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 Who's Who of cutting-edge space exploration: Spirit and Opportunity (the phenomenally successful rovers exploring Mars), the Spitzer Space Telescope, the New Horizons mission to Pluto, the Dawn asteroid-exploration mission, the comet-smashing probe Deep Impact, and others. Some missions were merely enhanced by NMP technologies; others would have been impossible without them.
“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,” says New Millennium Program manager Christopher Stevens of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
For example, ion propulsion technology flight-tested on the NMP mission Deep Space 1, launched in October 1998, is now flying aboard the Dawn mission. Dawn will be the first probe to orbit an asteroid (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 conventional chemical propulsion; launching the enormous amount of fuel required would have broken the project's budget. “Ion propulsion was the only practical way,” says Stevens.
In total, 10 technologies tested by Deep Space 1 have been adopted by more than 20 robotic probes. One, the Small Deep Space Transponder, has become the standard system for Earth communications for all deep-space missions.
And Deep Space 1 is just one of NMP's missions. About a half-dozen others have flown or will fly, and their advanced technologies are only beginning to be adopted. That's because it takes years to design probes that use these technologies, but Stevens says experience shows that “if you validate experimental technologies in space, and reduce the risk of using them, missions will pick them up.”
Stevens knew many of these technologies when they were just a glimmer in an engineer's eye. Now they're “all grown up” and flying around the solar system. It's enough to make a program manager proud!
The results of all NMP's technology validations are online and the list is impressive: 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.