NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, carefully selects participants from a broad range of studies and grants them each $100,000 to fund a nine-month initial definition and analysis of their proposed concepts. Proposals that make it past the initial phase are then awarded upwards of $500,000 for two additional years of concept development. The program was established to encourage the development of futuristic technologies NASA can use in its exploration of Earth and space, so it might not be surprising that many of the projects selected seemed like they were straight out of science fiction. Here are 11 of those concepts that NASA wants to try and make a reality.
11. Pulsar-Based Navigation Systems
Michael Hecht of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is working on a project that can detect quasars, pulsars, and masers and use them as navigational beacons for deep space missions. Currently, the project is still in early development with the team working on building a catalogue of sources; but, if the project is a success, it would basically be the equivalent of an interplanetary GPS system.
10. New Supercooling Materials
Cryogenic Selective Surfaces is a project seeking to develop materials that can handle extreme passive cooling. If the team can create a surface with wavelength-dependent emissivity and absorption properties, they’re hoping they can then use it to make large-scale superconducting systems. Those superconducting systems could then be used for mechanisms like cryogenic storage, energy storage, and cosmic radiation shielding. So far, the prototype materials have been able to be cooled to -50 degrees celsius on Earth, however, theoretically, they could perform much better in a vacuum.
9. Space-Mined Rocket Fuel
A major limiting factor in space exploration is how to provide propellant for space missions without wasting even more propellent trying to get that propellent into space. John Lewis of Deep Space Industries is attempting to solve this problem by coming up with ways to mine elements from asteroids and then use them to manufacture propellant in space. The tricky part about this is that the rocket fuel currently employed for space travel requires nitrogen as part of an oxidizing agent, and, from what we know, asteroids typically don’t carry much nitrogen. Therefore, an alternative storable oxidizing agent will need to be developed as part of the project.
8. Rocket-Powered Hoppers
In order to explore Neptune’s moon Triton, Steven Oleson’s COMPASS Conceptual Design Team has proposed using a self-sustaining, rocket-powered hopper. The hopper will use an isotope heat source for radioisotope thermal propulsion and will be able to refuel itself by gathering ice from either the moon’s surface, subsurface, or atmosphere.
A research group headed by Phil Lubin of the University of California is looking into combining wafer-scale spacecraft with directed energy propulsion to produce tiny probes designed to supplement the long-range remote sensing currently being carried out by orbital telescopes. Initially, the probes will be planetary observers, but, theoretically, they could get a speed boost that would enable them to become the first interstellar probes sent from Earth.
6. Robot Swarms
The Cryogenic Reservoir Inventory by Cost Effective Kinetically Enhanced Technology, or CRICKET, is a project in development at Johns Hopkins University that seeks to explore the darkest parts of the moon using a swarm of tiny robots. The robots will perform a function based on one of three possible roles: the cricket swarm crawls around and explores the shadows on the moon’s surface, the carrier hive navigates, disperses the crickets on the surface, collects data, and provides power; and the queen delivers the robots and provides communication. The robots will be equipped with specialized sensors such as spectrographs that will enable them to detect water and other volatile elements.
5. Wind-Powered Drones
A project at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University aims to deliver a long-term atmospheric platform by linking a pair of glider drones with a cable as they fly around the Earth’s atmosphere. The gliders will be powered primarily by wind shear but will also get an added boost from solar films and possibly even a wind turbine. The idea is to have the aircraft flying at different altitudes that would put them in different wind regimes. The glider flying at a higher altitude acts like a sail — providing lift and aerodynamic thrust, while the lower flying glider provides upwind force. This design is expected to give the glider pair a considerable power boost when compared to traditional solar aircraft, allowing for long-term tracking of earth observations.
Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Adrian Stoica is guiding a project with the goal of designing autonomous robots that can investigate the atmospheres of our solar system’s gas giants — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. The robots will be engineered to harvest energy locally — hopefully allowing them to continually examine their assigned gas giant.
3. Submarine Squids
The Soft-Robotic Rover with Electrodynamic Power Scavenging is a soft, squid-like robot that might just be the first submarine to explore another planet. Mason Peck of Cornell University and his team plan to equip the robot with power systems that take full advantage of the local environment. The squids tentacles, for instance, will harvest power from changing magnetic fields, which will then in turn power electrolysis to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen gas. The gas can then be used to inflate the squid and change its shape so it can propel itself through water. A likely first destination for this aquatic rover would be Jupiter’s water-rich moon Europa, however there are other moons in our solar system that contain liquid lakes and oceans.
2. Sunlight Drills
One of the many hurdles involved with long-term human space travel is finding a usable source of water. Joel Sercel of ICS Associates and his team want to try and solve this problem by wrapping asteroids up in bags and then using concentrated sunlight to drill into them — a process called optical mining. The project also seeks to harness the technology of the Asteroid Redirect Mission to capture target asteroids and trap the water vapor as it’s released during optical mining.
1. New Telescope Lenses
Big telescopes cost big bucks, and a good chunk of that cost can be attributed to the manufacture of the huge, flawless lenses required to focus light. The Thin-Film Broadband Large Area Imaging System being developed at BEAM Engineering for Advanced Measurements has developed a process that uses special waveplate lens technology to make a new type of light-weight, economical thin film lens. The same process could be utilized to create lenses and mirrors for next generation telescopes that would, theoretically, give them a much larger aperture than anything available today. These new super telescopes would allow astronomers to see farther into space (and back in time) than ever before and could result in some groundbreaking new discoveries.