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NASA Releases Patents for Moon Dust Fuel, Bio-Gaming, and Laser Engines

We welcome any opportunity to use the phrases “acid-doped” or “vortex control.”

by Becky Ferreira
May 11 2016, 8:34pm

A 6kW Hall thruster from JPL. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

If you're looking for some inspiration for your newfangled spaceship concept—and aren't we all?—NASA has good news for you. The agency recently released 56 of its patents into the public domain as a part of its Technology Transfer Program, which aims to democratize technologies developed at NASA to spur innovation in other sectors.

In addition to freeing this latest batch of patents into the open market wilds, the program has also revamped its website to include a searchable database of all of its available public patents. The idea is not only to generate fresh ideas for space-related inventions, but also to integrate the vast corpus of research conducted at NASA centers into a wide variety of other fields.

"By making these technologies available in the public domain, we are helping foster a new era of entrepreneurship that will again place America at the forefront of high-tech manufacturing and economic competitiveness," said Daniel Lockney, NASA's Technology Transfer program executive in a statement. "By releasing this collection into the public domain, we are encouraging entrepreneurs to explore new ways to commercialize NASA technologies."

With that in mind, here's a roundup of our three favorite concepts from the newest patent haul, but it's worth sifting through them all, if only to bask in the pure poetry of specialized aerospace jargon. With phrases like "acid-doped," "turbomachinery," "vortex control," "upstream flowfields," or "skin modified aerogel monoliths," the list of new patents offers as much brain fodder for language lovers as spaceflight enthusiasts.

Patent # 8,062,129: A Physiological User Interface For A Multi-User Virtual Environment

A schematic from the patent showing how data would be collected with this program.

This one is for the seemingly limitless population of hot-tempered gamers out there in the world. The idea is to integrate a player's biofeedback—metrics like skin temperature, heart rate, and brain activity—into a multi-user platform in which those vitals would be visible to other players.

The goal is to incentivize players to remain calm and consistent by using "the multi-user virtual environment to influence a score of each user's performance such that each user demonstrating relatively superior physiological self-regulatory skill is rewarded and each user demonstrating relatively inferior physiological self-regulatory skill is penalized," according to the patent description.

In other words, if you are freaking out in real life, your avatar will suffer for it, whereas if you can hold it together, you'll have more success in the game. While this may not sound fun to gamers who enjoy getting worked up over competitive games, the patent creates a benchmark for virtual environments in which real world biosensory data can influence the virtual world of the avatar.

The patent writeup doesn't mention the origins of this technology, but perhaps it was initially developed to test out the emotional duress of astronaut candidates, though that is pure speculation.

Patent # 9,021,782: Aerospace Laser Ignition/Ablation Variable High Precision Thruster

Is this a NASA boombox? No, it's a potential packaging setup for parallel thrusters.

Currently, most rocket engines run on solid propellants, like zinc-sulfides, or liquid fuel, like LOX (liquid oxygen) and refined kerosene. Each propellant has its own advantages and disadvantages, but this patent aims to optimize the performance of both with—what else?—lasers. The basic concept is to arrange a mixture of propellant types into node-like targets on a specialized tape. The tape runs through an ignition chamber, where the targets are sparked by a laser pulse, which in turn, generates thrust.

In theory, this technique combines "the controllability of liquid propulsion" with "the high performance of solid propulsion," according to the full patent writeup. It's also highly scalable to different rocket designs, and would allow engines to be ignited, stopped, and refired with precision timing.

In short, any system that involves shooting up high-octane targets with lasers to blast rockets into space deserves a shoutout.

Patent # 7,773,362: Accelerator System and Method of Accelerating Particles

Figure of dusty plasma thruster. Image: NASA/US Gov

Last but not least, here's a proposed method for scooping up Moon dust and turning it into propellant to power future lunar surface operations. It's like the tale of Rumpelstiltskin, but instead of spinning straw into gold, this "dusty plasma thruster" would spin regular old Moon dirt into a handy onsite source of fuel.

Indeed, lunar regolith—the Moon's loose surface rock—is packed with useful compounds like silicon dioxide and aluminum oxide that can be harvested as a propulsion resource. What's more, some Moon dust is so conductive "that it can electrostatically hover above the lunar surface," according to the patent description. Because the cost of sending materials to other planetary bodies is so costly, any method of extracting materials in situ is highly preferred. So perhaps, future missions to the Moon's surface will include dusty plasma thrusters that can live off the lunar land.