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Magnetoshell aerocapture for NASA
MSNW’s magnetoshell aerocapture concept could help ease spaceships into orbit. (Credit: MSNW)

A system that would use magnetic fields to ease a spacecraft into orbit after an interplanetary journey has won a $500,000 grant from NASA’s advanced research program for MSNW, a company based in Redmond. Wash.

The money for MSNW is one of eight Phase II awards made through the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program, also known as NIAC. Other projects look into such way-out ideas as suspended animation, beamed energy for interstellar travel and a satellite-airplane hybrid that could stay up in the air for months at a time.

MSNW’s magnetoshell aerocapture system is designed to take advantage of aerodynamic drag as well as magnetized plasma to slow a spacecraft down and as it dips through a planet’s atmosphere.

Aerodynamic drag has long been used as a braking method for spacecraft, going back to the Apollo missions returning from the moon. The concept helped put NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor into its proper orbit in 1997. But it would require much more shielding to protect larger spacecraft, including ships carrying astronauts to Mars, as they reach orbit.

MSNW’s concept calls for creating a large shell of magnetized plasma to serve as the shield. Interaction between the atmosphere and the plasma would slow down the spacecraft, and the resulting heat would be dissipated by the plasma ions in the magnetoshell.

The MSNW research team, led by David Kirtley, says less than an ounce of plasma could be magnetized to create a magnetic barrier that’s as wide as a football field (100 meters, or roughly 100 yards). That could represent a significant savings over the weight of the propellant that would have to be used to put a spacecraft into orbit the old-fashioned way.

“It looks a lot like a deflector shield from ‘Star Trek,'” Kirtley told GeekWire. “While it looks like that, the physics is totally different. What it does, in fact, is act more like a parachute.”

Kirtley said the grant will pay for the design and testing of the plasma technology, leading up to an experiment that would involve shooting magnetized plasma through a chamber filled with an atmosphere that could simulate the conditions found on Earth, Mars or Neptune. The simulated Martian atmosphere, for example, would be a thin mix made up primarily of carbon dioxide. The Neptune stand-in would be a blend of helium and hydrogen.

If the results of the Phase II experiment are encouraging, MSNW could move on to building a small satellite to test the technology in Earth orbit. But it’ll take years to perfect the system, and it wouldn’t be suitable for just any spacecraft.

“This technology is pretty complex,” Kirtley said, “and it really doesn’t have a payoff over traditional propulsion systems until you get to very demanding missions.”

Magnetoshell aerocapture makes the most sense for putting relatively heavy spacecraft into orbit around Mars, or for putting robotic probes into orbit around, say, Pluto or Neptune. “It could have some huge payoffs for manned and exploration-type missions,” said Anthony Pancotti, propulsion lead at MSNW.

Magnetoshell experiment
In this experiment, a magnetoshell operates with an internal gas field, intercepting a partially ionized jet inside a test chamber. (Credit: NASA / MSNW)

Kirtley is also the CEO of Helion Energy, a sister venture that is working on an innovative concept for controlled fusion power. Helion’s system is designed to shoot blobs of plasma at each other and compress them with powerful magnetic fields – a technique that takes advantage of some of the same engineering principles behind the magnetoshell aerocapture system.

NIAC grants are designed to promote the development of aerospace technologies that may (or may not) yield payoffs years or decades from now. The program is analogous to the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. Previously funded NIAC projects have studied scores of far-out ideas, including space elevators and the University of Washington’s mini-magnetospheric plasma propulsion system.

The two-year $500,000 Phase II grants support further development of concepts that already have received $100,000 Phase I grants for nine months’ worth of research. “Hopefully, they will all go on to do what NIAC does best – change the possible,” Jason Derleth, the NIAC program executive at NASA Headquarters, said in a news release.

Here are the seven teams that join MSNW as Phase II recipients:

And here are this year’s Phase I recipients, announced last month:

This report was updated at 9 p.m. PT May 13 with comments from Kirtley and Pancotti.

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