Innovation

These 5 futuristic tech ideas could help us explore distant worlds

From the Moon to Pluto, these innovations could solve huge mysteries about our universe.

NASA

NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

Before humans can land on Mars or probe distant, icy worlds in our Solar System, we’ll need new technologies to get us there.

Quinn Morley/NASA

Every year, the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program awards grant money to scientists and engineers to explore new technology concepts that could boost future space missions.

At this point, the concepts are just that — concepts.

These new technologies aren’t a reality yet. But with financial support from the competition, teams hope to actually build and test them.

Quinn Morley/NASA

Here are 5 futuristic concepts that NASA is funding:

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5. Pipelines on the Moon

If humans set up base on the lunar surface in the near future, they’re going to need a steady supply of oxygen — which could potentially be extracted from the soil.

NASA

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Lunar regolith contains almost 45 percent oxygen.

One team wants to build a pipeline to connect an extraction center or oxygen storage facility to the astronauts living and working on base.

4. Icy world probe

In order to peek beneath the surface of icy worlds like Europa, Enceladus, Ceres, and Pluto, we’ll need probes that can dig deep under the ice shells of those worlds.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

One team proposes a heated probe, fueled by nuclear power, that can bore into icy surfaces.

It would have to have enough power to melt a hole through miles and miles of ice — Ceres’ external ice layer, for example, is estimated to be more than 24 miles deep.

3. Beam me up, Scotty

Traveling between planets — or even deep into the Solar System — takes a long time. But one team wants to design a particle beam that can push vehicles into hyperdrive.

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Called a pellet beam, this device would shoot microscopic particles at payloads to push them further into space.

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2. Living bricks

Getting building materials to the Moon and Mars will be incredibly costly, which is why one team wants to grow them instead, using synthetic lichen.

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Lichen could proliferate with melted Martian ice, sunlight, minerals, and other compounds.

Astronauts could use freshly-grown organisms as a “glue” to form bricks out of Mars regolith. Voila — all made on the Red Planet.

1. Flying on Titan

For future missions to Saturn’s moon, Titan, one team envisions a seaplane-like vehicle that can soar through the atmosphere and sail on lakes and rivers.

Quinn Morley/NASA

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Titan is the only world besides Earth known to have liquid on its surface.

The vehicle, called TitanAir, could collect information about the moon’s strange chemistry from air and sea.