Self-healing space suits, spider-inspired micro-probes, and a Venus lander that comes with its own floating charger may sound like classic sci-fi, but they are just some of the latest projects NASA has announced it will be funding for future space exploration.
NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program is entirely dedicated to the most innovative, revolutionary, and yes, maybe "out there", but – and here’s the crux – credible ideas that could radically change the way we study space.
"NIAC is about going to the edge of science fiction, but not over," said NIAC program executive Jason Derleth in a statement. "We are supporting high impact technology concepts that could change how we explore within the Solar System and beyond."
In an announcement Wednesday, the agency revealed the 18 projects that have been awarded a total of $4.5 million in funding for the next Phase I and Phase II development rounds, that could be inching their way to reality.
Among those concepts is a “smart” EVA spacesuit, for extravehicular activities (imagine Matt Damon pottering around on Mars), which acts as a second skin and is self-healing. Developed by Texas A&M University, it also incorporates soft-robotics technology to provide support and help astronauts’ mobility and dexterity as they move around on the surface of Mars.
For future Venus missions, one of the main difficulties to be addressed is how to keep a probe powered in such an extreme environment. Venus may be known as Earth’s twin, but it is the hottest planet in the Solar System, a fiery hellish world with a choking toxic atmosphere and crushing pressure on the surface.
NASA’s own Jet propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has proposed a “dual vehicle” idea that sees a transmitter in the more forgiving upper atmosphere that would descend and beam power down to a receiver, a lander on the surface (decked out in seriously heat-resistant gear), to allow it prolonged time to explore in an environment humans can’t survive, before ascending back up to recharge.
Another idea sees the deployment of thousands of tiny probes to study planetary atmospheres, inspired by the way ballooning spiders shoot silk into the air to catch wind currents. Like the spiders, these micro-probes would be at the mercy of the atmosphere, but a string loop would create drag to help control them as well as static electric charge so the probes can take measurements.
Solar surfing, mining the Moon's poles, and lightsails are also ideas that have been granted funding to be developed further. In total, 12 projects were chosen for Phase I, giving them $125,000 and nine months to develop and refine their initial concepts. Six projects were chosen for Phase II funding, a grant of $500,000 each and two years to develop prototypes. Projects that qualify for Phase III funding will be announced in July. Despite this, some of these projects might never see the light of day. And those that do won't be for a while yet. But to see a potential glimpse of future missions is thrilling none the less.