Science

5 futuristic NASA concepts that could change the future of space travel

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Every year, a program called NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) hosts a symposium to showcase innovative research projects that aim to advance future space missions.

NASA via Giphy

Though the concepts are a bit more sketchbook than mission proposal, they fund preliminary research into new technology that could carry us through own galaxy — and possibly beyond.

Here are 5 futuristic NIAC projects that could change the future of space exploration:

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5. Railroad on the moon

Having a reliable transit system on the Moon would be an essential feature for a future lunar base, which NASA envisions as part of its upcoming Artemis mission.

Ethan Schaler via NASA

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But a proposed system called FLOAT, designed by researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, wouldn’t work like ordinary train tracks we have on Earth.

Ethan Schaler via NASA

Instead, cargo-carrying magnetic robots would levitate on a flexible track, propelled by electromagnetic energy.

4. Mini swimming robots

Several moons of our Solar System have liquid water oceans. But studying them in detail could be difficult because they’re buried beneath miles-deep ice shells.

Ethan Schaler via NASA

Xponentialdesign via Giphy

Engineers want to make swimming robots only a few centimeters in size that can explore beneath the surface of our Solar System’s ocean worlds, such as Jupiter’s moon Europa.

Ethan Schaler via NASA

The idea is to equip the bots with wireless ultrasound technology so that they could be maneuvered in the subterranean oceans.

3. Expanding structures

It’s not easy to build in space, or transport building materials, for that matter. Physics doesn’t favor launching large cargo — both in weight and in volume.

NASA via Giphy

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But researchers from Carnegie Mellon envision making small, lightweight structures that can fold out into larger ones once they’re deployed from a spaceship.

Here’s a diagram of what a prototype might look like when it’s at full size.Patrick McGarey via NASA

2. Long-reach robots

One of the areas researchers want to explore on Mars is the Red Planet’s vast network of caves and tunnels.

Marco Pavone via NASA

NASA via Giphy

But that’s hard to do when the ground is uneven — which is why researchers want to develop new robots capable of navigating down the walls of caves, across gaps, and over uneven surfaces.

Marco Pavone

Called ReachBot, this illustration shows a prototype with long, flexible arms and a lightweight body.

1. Asteroids + Fungi = Soil?

One ambitious project wants to harvest carbon-rich asteroids to make soil.

NASA via Giphy

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Fungi would break down nutrients and sift out toxins in asteroid materials, creating a resource that could be produced in space.

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With nutrient-rich soil available in deep space, exploration teams would be able to grow plants that could sustain their food and oxygen supply on a long-distance mission.