Our top 6 future technologies that NASA is funding

Let's turn asteroids into robots!

NASA have landed on the moon, visited the outer planets, and even found planets in other star systems. These are big achievements but they have often started as pipe dreams before becoming reality. The scientists and engineers at NASA are obviously smart and ambitious so it’s no surprise that they have big ideas for future technologies and missions. Some of today’s pipe dreams will become tomorrow’s reality, so it’s worth looking at what NASA is considering for the future.

The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program puts time and resources into investigating the feasibility of these ideas to see if they are worth pushing further. Projects that are selected for NIAC Phase I are investigated for 9 months with $100,000 funding. Let’s take a look at our favourites from this year’s selection for Phase I to see a glimpse of NASA’s future.

Stellar Echo Imaging of Exoplanets

Image © NASA

This is really exciting. The Kepler spacecraft has discovered over 1000 confirmed exoplanets, which are planets orbiting other star systems. A handful have even been directly imaged, but we’re talking about a dot in a field of dots. Kepler isn’t designed to give us a good look at exoplanets, instead it’s original mission was to detect the changing brightness of stars caused by planets orbiting them. Imaging exoplanets is the next big step in exploring stellar systems.

Light can echo in much the same way as sound does. This NIAC Phase I project looks to develop new technologies to use light echos from distant stars to learn more about the planets orbiting them. This approach could be much cheaper that current methods for detecting exoplanets but what makes it really interesting is the potential resolution. In theory it could be used to see exoplanets in so much detail that we can make out areas the size of Earth’s continents. Yes please!

Journey to the Centre of Icy Moons

Image © NASA

In the sci-fi classic Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Professor Otto Lidenbrock travels into a volcano to conduct scientific research deep within our planet. The Icy-moon Cryovolcano Explorer (ICE) is an ambitious project that hopes to do the same thing on icy moons. Potential targets such as Europa are thought to have vast oceans under their icy surface. Past mission ideas have involved building a probe that can land, burrow through the ice, and swim around for science. ICE could be much easier as it wouldn’t need to burrow through anything.

The mission involves a spacecraft landing on the surface of the icy moon. Tethered to it is a rover that could descend into an ice volcano and down into the ocean below. Once there it will open and deploy a submarine probe that could explore the depths of the alien sea. The real technical challenge will be making sure the mission doesn’t contaminate the extraterrestrial waters with life from Earth.

Fusion-powered orbiter and lander for Pluto

Image © NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Space exploration is slow. It takes a long time to get anywhere. We’re really excited by any research that looks to shorten the time to get from A to B in space and several new NIAC Phase I projects are testing new technologies for space travel. Princeton Satellite Systems wants to build a Direct Fusion Drive (DFD) to power a mission to Pluto that would include a lander to explore the surface.

The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is currently developing a fusion reactor and wants to use the same technology to build an orbiter that could bring 1000 kg of equipment to Pluto in just 4 to 6 years. It would have so much power that it could also power the lander and high-bandwidth communication once it arrived at Pluto. Nuclear fusion is the same process that powers the Sun and it’s likely we’ll be tapping into that power before long.

E-Glider

Image © NASA

Remember when Rosetta flew to a comet and dropped little Philae down to the surface? Philae bounced around, got stuck, but was ultimately successful. Future missions could give a lot more control to landers and allow them to land in the best place without bouncing around.

Dust surrounding these airless worlds are electrically charged due to the Sun. The E-Glider would be a lander that could open large wings and glide due to uplift from the electrically charged dust. When the lander is at the perfect place to land, it would then pull in its wings and land safely. It would be a lot more resource-efficient to do things this way.

Project RAMA

Image © NASA

Project RAMA (Reconstituting Asteroids into Mechanical Automata) is exactly the type of out-of-the-box thinking that makes the NIAC program so interesting. The project wants to design probes that could land on asteroids and turn them into autonomous robots. The probe would land, use the asteroid’s own resources to build the necessary parts, and turn the asteroid into a powered spacecraft.

Transforming asteroids into spacecraft could transform space exploration in so many ways. We could bring asteroids closer to Earth to make them easier to mine. We could even move asteroids out of dangerous orbits that threaten to hit the Earth. Imagine what we could do with fleets of robot asteroids.

Brane Craft

Spacecraft are difficult to move around. You have to get them out of orbit, through space, land on things, take off, re-enter orbits… it all uses up loads of energy. The Brane Craft is a spacecraft that would take the shape of an extremely thin membrane and there are loads of advantages. For one, it would be extremely efficient. Using only tiny microspray thrusters, the membrane could leave Earth’s low orbit, land on asteroids or the moon of Mars, take off again, and return to Earth’s low orbit.

The coolest thing about a thin membrane as a spacecraft? It could change shape for different applications. The goal of developing the Brane Craft is to start clearing some of the debris in Earth’s orbit that’s becoming a real problem. It would find small debris, wrap itself around, and engage thrusters to bring it down to Earth’s atmosphere to burn up. The alternative is to do extremely expensive launches carrying tiny CubeSats that can’t remove much debris. Brane Craft could be the answer.

There are loads more fascinating projects that were awarded NIAC Phase I funding including missions to Venus and using resources on icy moons as propellant. You can see the winners here.


Main image © NASA Goddard Space Flight Center