Ion propulsion. Artificial intelligence. Hyper-spectral imagers. It sounds like science fiction, but all these technologies are now flying around the solar system on real-life NASA missions.
How did they get there? Answer: the New Millennium Program (NMP). NMP is a special NASA program that flight tests wild and far-out technologies. And if they pass the test, they can be used on real space missions.
The list of probes that have benefited from technologies incubated by NMP reads like the Whoâs Who of cutting-edge space exploration: Spirit and Opportunity (the phenomenally successful rovers exploring Mars),Â the Spitzer Space Telescope, the New Horizons mission to Pluto, theÂ Dawn asteroid-exploration mission, the comet-smashing probe DeepÂ Impact, and others. Some missions were merely enhanced by NMPÂ technologies; others would have been impossible without them.
â?In order to assess the impact of NMP technologies, NASA has developed a scorecard to keep track of all the places our technologies are being used,â? says New Millennium Program manager Christopher Stevens of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
For example, ion propulsion technology flight-tested on the NMPÂ mission Deep Space 1, launched in October 1998, is now flying aboardÂ the Dawn mission. Dawn will be the first probe to orbit an asteroidÂ (Vesta) and then travel to and orbit a dwarf planet (Ceres). The highly efficient ion engine is vital to the success of the 3 billion mile, 8 year journey. The mission could not have been flown using conventionalÂ chemical propulsion; launching the enormous amount of fuel required would have broken the projectâs budget. âIon propulsion was the only practical way,â? says Stevens.
In total, 10 technologies tested by Deep Space 1 have been adopted by more thanÂ 20 robotic probes. One, the Small Deep Space Transponder, has become theÂ standard system for Earth communications for all deep-space missions.
And Deep Space 1 is just one of NMPâs missions. About a half-dozen others haveÂ flown or will fly, and their advanced technologies are only beginningÂ to be adopted. Thatâs because it takes years to design probes that useÂ these technologies, but Stevens says experience shows that âif youÂ validate experimental technologies in space, and reduce the risk of using them, missions will pick themÂ up.â?
Stevens knew many of these technologies when they were just a glimmer in an engineerâs eye. Now theyâre âall grown upâ? and flying around the solar system. Itâs enough to make a program manager proud!
The results of all NMP’s technology validations are online and the list is impressive: http://nmp.nasa.gov/TECHNOLOGY/scorecard/scorecard_results.cfm. For kids, the rhyming storybook, “Professor Starr’s Dream Trip: Or, How a Little Technology Goes a Long Way” at spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/nmp/starr gives a scientist’s perspective on the technology that makes possible the Dawn mission.
This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Dawn will be the first spacecraft to establish orbits around two separate target bodies during its missionâthanks to ion propulsion validated by Deep Space 1.