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Visionary Tech Concepts Could Pioneer Future In Space
by Loura Hall, NASA
 September 24, 2021

NASA missions make it seem like the future is now ... rovers exploring Mars with cutting-edge gadgets, a spacecraft venturing home with an asteroid sample, and a complex space telescope peering at the early universe. So, what's the next big thing? What might space missions in 2050 and beyond set out to discover?

NASA missions make it seem like the future is now ... rovers exploring Mars with cutting-edge gadgets, a spacecraft venturing home with an asteroid sample, and a complex space telescope peering at the early universe. So, what's the next big thing? (Image created by USA Patriotism! from NASA graphic.)
Image created by USA Patriotism! from NASA graphic.

One small NASA program aims to see what could be possible. The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, part of the agency's Space Technology Mission Directorate, funds early-stage research into sci-fi sounding, futuristic technology concepts. The goal is to find what might work, what might not, and what exciting new ideas researchers may come up with along the way.

1. Swimming micro-robots for ocean worlds.

Ocean worlds, where liquid oceans lie beneath miles of icy crust, are some of the most likely locations in our solar system to harbor life ... an enticing prospect for scientists. Accessing and exploring these aquatic environments present unique challenges. Ethan Schaler, a robotics mechanical engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, is researching one promising idea for exploration: Using 3D printed, centimeter-scale robots equipped with sensors and actuators. A mothercraft that drilled through the ice and deployed the micro-bots would also wirelessly control them using ultrasound waves.

2. Long-reach crawling and anchoring robots for Martian caves.

While swimming robots could be ideal for some destinations, others will require something with a firmer grip. Marco Pavone, an associate professor at Stanford University, is developing a potential solution. His ReachBot concept could quickly crawl through caves, using extendable booms to grasp over long distances. Its various features would allow small and lightweight robots to move around in tricky environments, such as vertical cliff walls or the rocky and uneven floors of caves on Mars.

3. Lightweight deployable structures that expand in space.

Getting extra-large spacecraft off Earth takes lots of planning, as the size of what can go to space depends on how much a rocket can fit. Multiple launches and in-space assembly have proven successful in the past, but there could be another way. Assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University Zachary Manchester is considering ways to integrate recent advances in mechanical metamaterials into a lightweight deployable structure design. Such a structure could be launched inside a single rocket fairing and then deploy autonomously to a final size of the length of 10 football fields.

4. Seeding asteroids with fungi to create space soil.

Space habitat concepts come in all shapes and sizes. But all designs have a common challenge requiring innovative thinking: How will space travelers sustain themselves during long journeys? Jane Shevtsov, working with Trans Astronautica Corporation, offers creating soil from carbon-rich asteroid material. The fungi would physically break down the material and chemically degrade any toxic substances. Similar processes take place on Earth, like oyster mushrooms cleaning up petroleum-contaminated soil. The NIAC research aims to find a way for future space habitats to have ample green space and robust agricultural systems.

NASA selects NIAC proposals through a peer-review process that evaluates innovation and technical viability. All projects are still in the early stages of development, with most requiring a decade or more of technology maturation. They are not considered official NASA missions.

Learn more about NIAC | National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

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