It's been a big week for NASA, but just because Curiosity is (incredibly) now safe on the surface of Mars doesn't mean that the agency gets to take a break. Instead, it's looking ahead. Far, far ahead, by funding 28 advanced technology concepts ranging from submarines for Europa to robots for the Moon.
The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, or NIAC, is specifically designed to give a substantial amount of money to futuristic ideas that are so crazy that they'd never find funding anywhere else, but not so crazy as to be actually impossible. Or at least, that's what NASA would have us believe, but some of these things sound pretty wild, even to us. Here are a few examples of Phase I projects, each of which gets $100,000:
- NanoTHOR: Low-Cost Launch of Nanosatellites to Deep Space
- Sample Return Systems for Extreme Environments
- Exploration of Under-Ice Regions with Ocean Profiling Agents (EUROPA)
- MAGNETOUR: Surfing Planetary Systems on Electromagnetic and Multi-Body Gravity Fields
- Venus Landsailing Rover (!)
- SpiderFab: Process for On-Orbit Construction of Kilometer-Scale Apertures
If the 100 Clevelands isn't enough scratch for you, Phase II projects get a cool $500,000 each. These projects are a little bit more refined, but they're still out there:
- The Fusion Driven Rocket: Nuclear Propulsion through Direct Conversion of Fusion Energy
- Cavehopping Exploration of Planetary Skylights and Tunnels
- Ghost imaging of space objects
That last one, to take a look at an example of what people are working on, aims to use two beams of light that are correlated with each other to take pictures of objects in space that you can't actually see. We've done this before on Earth in a lab, and but it has yet to be applied to space. Hypothetically, ghost imaging could be used by a satellite to see through clouds in Earth's atmosphere by looking at the sun.
All of these projects are a solid 10 years or more from being operational, but this is what NASA's all about: enabling the future. And even if 90% of these ideas do end up being (for all practical purposes) so crazy as to be impossible, we're still going to learn stuff. Most importantly, the 10% that do manage to work have the potential to radically change the future. Fusion energy? Electromagnetic planetary surfing? Thanks, NASA, for bringing these things just a little bit closer to being real.