Out of this world

NASA's future tech: 9 out-of-this-world concepts


The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program funds projects that could shape the future of space exploration.


In Phase I, projects undergo nine months of study to determine their viability. Phase II gives selected projects two years of additional development.


Here are the 9 best concepts from NIAC Phase I this year.

9. Solar System Pony Express

Joshua Vander Hook

cokada/E+/Getty Images

Satellites could connect to a Mars surveyor and quickly transfer data to Earth as they pass between the two planets without advanced propulsion by using a cycler orbit, which places a craft on continuous intersects between Mars and Earth.

8. Extrasolar Object Interceptor and Sample Return Enabled by Compact, Ultra Power Dense Radioisotope Batteries

Christopher Morrison

The novel Chargeable Atomic Battery could more safely and cheaply power a spacecraft tasked with intercepting interstellar objects and bringing samples back to Earth for study.

European Southern Observatory / M. Kornmesser

7. FLOAT — Flexible Levitation on a Track

Ethan Schaler

Magnetically levitated robots could shuttle material on a flexible track on the moon, removing the need to build roads or replace worn-out moving parts.


6. Kilometer-Scale Space Structures from a Single Launch

Zachary Manchester, graphic by Tzipora Thompson

NurPhoto/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Compressed structures loaded on a Falcon Heavy rocket could expand to more than a kilometer in orbit and rotate to create artificial gravity, making them suitable for orbital habitation.

5. ReachBot: Small Robot for Large Mobile Manipulation Tasks in Martian Cave Environments

Marco Pavone

A robot with extendable arms could explore and sample Martian caves and cliff faces to find older and harder-to-reach material samples.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

4. SWIM — Sensing with Independent Micro-swimmers

Ethan Schaler

Tiny, wirelessly controlled robots could expand the range of missions to find life on ocean worlds like Europa and Enceladus.


3. Making Soil for Space Habitats by Seeding Asteroids with Fungi

Jane Shevtsov

Sven Gärtner/Moment/Getty Images

Fungi could be used to break down carbon-rich asteroids and remove toxic substances, turning regolith into usable soil for human habitats.

2. Light Bender

Ronald Neale

Renato Di Prinzio / 500px/500Px Plus/Getty Images

Arrays of telescope optics, lenses, and mirrors on the moon could capture and redirect light to photovoltaic panels, providing power even in deep craters that don't receive direct light.

1. Autonomous Robotic Demonstrator for Deep Drilling (ARD3)

Planet Enterprises / James Vaughan Illustration

A rover could deploy drilling robots to autonomously collect ice from below the surface of Mars, where signs of life may be present.

ESA/DLR/Freie Universitat Berlin (G. Neukum)

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