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New Technologies That NASA Is Funding to Turn Science Fiction into Science Reality

Hubble-SpaceEach year, the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program awards funding to a set of research projects on the cutting edge of technology, including interstellar exploration, nanotube comet sensors, and even robotic squids.

Quartz takes a look at the 15 $100,000 winning projects that read like something out of a science fiction novel.

  • “Kitesurfing” satellite powered by the wind: William Engblom and his team at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University proposed a satellite they call a Dual-Aircraft Platform (DAP)—essentially, two gliders connected by an ultra-strong cable, sort of like a kite surfing sail. The DAPs could stay stationary in the stratosphere for years, harvesting power from the sun and the wind.
  • “Thirsty Walls” for recycling air on spacecraft: If you take humans to space, your spacecraft needs to have an air revitalization system: something that pumps out carbon dioxide and pumps in oxygen, which can be risky. 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.
  • Spacecraft autopilot guided by the stars: Astronomical objects like quasars 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 that uses these radio waves as a guide for deep space missions.
  • Manufacturing rocket fuel in space: Anyone involved in space travel will tell you that rocket propellant is 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.
  • Tiny, high-energy spacecraft for interstellar exploration: Even if you mine an asteroid for fuel, getting a spacecraft to go to infinity and beyond would require vast amounts of propellant. Philip Lubin at the University of California at Santa Barbara is working on tiny space probes powered by energy beams fired from Earth, to make the first steps towards such travel.
  • Exploring Neptune’s moon in a rocket-powered “hopper”: Steven Oleson and a NASA team called COMPASS are working on a “hopper”, a rocket powered vehicle for exploring Neptune, which can travel halfway around the moon Triton in one bounce!
  • Magnet-powered “robo-squid” for exploring Jupiter’s moon: Mason Peck and his team at Cornell University are building a squid-like rover for amphibious exploration of moons like Jupiter’s Europa, which is thought to have saltwater oceans beneath the surface. The robo-squid will be powered by the moon’s magnetic field, allowing it to explore land and water without the need for nuclear or solar power.
  • A “hive” of rovers for crawling the most frigid parts of the moon: 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.
  • Harvesting water from asteroids: Water is pretty heavy and difficult to take into space (which is problematic since we need the stuff!). So, Joel Sercel of ICS Associates proposes a method for mining up to 100 tons of water from an asteroid near Earth. It uses a technique known as “optical mining”: the use of sunlight to drill holes in the asteroid and mine the water underneath.
  • 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—perfect for space applications
  • Materials that stay very, very cold (even in the sun!): Using special light-reflective materials, it’s possible to make surfaces on Earth 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 can be much colder. Such low temperatures would make superconducting systems possible, which could be useful for storing large amounts of energy in space.

There are more projects proposed on the Quartz website and we hope you check them out. $100,000 can go a long way, but it’s only Phase I funding. If these projects show promise, they can apply for Phase II funding—$500,000 to take humanity even further into space!


photo credit: Hubble’s Little Sombrero via photopin (license)

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