The projects funded by NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program sound more like a list of science fiction dreams than plausible research, yet that’s exactly what they are. These 15 projects just received $100,000 to explore how feasible they can be.

Before new technology like the Hall Thruster can rolled out for space exploration, researchers need funding to develop potentially-plausible ideas. Image credit: NASA/Michelle M. Murphy

These projects were funded in Phase I of NASA’s exploratory program that looks at the feasibility of seemingly-crazy ideas that might drive forward new concepts and technology for the next generation of space exploration research. If these basic feasibility studies are successful, the projects are eligible for Phase II and an additional $500,000 to fund an additional two years of development.


Several of the projects involve innovative uses for small, compact, low-cost satellites called CubeSats that can carry limited payloads, or rely on alternative energy sources to reduce dependence on nuclear power for space exploration.

1. Wind-Powered Drone Pairs For More Efficient Atmospheric Research Platforms


A linked pair of drones may be able to use aerodynamic tricks for prolonged stationkeeping in the stratosphere. Image credit: NASA

The Virtual Flight Demonstration of Stratospheric Dual-Aircraft Platform will link a pair of glider drones with a cable as they soar around the stratosphere, providing a long-term atmospheric platform. Led by William Engblom at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the project will deploy aircraft powered by wind shear that get an extra boost from solar films and possibly even a wind turbine. The aircraft will be paired at different altitudes (up to a kilometer apart) so they’re in significantly different wind regimes. The upper glider, SAIL, provides lift and aerodynamic thrust, while the lower aircraft, BOARD, provides upwind force. This should give a substantial power boost over traditional solar aircraft, allowing for multi-year stationkeeping and long-term platforms for earth observation or communication.

2. New Liquid Capture For More Efficient Air Scrubbing


Astronaut Steve Swanson performs maintenance on the Carbon Dioxide Removal Assembly in April 2014. Image credit: NASA

Keeping air clean is a major problem in contained environments like space stations and submarines. The Thirsty Walls - A new paradigm for air revitalization in life support project is being developed under the direction of John Graf at NASA Johnson Space Center to swap out forced-air systems with liquid capture instead. Forced air is annoying because it’s complicated, requires a lot of moving parts, restricts airflow, and in microgravity, also require heavy, inefficient removal beds. Early-generation liquid capture systems required gas permeable membranes, which were both slow and tended to get poisoned over time. This new technology uses capillary fluid mechanics to directly expose cabin air as passive “curtains” that don’t require high pressure or high flow velocity. It’s also a step up from submarine systems, replacing Monoethanolamine with ionic liquid as the CO2 capture for better power efficiency.

3. Pulsar-Based Navigation System For Deep Space Missions


The Crab Pulsar may one day be a key component in setting up interplanetary navigation systems. Image credit: NASA/HST/CXC/ASU/J. Hester et al.

The A Tall Ship and a Star to Steer Her By is being developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Michael Hecht. Along with joining the list of absurd astronomy acronyms with Differential Deployable Autonomous Radio Navigation, or DARN, the project wants to use radio observations of quasars, pulsars, and masers as navigational beacons for deep space missions. If it works, this could be the interplanetary version of GPS for navigation. For this early phase, the project is just putting together a catalogue of sources and design concept for how to run a technology demonstration mission.

4. Rocket Fuels That Can Be Mined In Space

The In-Space Manufacture of Storable Propellants wants to solve a basic problem: how to provide propellent for space missions without wasting yet more propellent while getting that propellent into space. Instead of shipping propellent from Earth into orbit, Principle Investigator is John Lewis of Deep Space Industries is trying to find ways to manufacture propellent in space. A major challenge with rocket fuel is to make it storable so it only explodes upon request: we use a hydrazine fuel with a N2O4 oxidizer. The problem with mining volatiles from Near-Earth Asteroids is a lack nitrogen, so the proposal will need to develop an alternate suitable storable oxidizing agent.


5. Tiny CubeSats To Poke At The Composition Of Asteroids And Comets

CuebSats may one day venture out beyond Earth to explore asteroids. Image credit: NASA

Joseph Wang is leading the charge on the CubeSat with Nanostructured Sensing Instrumentation for Planetary Exploration, a project mixing the excitement of cheap, tiny CubeSats with our growing expertise at landing on comets and asteroids. The key part of the project are cheap, lightweight, compact, disposable sensors being developed at the University of Southern California and the University of Utah that can detect 74 trace elements to the nearest part per billion (ppb). If the TiO2 nanotube sensing platform can be successfully integrated into CubeSats, they open up the possibility of being able to ground-truth our remote sensing of the composition of the small rocky and icy bodies of our solar system.


6. Mini-Seismic Surveys To Investigate The Interior Structure Of Asteroids

Will Ida one day be the target of a seismic survey? Image credit: NASA/JPL

The Seismic Exploration of Small Bodies project tickles my geophysical heart by bringing seismic surveys to tiny lumps of rock and ice in deep space. Under Jeffrey Plescia at Johns Hopkins University, the project will combine micro-seismometers developed at Arizona State University with CubeSats to create impactors to investigate the interiors of asteroids and comets. The concept is very simple: drop at least one micro-seismometer on the target’s surface, then smack it with a projectile as a seismic energy source to produce a known signal. The seismic data could be interpreted using the same inversion techniques as seismic surveys here on Earth, providing data on the seismic velocity (thus interior structure) of asteroids and comets.


7. Micro-Satellites For Interstellar Exploration

A wafer-probe travelling at near light speeds could reach Fomalhaut in just a few decades. Image credit: ESA/NASA/L. Calcada

The DEEP IN Directed Energy Propulsion for Interstellar Exploration wants to up our game with interstellar exploration by advancing the next generation of deep space probes. Phil Lubin’s research group at the University of California at Santa Barbara is looking at pairing directed energy propulsion with wafer-scale spacecraft to create tiny probes propelled by phased arrays of lasers. The miniature satellites will be designed to supplement the long-range remote sensing currently done by orbital telescopes. While initially interplanetary explorers, the wafer satellites could theoretically be boosted to relativistic speeds and be our first interstellar probes.


