By Zach Wener-Fligner, Quartz
Each year, the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program awards funding to a set of research projects on the bleeding edge of technology. 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 most recent 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—essentially, two gliders connected by an ultra-strong cable.
2. “THIRSTY WALLS” FOR RECYCLING AIR ON SPACECRAFT
If you take humans to space, you need something to pump out carbon dioxide and pump in oxygen. John Graf at NASA’s 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. 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 it’s 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
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, 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.
6. EXPLORING NEPTUNE’S MOON IN A ROCKET-POWERED “HOPPER”
Steven Oleson and a NASA team 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.
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 a subsurface ocean of saltwater. The robo-squid will be powered by the moon’s magnetic field.
8. STUDYING ASTEROIDS & 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 equipped with tiny seismometers.
9. A “HIVE” OF ROVERS FOR CRAWLING 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. Joel Sercel of ICS Associates proposes a solution: “optical mining,” essentially maneuvering a spacecraft near an asteroid, drilling holes in it with concentrated sunlight, and then storing the extracted water in an ice ball orbiting the Earth.
11. WIND-POWERED ROBOTS FOR EXPLORING JUPITER & 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.
12. LOW-COST TELESCOPES FOR EXOPLANET DETECTION
Nelson Tabirian and his team at BEAM Engineering propose to build 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.
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. Their telescope will use mirrors coated with magnetic material, along with a moving magnetic head that can coax the mirrors into new positions, correcting for distortions.
14. CHEAP NANOTUBE SENSORS FOR STUDYING ASTEROIDS & COMETS
Joseph Wang at the University of California, San Diego is leading a research team that is 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.
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 NASA’s Kennedy Space Center that is studying how such surfaces would work in space, where theoretically they would be much colder.
$88.0B Contract Spend 0.2%
$149.2B Budget Authority 1.1%
104.3K Contract Spend 3.1%
52.8K Vendors 9.6%
$71.4B Contract Spend 6.7%
$119.5 Budget Authority 2.1%
86.7K Contracts 4.5%
53.3K Vendors 8.8%
$56.4B Contract Spend 4.1%
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41.4K Contracts 4.8%
22.6K Vendors 6.3%
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