING RESOURCES FROM THE MOON, MARS, OR OTHER PLANETS. Using resources from space would provide an alternative to launching supplies from Earth. For example, oxygen extracted from the moon's surface could be used to make rocket propellant, which could dramatically cut costs of long-duration missions. Technology development should focus on extraction, processing, and storage methods.
> HIGH-FREQUENCY, WIDEBAND INTERPLANETARY COMMUNICATIONS SYSTEMS. Sophisticated systems that use microwave or optical transmissions based on laser technologies -- rather than radio frequencies now in use -- would quickly transfer much more data over greater distances. Robots traveling on other planets could transmit live, high-definition pictures to Earth. Much of the basic technology already exists, but more research is needed on reducing weight and power requirements, improving performance over extremely long distances, and developing low-cost, Earth- and space-based receivers.
> MICROELECTROMECHANICAL SYSTEMS (MEMS) FOR SPACE. Microelectromechanical systems such as microscopic gears, sensors, and switches already are being used for other purposes. NASA should pursue MEMS technology for use in spacecraft sensor, communications, navigation, power, and propulsion systems. These technologies could eventually be adapted to create miniature spacecraft.
> NUCLEAR POWER SYSTEMS. Many deep space missions unable to rely on solar power could use advanced nuclear reactors. Nuclear power systems typically are compact, durable, and resistant to space radiation, dust storms, or other external upsets. Work in this area should focus on improving energy-conversion efficiency and developing safer nuclear power sources through new materials and designs.
> RADIATION-RESISTANT COMPUTER MEMORIES AND ELECTRONICS. Radiation in space damages sensitive computers and disrupts signals. To combat this problem, research should be conducted in lightweight shielding, protective materials, and data-recovery methods.
> PRECISELY CONTROLLED ANTENNAS, MIRRORS, AND OTHER SPACE STRUCTURES. These types of large, lightweight structures are difficult to control in weightless space environments. Techniques to measure and control the exact positions of these instruments will be needed to develop giant space radars and telescopes for future missions.
In the next three to five years, NASA should reassess whether these technology areas should continue to be developed or whether other areas hold more promise, the committee said. In addition, the agency should ensure that much of the research it funds in these areas be conducted through private companies and universities.
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