Brane Craft Proposal Wins 2017 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Phase II Award

Illustration: Joseph Hidalgo

The term “space debris” is one of several terms used to describe an assortment of man-made objects in space, such as spent rocket stages, defunct satellites as well as the fragments created from the disintegration and collisions of the debris itself. While the United States Strategic Command has tracked approximately 18,000 artificial objects in low-earth orbit as of July 2016, orbiting debris poses an existential threat to active spacecraft, prompting increasing interest in space debris removal.

NASA has awarded Aerospace a 2017 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Phase II award for a revolutionary proposal that addresses this very issue. Specifically, this proposal, which was preceded by a Phase I grant last year, investigates the possibility of developing a small, flexible spacecraft that envelops and removes space debris from Earth’s orbit.

Dr. Siegfried Janson’s concept, known as the Brane Craft, is a flat 3-foot x 3-foot spacecraft that is less than half the thickness of a human hair. Exceptionally light, maneuverable, and fuel-efficient, the Brane Craft can be deployed to collect orbiting space debris by wrapping itself around the item, then lowering it into the atmosphere for incineration. The concept can best be compared to an automated spot cleaner in space, whose mission is limited only by its fuel payload.

While NIAC Phase I awards support the initial definition and analysis of a concept, more time and resources are required for award recipients to refine their designs and explore various methods of implementing the new technology. Phase I grants are generally $100,000; researchers who go on to qualify for Phase II awards receive $500,000 for another two years of work.

“The 2017 NIAC Phase II studies are exciting, and it is wonderful to be able to welcome these innovators back into the program. Hopefully, they will all go on to do what NIAC does best — change the possible”, said Jason Derleth, NIAC program executive. “We look forward to seeing how each new study will expand how we explore the universe.”

Weighing under 3 ounces, Janson’s brain (or Brane) child currently includes an experimental ionic liquid thruster system developed by NASA, endowing the 30-micron-thick spacecraft with a very high thrust-to-weight ratio. It would also be able to travel long distances, allowing for missions in which multiple space debris fragments can be contained and disposed of at once. These features also lend themselves to applications far beyond the removal of space debris.

“Brane Craft prospectors could land on any near-Earth asteroid, Phobos, Deimos, a wide variety of main belt asteroids, or orbit Mars or Venus, and return,” Janson said. “Brane Craft could access just about any orbit within cis-lunar space [between Earth and the moon] several times, with propellant to spare.”

Janson said the Phase II effort will analyze and document the benefits, limitations, mission operations, and size-scaling of Brane Craft for removal of orbital debris, and will also attempt laboratory demonstrations of thin-film electronics for communications, command and control, power conditioning, sensing, and shape control.

“We will identify the most promising fabrication technologies, develop a technology roadmap, and provide recommendations for further development,” he said.

Janson’s Brane Craft concept is at once cutting edge and anticipatory. In keeping with Aerospace tradition, the Brane Craft presents a visionary concept that stands to dramatically transform space missions by way of ingenuity, economy and heretofore unexplored ideas.

—Eric Cheevers