I have listed in a previous some of the interesting projects funded by the NIAC in its phase-1 programme. I would like to detail some of these technologies and try to understand why they can be key elements in a revolution of the aerospace sector. In addition, I would like to put references on this topics as a ground for further analysis. In this review, I will be limited by the lack of accuracy of the different project’s titles; therefore, I will be forced to take some basic assumptions and any corrections of these assumptions will be welcome. I will focus on this post mainly on propulsion:
One big unknown is the so-called “ambient plasma wave propulsion”, an original name proposed by J. Gilland from OAI. Looking at previous report (or even better, this one) from him, I think that this propulsion is based on the concept of helicon waves (but the title of the project is not precise enough to confirm it). The benefit of this method is to produce higher density plasmas than with the other types of plasma thrusters for a given level of power. This system can work as a rocket with the propellant on-board, or even clever, as an “air-breathing” engine using in-situ propellant, a kind of electrical ramjet. One advantage of this latter method is described in this document. One big pro is low altitude stationkeeping, using the ambient atmosphere as a propellant to make up the drag (I like the term “thermosphere cruiser”). The same principle should be at stake in another NIAC project: “Atmospheric Breathing Electric Thruster for Planetary Exploration”.
Some more details can be found in this report: Propulsion Mechanism in a Helicon Plasma Thruster (N. Sinenian – MIT).
Concerning the project on Nuclear Propulsion through Direct Conversion of Fusion Energy, you will find a better description on Next Big Future and on the website of MSNW. The principle is the creation of plasmoids, which are ring shaped plasmas with an internal reversed field (a bit like the Reversed Field Pinch used for fusion).
Aneutronic fusion propulsion belongs to the wide range of fusion concepts. Newspapers have recently focused on it because of the presentation of J. Chapman at the latest SOFE conference. The problem of “classical fusion” (for instance with tritium) is that a lot of energy is lost in fast 14MeV neutrons which are, in addition, dangerous for hardware and crew. Aneutronic reactions are less efficient but most of the energy produced can be harnessed. In the end, the energy budget could even present some gain.
There was a proposal called ‘Ultra-Light “Photonic Muscle” Space Structures’. But its author, Joe Ritter mentioned that the project was actually titled ‘Ultra-Lightweight Photonic Muscle Space Telescope’. This has to do with optics and not with structure. The idea is based on nanotechnology and the use of photoactive isomers which are layered in the primary mirror and actively controlled by lasers. Thus, the purpose is to replace the mechanical actuators of the active optics (like on the VLT) to get a more accurate control of the mirror surface. Please refer to his presentation for further details.