8. Rocket-Powered Hopper To Explore Neptune’s Moon Triton

Triton is the strange, retrograde moon of Neptune. Image credit: NASA

The Triton Hopper: Exploring Neptune’s Captured Kuiper Belt Object with Steven Oleson’s COMPASS Conceptual Design Team wants to explore why Neptune’s moon Triton is so very strange. The proposed exploration vehicle is a rocket-powered hopper. The hopper will use an isotope heat source for radioisotope thermal propulsion, refuelling from either subsurface or surface ice, or ice concentrated from the thin atmosphere via cryogenic pumping.


9. Submarine Squid To Explore The Oceans Of Europa

A squishy robotic squid may one day explore oceans on distant moons. Image credit: NASA/Cornell University/NSF

The development of the Soft-Robotic Rover with Electrodynamic Power Scavenging is being led by Mason Peck of Cornell University. The soft, squid-inspired robot would be the first submarine rover to explore another planet. The planned power systems are all about taking advantage of the local environment: the tentacles will harvest power from changing magnetic fields. In turn, the tentacles will power electrolysis to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen gas. The gas will be used to inflate the squid, changing its shape to propel it through fluids. Europa is the most famous watery moon that could be explored by this squid, but it could also work on other moons of Jupiter and Saturn that have liquid lakes or oceans.


10. Robot Swarm To Explore Lunar Shadows For Volatile Elements

The permanent shadows at the lunar poles may hide ice. Image credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

The CRICKET: Cryogenic Reservoir Inventory by Cost-Effective Kinetically Enhanced Technology being developed by Jeffrey Plesia at Johns Hopkins University is all about bouncing around the darkest slivers of the moon. A small herd of robots will explore perpetually shadowed regions on the lunar poles for water and other volatile elements. The swarms consist of three roles: a swarm of crickets to hop, crawl, and roll whike exploring the shadows; a carrier hive to collect data, navigate, provide power, and disperse the crickets on the surface; and an orbiting queen to deliver the robots and provide communication. The robots are all extensions of existing technology, although these particular variants will carry spectrographs, lamps, heating elements, and whiskers to characterize the volatiles.


11. Supercooling Materials To Provide Radiation Sheilding And Energy Storage

NASA Kennedy Space Center’s Robert Youngquist is the principle investigator for Cryogenic Selective Surfaces, a project to develop surfaces for extreme passive cooling. By creating materials with with wavelength-dependent emissivity and absorption properties, the research team is hoping they can create new cryogenic storage and large-scale superconducting systems that can be used in deep space for galactic cosmic radiation shielding or energy storage. The prototype materials have been tested on Earth to cool to -50°C below ambient temperatures, but could theoretically work much better in a vacuum.

12. Sunlight-Drills To Capture And Mine Asteroids For Water


Piggybacking on concept-technology from the Asteroid Retrieval Mission is a starting point for mining asteroids for water. Image credit: NASA

The APIS (Asteroid Provided In-Situ Supplies): 100MT Of Water from a Single Falcon 9 is the idea of Joel Sercel of ICS Associates Inc to fix the problem of how to find usable water in space in an affordable, accessible manner. The team hopes that they can wrap asteroids in bags, then use optical mining to concentrate sunlight to drill into them. The project is designed to be lightweight and compact enough that all the equipment can be loaded unto a single rocket launch (Falcon 9 or equivalent), harnessing the technology of the Asteroid Redirect Mission to capture a target and trap outgassing water released during optical mining.

13. WindBots To Explore The Cloudy Skies Of Gas Giants


Windblown robots may one day explore the turbulent storms of Jupiter. Image credit: NASA

The WindBots: persistent in-situ science explorers for gas giants is exactly what it says on the label: a project to create autonomous robots that can investigate the atmospheres of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, or Neptune. Under the guidance of Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Adrian Stoica, the project is hoping to design robots that can directly harvest energy locally, allowing them to persistently explore their assigned gas giant. That same technology could theoretically be applied to other planetary robotic explorers, reducing their reliance on expensive nuclear energy.

14. Deformable Mirrors Shaped By Magnetic Fields


Deformable mirrors are already in use at the Very Large Telescope, but they could be so much bigger and better. Image credit: ESO

Melville Ulmer at Northwestern University is partnering with researchers at the University of Illinois to investigate the feasibility of creating shapable telescope mirrors with magnetic fields. Aperture: A Precise Extremely large Reflective Telescope Using Re-configurable Elements is a concept that combines a flying magnetic write head with magnetic smart material coating the back of a mirror, creating a deformable reflecting membrane. Earlier iterations of the concept ran into problems with distorting the mirror outside of correctable error-bounds, and creating a mirror that can keep its shape for long periods of time.

15. New Type Of Lens To Reduce The Cost Of Large Telescopes


With waveplate lens technology, future telescopes could be both cheaper and even more enormous. Image credit: Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory

One of the most expensive things about building telescopes is developing beautiful, flawless lenses to focus light. Nelson Tabirian is leading the Thin-Film Broadband Large Area Imaging System project at BEAM Engineering for Advanced Measurements Co. to apply their waveplate lens technology to creating a new type of light-weight, economical thin film lens. The waveplate lenses and mirrors could theoretically be used to build telescopes with a far larger aperture than currently feasible under current technology and economic considerations, leading to a new generation of ultra-enormous telescopes. The technology uses techniques developed for laser communication to correct chromatic aberrations, permitting submicroradian angular radiation.