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The 15 moonshot technologies NASA is funding to make science fiction a reality

The case of the missing rings.
By Zach Wener-Fligner
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Each year, the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program awards funding to a set of research projects on the bleeding edge of technology. These aren’t your everyday “disruptive” apps and social networks; we’re talking interstellar exploration, nanotube comet sensors, and robot squids.

Each of these Phase I award-winners is given around $100,000 in funding to do proof-of-concept studies; if those are successful, they can apply for Phase II awards, which are worth up to $500,000. Here are the 15 Phase I selections, which read straight out of a science-fiction novel.

1. Kitesurf-like satellite powered by the wind

William Engblom and his team at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University propose a satellite they call a Dual-Aircraft Platform (DAP)—essentially, two gliders connected by an ultra-strong cable. The DAP is likened to a kitesurf setup, with one aircraft acting as the sail, and the other as the board. The DAPs could stay stationary in the stratosphere for years, harvesting power from the sun and the wind.

2. “Thirsty Walls” for recycling air on spacecraft

If you take humans to space, your spacecraft needs to have an air revitalization system: essentially, something that pumps out carbon dioxide and pumps in oxygen. The problem is, these systems tend to be either complicated and inefficient, or just plain non-functional. John Graf at the NASA Johnson Space Center is leading a project known as “Thirsty Walls” to 3D-print an air revitalization system into the side of a spaceship.

3. Spacecraft autopilot guided by radio signals from stars

Astronomical objects like quasars, masers, and pulsars all emit powerful radio waves. These radio signals act as beacons, providing a sort of map of space. Michael Hecht is leading research at MIT to design an autopilot system for deep space missions that uses these radio waves as a guide.

4. Manufacturing rocket fuel in space

To make a spacecraft move, you need to shoot propellant out the back. But propellant is heavy, and expensive to launch into space. Deep Space Industries, a company created to develop asteroid mining, is working on research on how to mine chemicals from asteroids to be used as fuel.

5. Tiny, high-energy spacecraft for interstellar exploration

Even if you mine an asteroid for fuel, getting a spacecraft to go as far as other stars in any reasonable length of time would require unfeasibly vast amounts of propellant. Philip Lubin at the University of California at Santa Barbara is working on tiny space probes powered by highly concentrated energy beams fired from Earth, to make the first steps towards such travel. (Such energy beams would also serve to vaporize asteroids that threaten to collide with Earth.)

6. Exploring Neptune’s moon in a rocket-powered ”hopper”

Steven Oleson and COMPASS—a team at NASA that works on systems design for space missions (pdf)—are working on a “hopper”, a rocket powered vehicle for exploring Neptune’s moon Triton. Because Triton has only 8% of Earth’s gravity, the hopper can travel halfway around the moon in one bounce; it will also be an experiment in refueling using locally available materials (mainly ice).

7. Magnet-powered robo-squid for exploring Jupiter’s moon

Mason Peck at Cornell University is leading a team building a squid-like rover for amphibious exploration of moons like Jupiter’s Europa, which is thought to have an subsurface ocean of saltwater. The robo-squid will be powered by the moon’s magnetic field—which switches every few hours, allowing energy to be harnessed—allowing it to explore land and water without the need for nuclear or solar power—the latter being hard to come by at Jupiter’s distance from the Sun.

8. Studying asteroids and comets by pelting them with tiny satellites

Jeffrey Plescia and his research group at Johns Hopkins University have come up with a clever way to study the interior structure of asteroids and comets: bombard them with miniature satellites (known as “cubesats”) equipped with tiny seismometers. Based on the seismometer readings, scientists would be able to determine what’s likely going on beneath the surfaces of these bodies.

9. A “hive” of rovers for crawling the most frigid parts of the moon

Earth’s moon is chilly—as cold as -240°C (400°F), in some parts. Jeffrey Plescia and his research group at Johns Hopkins University propose several designs for a fleet of inexpensive robots that could scuttle along the surface of the coldest parts of the moon, take samples, heat them up, and report back data.

10. Harvesting water from asteroids

Water is heavy, which makes it difficult to take to space. This is more or less a deal-breaker for long space-exploration missions, because we humans need the stuff. Joel Sercel of ICS Associates proposes a method for mining up to 100 tons (91 tonnes) of water from an asteroid near Earth. It uses a technique known as “optical mining”: essentially, maneuvering a spacecraft near the asteroid, drilling holes in it with concentrated sunlight, and then storing the extracted water in an ice ball orbiting the Earth, where it can be easily retrieved.

11. Wind-powered robots for exploring Jupiter and Saturn

Adrian Stoica at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory is leading research that aims to study the atmospheres of gas giants such as Jupiter and Saturn using robots powered by wind and the planets’ magnetic fields. Since solar power is difficult to come by that far from the Sun, wind power could be an effective way to avoid launching spacecraft loaded with nuclear reactors (rather risky if the launch goes wrong).

12. Low-cost telescopes for exoplanet detection

The curved mirrors at the heart of big telescopes become prohibitively complicated and expensive as they get bigger. Nelson Tabirian and his team at BEAM Engineering propose to change that by building telescopes that use a diffractive waveplate lens—an ultra-thin film that makes use of the polarization of light to achieve the same effect as a lens or mirror with cheaper, lighter materials. These telescopes are planned to be powerful enough to detect planets around other stars, a task which is now mostly done with the Kepler Space Telescope.

13. A massive telescope with adjustable mirrors

Another approach to large telescopes comes from a team of researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Illinois. Usually, once large telescopes are built, the mirrors are pretty much fixed. This telescope will use mirrors coated with magnetic material, along with a moving magnetic head (like the head of a magnetic computer hard drive) that can coax the mirrors into new positions, correcting for distortions.

14. Cheap nanotube sensors for studying asteroids and comets

Joseph Wang at the University of California is leading a research team that’s working on building tiny satellites with nanotube sensors that can study the surfaces of asteroids and comets. These nanotube sensors are cheap, light, low-power, and disposable, which makes them a perfect fit for space applications.

15. Materials that stay very, very cold, even in the sun

By using special materials that are very good at reflecting light, it’s possible to make surfaces on Earth that stay 50°C colder than their surroundings. Robert Youngquist is heading a team at the NASA Kennedy Space Center that’s studying how such surfaces would work in space, where theoretically they would be much colder. Such low  temperatures would make possible superconducting systems, which could be useful for storing large amounts of energy in space.

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