Lightweight nuclear-electric spacecraft among NASA’s futuristic ventures

10 Apr 2020

Image: © alexyz3d/

This week in future tech, NASA has funded a number of futuristic projects, including a lightweight nuclear-electric spacecraft.

The future of space travel and exploration could be pretty exciting if NASA’s list of recently funded projects is anything to go by. The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) is an incubator for “visionary ideas” that could potentially be game changers for aerospace.

This week, NIAC announced the 23 projects it’s funding for further research across three phases. Among them is a nuclear-electric propulsion (NEP) probe that could be used for deep space exploration.

Developed by Howe Industries, the Swarm-Probe Enabling ATEG Reactor, or SPEAR, is described by its co-founder, Troy Howe, as using a lightweight reactor moderator and advanced thermoelectric generators to greatly reduce the overall core mass of a spacecraft.

“If the total mass of an NEP system could be reduced to levels that were able to be launched on smaller vehicles, these devices could deliver scientific payloads to anywhere in the solar system,” Howe wrote.

“One major destination of recent importance is Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, which may contain traces of extraterrestrial life deep beneath the surface of its icy crust.”

Other notable projects being explored include a radio telescope for the so-called ‘dark side’ of the moon and a unique aircraft that could explore the surface of Venus.

Metal surfaces become bacteria killers with laser treatment

Purdue University engineers have created a laser treatment method that could potentially turn any metal surface into a rapid bacteria killer by giving it a different texture. In a study published to Advanced Materials Interfaces, researchers showed that nanoscale patterns produce a rugged texture that increases surface area, which allows more opportunity for bacteria to hit the surface and rupture on the spot.

However, the technique is not yet tailored for killing viruses, such as the one responsible for Covid-19, which are much smaller than bacteria.

Since publication, the researchers have tested the technology on the surfaces of other metals and polymers that are used to reduce bacterial growth and biofilm formation on medical devices.

“Copper has been used as an antimicrobial material for centuries. But it typically takes hours for native copper surfaces to kill off bacteria,” said Rahim Rahimi, one of the researchers.

“We developed a one-step laser-texturing technique that effectively enhances the bacteria-killing properties of copper’s surface.”

Fewer drivers might switch to EVs due to coronavirus pandemic

Research firm GlobalData has warned that electric vehicle (EV) sales could be hit in the long term due to the coronavirus pandemic. Lower oil prices as a result of the crisis could discourage new buyers from opting for an EV and impair EU efforts to lower CO2 emissions.

“Much lower pump prices for gasoline and diesel have been ushered in by the Covid-19 crisis and a big hit to global oil demand. If pump prices are low in the long term, this will throw into question the economic case for users switching to EVs,” said Mike Vousden, automotive analyst at GlobalData.

“In the long run, this could see fewer motorists switching to EVs, putting the governments’ ambitious targets for electrification at risk and potentially bringing increased fines for the vehicle manufacturers not complying with EU fleet average CO2 targets.”

Mobility-as-a-service revenue to exceed $52bn by 2027

Juniper Research has found that mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) platforms that integrate different transport services into a single app could be highly profitable in the years to come. The firm estimated that revenues could exceed $52bn by 2027, up from $405m in 2020.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, MaaS platforms are likely to bounce back next year, Juniper said. While noting that ride-sharing giants such as Uber and Lyft are adding transit information to apps, it added that the fact they are not neutral in the market will see them fail to attract city transit groups.

“MaaS will require wholesale shifts to public transit in order to realise its full benefits, so it must involve public transit operators at every stage,” said Nick Maynard, analyst at Juniper Research.

“The platform licensing model is essential to building the required public/private partnerships to achieve success”.

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Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic