NASA just announced a new round of investments into 13 different projects seeking to develop strange new technologies that could help take space exploration and operations to new heights and frontiers. Among them is a proposal for a 2D spacecraft made of ultra-thin materials that would wrap itself around orbital debris like a blanket and bring it back down to burn up in the atmosphere.


It’s as crazy as it sounds. And the best part is there are 12 other proposals just as crazy to go alongside it. There’s one that calls for developing synthetic microbes to help make and recycle electronics; another that calls for using intense extrasolar activity as a way to detect “echoes” from distance planets; and another that seeks to convert asteroids into mechanical spacecraft. The list goes on and on.

It’s all a part of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, which continuously supports experimental and unconventional development to improve space travel and research. Under these Phase I awards, project teams are awarded $100,000 for nine months to work on the initial steps and analysis that go into developing these various technologies. If basic feasibility is established, those projects can apply for Phase II awards that can provide up to $500,000 for an additional two years of concept development.

Artists depiction of an asteroid being reconstituted into a mechanical automata.

That means that we won’t be seeing any prototypes for any of these projects get built for quite some time — if ever. Nevertheless, these next several months of work are crucial for determining whether these kinds of projects show any promise for practical application in the near future. Even if they don’t come to fruition, the work by project scientists and engineers could prove useful for future designs.

But back to that 2D spacecraft that drags space junk to its fiery death. Dubbed the “Brane Craft” project, it’s far from the most ambitious, but it’s one of the few that seems to successfully traverse the thin line between innovative and feasible. A brane is a dynamic object that can move through spacetime. The Brane Craft, designed by Siegfried Janson from the Aerospace Corporation, would basically be a flattened spacecraft that exhibits an ultra-low mass with very high power-to-weight ratio. It would be just about 35 grams, and come in at just one square meter in size.

Graphic depiction of the Brane Craft concept

Although the most practical application for the Brane Craft would be smothering space junk and clearing up the planet’s orbit, the spacecraft might also be a useful way to study near-Earth asteroids, or perhaps Mars and its moons. CubeSats are seen as an affordable spacecraft alternative right now; Brane Craft could cut costs even further and accomplish the same tasks.

You can take a look at the rest of the Phase I winners here. They certainly take the label of “innovation” to other levels.

Graphic depiction of the Stellar Echo Imaging of Exoplanets using an interferometric technique.