Twenty-five visionary technology concepts that have the potential to transform future space travel missions have been selected by NASA for initial feasibility studies. The proposals were chosen through a peer review process as part of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, which seeks to create innovative breakthroughs to advance and maintain America’s leadership in aerospace technology.
Sixteen of the projects are at the earliest stage of development. Each of these Phase I proposals will receive $125,000 to carry out nine-month studies to determine concept viability. Phase I awarded proposals include:
- Off-planet myco-architectures comprised of a self-replicating fungal material that grows itself given food and water and can be seeded on plastic shells to fabricate habitat structures at distant exploration sites. Containing branching, thread-like fibers, this fungal mycelium exhibits mechanical strength similar or superior to conventional building materials like lumber and concrete and could be engineered to form biocomposites or block radiation.
- Shapeshifting robots that can roll, fly, hover and swim to traverse a variety of terrains. The flying amphibious robot (FAR) is made up of numerous smaller cobots that reconfigure themselves to morph the main robot into various shapes capable of mobility, as well as carrying out tasks like hauling heavy objects or chaining together into communication lines to hard-to-reach areas.
- Laser-particle beam propulsion system that enables an interstellar mission for a 1-kg payload to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, in just 42 years at 10 percent of the speed of light. The technology couples a photon beam with a neutral particle beam to eliminate the diffraction that normally limits the effective acceleration range of typical laser propulsion schemes, improving probe acceleration distance by a factor of around 10,000.
An additional nine proposals were selected for further study in Phase II of the NIAC program. These awards grant up to $500,000 over two years to mature technologies explored in Phase I that exhibited preliminary viability. Phase II winners include:
- Direct imaging of an exoplanet using the gravitational field of the sun to focus light on a focal area reachable by a telescope-equipped probe. The mission would exploit the solar gravitational lens to provide a view of an exoplanet in which surface features are visible with a resolution of a few kilometers. The image would be assembled by maneuvering the probe outwards within the focal area, snapping shots of the Einstein ring around the sun created by the exoplanet’s light. The SGL is 548.7 AU (8.2 x 108 km) away from Earth (over ten times the distance from the sun to Pluto), demanding an imaginative propulsion technique to reach in a reasonable time frame.
- Magnetospheric spacecraft protection that shields ships and habitats in space from hazardous irradiation caused by galactic cosmic radiation. A configuration known as a Magnetospheric Dipolar Torus (MDT) produces a magnetic field that deflects harmful radiation, protecting human occupants inside the spacecraft.
- Soft robotic spacecraft designed to land on asteroids, dig into the regolith and launch resources to an orbiting processing spacecraft. These Area-of-Effect Soft-bots (AoES) have flexible bodies that can conform and adhere to asteroid surfaces, crawl along the surface and harness solar radiation pressure to enable orbital and hopping control without consuming fuel.
- Mach effect propulsion system that generates thrust for spacecraft without expelling propellant. The Mach Effect Gravity Assist (MEGA) drive exploit Mach effects, which are fleeting fluctuations in the masses of objects that undergo both proper acceleration and changes in internal energy. Removing the requirement to carry propellant onboard spacecraft would revolutionize space exploration capabilities compared to traditional chemical and electric propulsion methods.
All of the projects are at the start of the development cycle and will require at least ten years of work before they are ready for use on a real NASA mission.