Beyond developing current missions, NASA's job is to invest in technologies that might seem like sci-fi—but could hold the keys to the next generation of space missions. After all, a century ago, the idea of a lunar landing probably seemed almost like pure sensational fiction. And this week, NASA picked the five seemingly distant concepts it wants to study further.
NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts Program, or NIAC, is the organization in charge of parsing and selecting which concepts, from researchers and universities and even independent companies, should receive backing from NASA. It's awarded more than $23 million to hundreds of ideas over the years, and now, it's released the names of its next five Big Ideas. Let's take a look.
A Mothership That Deploys Hedgehog Rovers
This Stanford-developed concept is designed to help NASA explore small solar system bodies. Here's how it would work: A mothership that stays in space would deploy a smaller robotic craft onto a small planet, moon, or even asteroid.
Each rover pod, which the team nicknamed "hedgehogs" thanks to their stabilizing spikes, contains three flywheels that help them complete three different kinds of movement to explore these unknown bodies. First, they'll be able to hop over long distances, thanks to an altitude control system—here's a GIF of the team's prototype:
They can tumble too. And finally, they'll be able to fly like regular spacecraft. The hedgehogs would help the mothership learn and map smaller, unstable bodies without actually landing on them.
NASA's storied Jet Propulsion Laboratory came up with this extraordinary idea: To build a massive optical system in space using huge clouds of dust particles. The cloud, which would be shaped by pressure, would form the aperture in the imaging system—magnifying the target so that NASA could see distant objects in space at a high resolution.
Why not just use a regular optical system launched from space? Well, because those are heavy and fragile. This strategy would be far easier to build and maneuver in space.
A Telescope Carried By a Sub-Orbital Balloon
NASA already uses balloons to see into space, like the BLAST balloon-borne telescope project seen above, which revealed "half of the Universe's starlight." But a researcher at the Steward Observatory in Tucson imagines taking this concept further, launching a balloon more than 30 feet wide into sub-orbit. The huge balloon would act as a reflector for the telescope inside, making it easier to image objects in space.
Looking Inside Asteroids Using Subatomic Particles
Thomas H. Prettyman, a scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, wants to use subatomic particles like muons, generated when cosmic ray collide with objects, to actually peer inside these objects. The idea is to be able to look closely at asteroids and comets that are near Earth—and it's easy to imagine why.
You could use this technology to, say, learn more about what minerals are inside an asteroid for potential mining purposes. Or, it could give scientists a clear picture of the size and makeup of an object that might be on a collision course for Earth, helping to generate a strategy to knock it off course. Those two scenarios are still fictional, but this technique would also be helpful in the present, since it would give us so much information about interplanetary objects that we can't currently access.
Image: Asteroid Ida via NASA.
A Better Alternative To Telescopes For Long Space Missions
It's easy to see why there are so many imaging ideas on this list: As humankind ventures further into space, having better optical systems to observe space around us will be absolutely essential. This concept, by S.J. Ben Yoo at the University of California, Davis, is designed to replace traditional, bulky telescopes on space missions.
The design for this Low-Mass Planar Photonic Imaging Sensor involves packing "millions of direct detection white-light interferometers densely packed onto photonic integrated circuits," rather than using bulky traditional systems. According to the research team, their design "enables exciting new NASA missions since it provides a large-aperture, wide-field EO imager at a fraction of the cost, mass and volume of conventional space telescopes."