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A Guide to NASA's Upcoming Grand Challenges

The U.S. space agency is looking for a few good ideas. Got any?

2 min read

11 October 2010—NASA is looking for a few good ideas. This fall, the Office of the Chief Technologist, Robert Braun, is opening its doors to the best and the brightest to help take its long-term space missions to the next level. Braun, who joined the organization in February as NASA administrator Charles Bolden’s principal adviser, is soliciting cutting-edge, disruptive technologies through a new series of competitive "grand challenges." Optimally, the technologies developed would enable a range of Earth observation missions, as well as robotic and human exploration voyages to the asteroids, Mars, and beyond.

The grand challenges address three areas: accessing space more routinely, managing space as a natural resource, and future quests. Achieving these goals mostly boils down to improvements in spacecraft propulsion, energy use, and safety; advances in astronaut health, communication technology, and artificial intelligence; a better understanding of near-Earth environments, such as meteors, solar wind, and cosmic rays; observations of climate change and predicting natural disasters; and searching for extraterrestrial life and Earth-like worlds.

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Economics Drives Ray-Gun Resurgence

Laser weapons, cheaper by the shot, should work well against drones and cruise missiles

4 min read
In an artist’s rendering, a truck is shown with five sets of wheels—two sets for the cab, the rest for the trailer—and a box on the top of the trailer, from which a red ray is projected on an angle, upward, ending in the silhouette of an airplane, which is being destroyed

Lockheed Martin's laser packs up to 300 kilowatts—enough to fry a drone or a plane.

Lockheed Martin

The technical challenge of missile defense has been compared with that of hitting a bullet with a bullet. Then there is the still tougher economic challenge of using an expensive interceptor to kill a cheaper target—like hitting a lead bullet with a golden one.

Maybe trouble and money could be saved by shooting down such targets with a laser. Once the system was designed, built, and paid for, the cost per shot would be low. Such considerations led planners at the Pentagon to seek a solution from Lockheed Martin, which has just delivered a 300-kilowatt laser to the U.S. Army. The new weapon combines the output of a large bundle of fiber lasers of varying frequencies to form a single beam of white light. This laser has been undergoing tests in the lab, and it should see its first field trials sometime in 2023. General Atomics, a military contractor in San Diego, is also developing a laser of this power for the Army based on what’s known as the distributed-gain design, which has a single aperture.

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