NASA liftoff

NASA has announced its selection of 25 early-stage technology proposals that will receive support from the space agency. These new and creative concepts do not disappoint, ranging from shapeshifters and biobots to balloon locomotion and telescope swarms.

The 2018 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) are offered in two phases. Phase I concepts are selected based on their potential to revolutionize future space exploration. The awards are valued at approximately $125,000 over the course nine months, during which time NASA supports initial definition and analysis of their concepts.

Standout concepts include David Akin’s biobot, a design that could potentially offload some of the weight from an astronaut’s back and make for easier exploration. Other ideas are taken from the pages of science fiction novels and dissected for a theoretical model, such as in Aliakbar Aghamohammadi’s concept. His “Shapeshifters from Science Fiction to Science Fact: Globetrotting from Titan’s Rugged Cliffs to its Deep Seafloors” proposes a robotic platform that is capable of shapeshifting to maneuver across several domains, from flying in the atmosphere, rolling on a smooth surface, or navigating subsurface voids.

“The NIAC program gives NASA the opportunity to explore visionary ideas that could transform future NASA missions by creating radically better or entirely new concepts while engaging America’s innovators and entrepreneurs as partners in the journey,” said Jim Reuter, acting associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. “The concepts can then be evaluated for potential inclusion into our early stage technology portfolio.”

Graphic depiction of Spacecraft Scale Magnetospheric Protection from galactic cosmic radiation.
Graphic depiction of Spacecraft Scale Magnetospheric Protection from galactic cosmic radiation.

If Phase I proves to be successful, measured by the results and feasibility of each individual concept, awardees can apply for Phase II awards. That’s where the big bucks are spent. These programs can often be worth as much as $500,000 for two-year projects, giving the awardees time to refine their models and explore new ways of implementing the technology. Phase II recipients such as John Slough will now be able to test whether the conceptual Magnetospheric Dipolar Torus (MDT) can shield Earth from galactic cosmic radiation.

“The 2018 Phase I competition was especially fierce, with over 230 proposals and only 25 winners,” said Jason Derleth, NIAC program executive. NASA selected these 25 concepts in a peer-review process that evaluated innovativeness and technical viability, but it’s clear that the space agency was looking for a wow factor, too.

Photos via John Slough/NASA, Giphy