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Far-out Ideas
by Patrick L. Barry

Ever had a great idea for a new spacecraft propulsion system, or for a new kind of Mars rover? Have you ever wondered how such "dinner napkin sketches" evolve into real hardware flying real missions out in the cold blackness of space?

The road to reality for each idea is a unique story, but NASA has defined some common steps and stages that all fledgling space technologies must go through as they're nursed from infancy to ignition and liftoff.

Suppose, for example, that you've thought of a new way to shield astronauts from harmful radiation during long space missions. In the first stage, you would simply "flesh out" the idea: Write it down, check the physics, and do some quick experiments to test your assumptions.

If the idea still looks good, the next step is to build a "proof of concept." This is the "science fair project" stage, where you put together a nifty demonstration on a low budget-just to show that the idea can work.

For your radiation-shielding idea, for example, you might show how a Geiger counter inside a miniature mock-up doesn't start clicking when some radioactive cobalt-60 is held nearby. The shielding really works!

Once that hurdle is cleared, development shifts into a higher gear. In this stage, explains Dr. Christopher Stevens of JPL, the challenge isn't just making it work, but making it work in space.

"Some conditions of space flight cannot be adequately simulated here on Earth," Stevens says. Cobalt-60 doesn't truly mimic the diverse mixture of radiation in space, for example, and the true microgravity of orbit is needed to test some technologies, such as the delicate unfolding of a vast, gossamer solar sail. Other technologies, such as artificial intelligence control systems, must be flight tested just because they're so radically new that mission commanders won't trust them based solely on lab tests.

Stevens is the manager of NASA's New Millennium Program (NMP), which does this sort of testing: Sending things to space and seeing if they work.  In recent years the NMP has tested ion engines and autonomous navigation on the Deep Space 1 spacecraft, a new "hyperspectral" imager on the Earth Observing 1 satellite, and dozens of other "high risk" technologies.

This is just one idea of how a solar sail could be used to power an interstellar probe.  A solar sail is one possible type of new technology that NASA's New Millennium Program would test in space before it would be risked on a scientific mission.

Thanks to the NMP, lots of dinner napkin sketches have become real, and they're heading for space.  You can learn more at the NMP website,

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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