8 NASA concepts reveal a futuristic landscape of next-gen space exploration

Far out.

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From Venus’ atmosphere to the hidden oceans beneath the surface of Jupiter’s moons, our Solar System is full of mystery.


Each year, the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program awards grants to researchers to develop the next generation of technology that will help us explore cosmic unknowns.

In 2022, they awarded a total of $5.1 million to 17 projects that are in the earliest stages of development — meaning they’re mostly conceptual.

Philip Lubin


"Studying these creative ideas is the first step to turn science fiction into science fact."

Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, in a statement.

Here are 8 futuristic concepts that could expand our understanding of the universe:

8. Sea ray-inspired fliers

These inflatable spacecraft, known as BREEZE, would flap their wings to sail through Venus’ harsh atmosphere and explore the dark side of our sister planet. In 2022, this project received its second round of funding.

Javid Bayandor
7. Venus orbiter and probe

In another Venus-focused project, one team wants to create a probe that can descend into the planet’s atmosphere and collect samples that could be studied back on Earth for signs of life.

NASA via Giphy

Here’s a diagram of what that mission would look like. The probe would be deployed and collected by an orbiter that hovers above the planet’s atmosphere.

Sara Seager
6. Portable magnetic field

Called CREW HaT, this device would spawn a magnetic field to protect astronauts from prolonged exposure to solar radiation. This could come in handy while spending long periods of time on the Moon or Mars.

Elena D’Onghia
5. 3D-printed Spacesuits

One research team wants to explore the possibility of creating customized spacesuits on-demand. Not only would this help prepare crews for upcoming missions, but the technology could also repair or replace suits while in space.

Bonnie Dunbar
4. Sun slingshot

This spacecraft would get closer to the Sun than any human-made object, then use the Sun’s heat and gravitational pull to fling it out to the furthest reaches of the Solar System.

NASA via Giphy

A heat shield would protect it from extreme temperatures as the spacecraft whips around the Sun at high speeds in what’s known as an Oberth maneuver.

Jason Benkoski
3. Cave explorer

The ReachBot is designed to crawl down into Martian caves, in order to further our understanding of the Red Planet’s geology. This project received a NIAC award last year, and 2022’s grant will fund tests in realistic environments.

Marco Pavone
2. Rock ripper

To protect Earth from a potentially deadly asteroid impact, researcher propose a device called Pi that launches small “penetrators” to break an incoming space rock into tiny chunks that burn up in the atmosphere.

Philip Lubin
1. Slick Swimmers

To explore ocean worlds like Europa and Enceladus, researchers are building miniature swimming devices that can be deployed as a fleet to probe potentially life-bearing waters. This concept got a second round of funding in 2022.

NASA via Giphy

This diagram shows how the triangle-shaped microswimmers would dive into a hidden ocean after another device anchors them into an ocean world’s icy surface.

Ethan Schaler

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