NASA funds low-cost probes and other futuristic space tech

Low-cost probes, an extraterrestrial submarine and spacecraft propelled by electric sails: these are but three of the seven projects moving on to Phase II of NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. All the entries have only just begun development, since the program's specifically meant for early-stage research projects. NASA believes investing in those is crucial "for advancing new systems concepts and developing requirements for technologies to enable future space exploration missions."

Here are the seven projects that stood out:

  1. Swarm Flyby Gravimetry by Justin Atchison of Johns Hopkins University.
    Atchison wants to send a big spacecraft loaded with small, low-cost probes to explore asteroids and other celestial bodies. The probes can figure out an asteroid's/planet's/moon's porosity and gravity strength, among other things.

  2. 3D Photocatalytic Air Processor for Dramatic Reduction of Life Support Mass and Complexity by Bin Chen of University of California Santa Cruz
    Chen wants to make an air processor that uses titanium dioxide and high-energy light in space to generate oxygen.

  3. PERISCOPE: PERIapsis Subsurface Cave Optical Explorer by Jeffrey Nosanov of Nosanov Consulting, LLC
    If successfully built, this "cave explorer" tool can shine laser pulses into lunar craters/caves while orbiting the moon and measure the amount of light the cave reflects back. It can then use the data it gathers to create an even more accurate map of the moon.

  4. Titan Submarine: Exploring the Depths of Kraken Mare by Steven Oleson of NASA Glenn Research Center
    Oleson plans to use his grant money to develop a submarine made to explore Kraken Mare, the largest sea on Saturn's moon Titan.

  5. SCEPS in Space - Non-Radioisotope Power Systems for Sunless Solar System Exploration Missions by Michael Paul of Pennsylvania State University
    This project wants to use Stored Chemical Energy Power Systems, which currently powers torpedoes, as energy sources for landers in places without sunlight.

  6. Trans-Formers for Lunar Extreme Environments: Ensuring Long-Term Operations in Regions of Darkness and Low Temperatures by Adrian Stoica of NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
    The Trans-Formers concept aims to use heliostats to shine sunlight into extreme environments like the inside of lunar craters. The idea is use the sunlight they redirect to power robots and other machines working within the environment.

  7. Heliopause Electrostatic Rapid Transit System (HERTS) by Bruce Wiegmann of NASA Marshall Space Flight Center
    Wiegmann and his team want to create spacecraft propelled by electric sails.

The agency gave all 15 phase I projects $100,000 each, but those who got into phase II can get as much as $500,000 to fund the development of their ideas within the next two years.

[Image credit: L to R, B. Wiegmann/MSFC, A. Stoica/JPL, S. Oleson, J. Atchison]