NASA is counting on aerospace engineers to innovate in ways that bring science fiction into current (or at least near-future) reality. Through its NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, it has identified early-stage technologies that are radically better or entirely new. NASA is betting that these nascent ideas from American entrepreneurs may lead to new possibilities in space with a little bit of support.

"Our NIAC program nurtures visionary ideas that could transform future NASA missions by investing in revolutionary technologies," said Jim Reuter, acting associate administrator of NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate. "We look to America's innovators to help us push the boundaries of space exploration with new technology."

The program seeks innovations from diverse and non-traditional sources and NIAC projects study innovative, technically credible, advanced concepts that could one day change the possible in aerospace, according to the program description. "NIAC is about going to the edge of science fiction, but not over," said Jason Derleth, NIAC program executive. "We are supporting high impact technology concepts that could change how we explore within the solar system and beyond."

The list of winning ideas is broad ranging, from a smart spacesuit to a ground-breaking telescope. Some are aimed at moving the needle on missions to the Moon and Mars. One researcher, for example, will study an affordable way to mine the ample ice at the Moon's polar regions. This aligns with NASA’s goal to land astronauts on the Moon’s South Pole in five years. The NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, meanwhile, landed two spots on the list, including a Venus lander charged by a floating power generator, and a fleet of small satellites designed to explore the edges of the solar system and beyond.

The selections were made in two phases that leveraged a peer review process that judged the ideas on a combination of innovativeness and technical viability. These early stage projects, which were identified as Phase I studies, each received an award valued at about $125,000. The winners will receive help from researchers at NASA to define and analyze their concepts over the next nine months. At the end of that process, the concepts may choose to apply for a Phase II award as well. The concepts will require a decade or more of work on both concept and technology development in order to be viable.

This summer, the NIAC program will also identify a single Phase III research study, a first for the program. The winner will be awarded up to $2 million up to two years. The goal of this third phase is to choose the project with the highest potential impact to NASA, other government agencies, or commercial companies. NIAC is funded by NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate.

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Power Beaming for Long Life Venus Surface Missions: New approach to support a Venus surface mission with power beaming.

Why it’s important: “This approach has the potential to unlock the Venus surface power generation problem and offers a means for powering a long duration lander, unlike any previously proposed power technology solutions.”

Proposal Submission by: Erik Brandon, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, California

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Low-Cost SmallSats to Explore to Our Solar System's Boundaries: A design for a low-cost, small satellite heliophysics mission to the outer solar system

Why it’s important: “During each probe’s travel to the heliopause, measurements could be coupled with those taken in the inner Solar System from other platforms to complete our understanding of how the solar wind propagates in all directions, throughout the solar cycle, by comparing the measurements from different probes at similar distances in different directions from the Sun.”

Proposal Submission by: Robert Staehle, JPL

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Bioinspired Ray for Extreme Environments and Zonal Exploration (BREEZE): Combines inflatable structures with bio-inspired kinematics to explore and study the atmosphere of Venus

Why it’s important: “Unlike other proposed Venus fliers, this concept is a tension based system which allows for the removal of most rigid support structures other than those needed for the payload. This will allow the vehicle to be highly compact and housed in small entry vehicles.”

Proposal Submission by: Javid Bayandor, State University of New York, Buffalo

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SmartSuit: An intelligent spacesuit design with soft-robotics, self-healing skin and data collection for extravehicular activity in extreme environments that allows for greater mobility for exploration missions

Why it’s important: “This novel spacesuit intelligent architecture for extravehicular activity (EVA) operations on Mars and other planetary environments increases human performance by an order of magnitude on several quantifiable fronts for exploration missions.”

Proposal Submission by: Ana Diaz Artiles, Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station, College Station

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Dual Use Exoplanet Telescope (DUET): A novel telescope design to find and characterize planetary systems outside the solar system

Why it’s important: “The mission will result in a census of planets on half of all visible stars.”

Proposal Submission by: Tom Ditto, 3DeWitt LLC, Ancramdale, New York

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Micro-Probes Propelled and Powered by Planetary Atmospheric Electricity (MP4AE): Similar to the ballooning capabilities of spiders, these floating microprobes use electrostatic lift to study planetary atmospheres

Why it’s important: If successful, the proposed micro probes can support several future planetary missions by gaining large spatial-scale atmospheric sensing capabilities.

Proposal Submission by: Yu Gu, West Virginia University, Morgantown

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Swarm-Probe Enabled ATEG Reactor (SPEAR) Probe: An ultra-lightweight nuclear electric propulsion probe for deep space exploration, designed to keep mass and volume low for commercial launch

Why it’s important: “The goal of this effort will be to design a spacecraft that will keep overall costs very low and allow for a number of deep space missions. Current estimates predict 10 Cubesats of 7 kg each could be delivered to Europa on a craft with a total wet mass of 1100 kg and length of 4 meters; well within the requirements of commercially available launch vehicle.”

Proposal Submission by: Troy Howe, Howe Industries LLC, Tempe, Arizona

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Ripcord Innovative Power System (RIPS): An investigation of a drag using ripcord unspooling power system for descent probes into planets with atmospheres, such as Saturn

Why it’s important: “We propose to investigate the advantages and possibilities enabled by a drag-using ripcord unspooling power system for descent probes into planets with atmospheres, focusing on an example case of a Saturn Probe.”

Proposal Submission by: Noam Izenberg, Johns Hopkins University, Laurel, Maryland

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Power for Interstellar Fly-by: Power harvesting from ultra-miniature probes to enable interstellar missions

Why it’s important: “An interstellar probe will require power for both observations and communications when it reaches the target exoplanet system… but the proposed mission gives a mass allocation that is milligrams, far less than the mass of any real-world power system. We propose harvesting power from the motion of the spacecraft as it passes through the target system’s ambient environment.”

Proposal Submission by: Geoffrey Landis, NASA's Glenn Research Center, Cleveland

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Lunar-polar Propellant Mining Outpost (LPMO): Affordable lunar pole ice mining for propellant production

Why it’s important: “We estimate that rovers sized for a New Glenn or SLS payload faring would mass between 2 and 5 tons and would each be capable of harvesting between 20 and 100 times its mass per year in water.”

Proposal Submission by: Joel Serce, TransAstra Corporation, Lake View Terrace, California

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Crosscutting High Apogee Refueling Orbital Navigator (CHARON): Novel system for small space debris mitigation

Why it’s important: “The phase I effort proposed here will focus on the mission analysis and orbit calculations for the retrieval of the more massive objects at a range of altitudes centered about 950km and 82 degrees inclination.”

Proposal Submission by: John Slough, MSNW LLC, Redmond, Washington

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Thermal Mining of Ices on Cold Solar System Bodies: Proposes using a unique heat application on frozen volatiles and other materials for resource extraction

Why it’s important:

  • Estimates for extracting water from the permanently shadowed regions of the Moon show Thermal Mining can produce industrial quantities of water (for propellant) for 60% less mass and energy than excavation.
  • Volatiles have many uses for space exploration and space commerce.
  • Propellant from lunar polar ice will lower all transportation costs beyond low Earth orbit by factors from three to seventy.

Proposal Submission by: George Sowers, Colorado School of Mines, Golden