spaceSpace and Physics

Shapeshifting Titan Robots And Interstellar Spacecraft Are Some Of NASA's Latest Futuristic Mission Ideas


Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer


These shapeshifting robots could be used to explore Titan. Ali Agha, Jose Mendez, JPL

Every year, NASA awards funding to a selection of futuristic ideas, with the hope that some of might lead to fully-fledged missions in the future.

Known as the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC), previous ideas have included a steampunk Venus rover and a hopping Pluto lander. Now, NASA's released the latest batch of ideas. And they don't disappoint.


In this year’s 2018 selections, there are 25 proposals that have been selected. About half are given “Phase I” funding, which consists of about $125,000 over nine months. The other half are given Phase II funding, about $500,000 over two years. This year’s entries were whittled down from 230 proposals.

"The NIAC program gives NASA the opportunity to explore visionary ideas that could transform future NASA missions," said Jim Reuter, acting associate administrator of NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, in a statement.

So what are some of the highlights this time around? Well, one Phase I project you might have read about the other day is the Marsbee. These flapping robots, the size of a bumblebee, are designed to fly in swarms over the Red Planet, collecting data from a variety of locales.

Then there’s a neat idea for an interstellar mission called PROCSIMA. Building on ideas of beamed propulsion to accelerate to a significant fraction of the speed of light, it describes how you could use a photon beam to reach our nearest star – Proxima Centauri – in 42 years.

How the PROCSIMA mission would work. C. Limbach

That image at the top of this article shows the awesome idea to send shapeshifting robots into the seas of Titan. Known as a flying amphibious robot (FAR), it consists of two small robot units that can combine to shapeshift into different moves. For example, it can act like a ball on the surface, a hovercraft-like vehicle, or a submarine to explore Titan’s lakes and seas.

A steam-powered robot called SPARROW, meanwhile, could be used to study the surface of ocean worlds like Saturn’s moon Enceladus and Jupiter’s moon Europa. These would hop across the surface, using ice as a propellant, and acquire samples to analyze.

If astronomy’s your thing, then you might be interested in the Kilometer Space Telescope (KST). This huge telescope, tens of times more powerful than both Hubble and the upcoming James Web Space Telescope (JWST), would give us an incredible view of the universe, launching in a compact form and unfolding in space.

Probably my favorite idea, though, is a proposal to directly image exoplanets by using our Sun as a lens. To do this, a spacecraft would need to fly to the focal point of the solar gravitational lens (SGL), which is 548.7 astronomical units (AU, 1 AU is the Earth-Sun distance) from the Sun.


Doing this would enable multipixel imaging of an Earth-like exoplanet up to 100 light-years away, giving us a detailed view of its surface. With just a modest spacecraft at the SGL location, we’d be able to work out if it was habitable and detect signs of life.

Using the Sun as a lens, we could study exoplanets like never before. S. Turyshev

“The resulting mission concept could allow exploration of exoplanets relying on the SGL capabilities decades, if not centuries, earlier than possible with other extant technologies,” said Slava Turyshev from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the concept’s lead, in the mission proposal.

How would you get a spacecraft to the SGL position though? Well, there’s another NIAC proposal that has a solution. Using laser beam propulsion, this study says it would be possible to place a spacecraft at the SGL in less than 15 years, which is pretty impressive.

Many of these ideas will never see the light of day, but it’s possible some of these concepts might one day be turned into actual missions. It kind of makes you wonder what NASA could do with infinite money, but for now we can just dream about some of the future missions that might be.

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