These Are the Wildly Advanced Space Exploration Concepts Being Considered by NASA

By George Dvorsky on at

Under a plan proposed by Stephanie Thomas of Princeton Satellite Systems, Inc., NASA could be returning to Pluto. (Image: NASA/JPL/New Horizons)

Earlier today, NASA announced funding for 22 projects as part of its Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. From a planet hopping laser-driven sail and a solar powered Venusian weather balloon to an autonomous rover on Pluto, the future of space exploration looks incredibly bright.

To keep the pipeline moving for space exploration concepts, NASA regularly entertains pitches via its NIAC program. For a concept to receive final approval and funding, it has to go through two phases of attrition. Teams granted Phase I status receive $125,000 (£101,000), and they’re given nine months to refine their designs and explore various aspects of implementing their crazy-ass schemes. A peer review process vetts these proposals, and a lucky few get to reach second base. Phase II teams receive as much as $500,000 (£404,000) to embark upon two-year projects, allowing them to further develop their plans. Phase II plans are then chosen according to their demonstrated feasibility and benefit.

Today, NASA announced 15 new Phase I concepts and seven new Phase II concepts (we provided the complete list at the end of this article). Here are a few that grabbed our attention.

NASA has given the greenlight to not one but two Phase I concepts that could set the stage for interstellar space travel. Of note is the “Interstellar Precursor Mission” headed by NASA JPL scientist John Brophy. His idea would see the construction of an orbiting 100 megawatt laser array with a diameter of six miles (10 km). The array would convert the massive laser power into electrical energy, generating enough power to enable long-distance travel of a conventionally-sized spacecraft on a reasonable timescale.

Image: John Brophy

“We propose a new power/propulsion architecture to enable missions such as a 12-year flight time to 500 AU [where 1 AU equals the average distance of the Earth to the Sun]...with a conventional (i.e., New Horizons sized) spacecraft,” explains Brophy on his project page. “This architecture would also enable orbiter missions to Pluto with the same sized spacecraft in just 3.6 years. Significantly, this same architecture could deliver an 80-metric-tonne payload to Jupiter orbit in one year, opening the possibility of human missions to Jupiter.”

Armed with similar technology, NASA could start to roll out laser-based propulsion systems that could travel to nearby stars, but we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves.

Other interesting phase I concepts include a plan to detoxify Martian soil for agriculture, a system that would literally tether a spacecraft to Mars’ moon Phobos, and a plan called “Solar Surfing,” which presumably involves a light-driven spacecraft.

Among NASA’s chosen Phase II concepts is the Venus Interior Probe project spearheaded by Ratnakumar Bugga, also with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This proposed probe would drift through Venus’ clouds while tethered to a balloon, collecting valuable data on temperature, wind speed, and atmospheric pressure. Conventional batteries would allow for a scant one to two hours of life, but under this plan, the probe would continually recharge its batteries using solar energy.

Excitingly, under a Phase II plan envisaged by Stephanie Thomas of Princeton Satellite Systems, Inc., NASA could be returning to Pluto. But unlike the whiplash New Horizons flyby mission, this plan calls for a stop at the dwarf planet.

A plan involving a fusion-enabled Pluto orbiter and lander graduated to Phase II status today. (Image: Princeton Satellite Systems, NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Using a “game changing” Direct Fusion Drive (DFD), a spacecraft would travel to Pluto equipped with an orbiter and a lander. Under the plan, the craft would arrive at Pluto in just four to five years (it took New Horizons nearly a decade to make the same journey). A major challenge will be in figuring out a way to decelerate the spacecraft once it gets to Pluto, where it will release its 2,200 pounds (1,000 kg) worth of cargo.

“Since DFD provides power as well as propulsion in one integrated device, it will also provide as much as 2 MW of power to the payloads upon arrival,” says Thomas at her NASA project page. “This enables high-bandwidth communication, powering of the lander from orbit, and radically expanded options for instrument design.” She added: “The data acquired by New Horizons’ recent Pluto flyby is just a tiny fraction of the scientific data that could be generated from an orbiter and lander.”

Sadly, not all of these concepts will be approved. The Pluto plan, for example, may be too technologically demanding given the hypothetical nature of the fusion drive. For those plans that are approved, it could still take ten years or more before the projects are complete and ready for liftoff.

Here are all the projects approved by NASA today:

The selected 2017 Phase I proposals:

  • A Synthetic Biology Architecture to Detoxify and Enrich Mars Soil for Agriculture, Adam Arkin, University of California, Berkeley
  • A Breakthrough Propulsion Architecture for Interstellar Precursor Missions, John Brophy, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California
  • Evacuated Airship for Mars Missions, John-Paul Clarke, Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta
  • Mach Effects for In Space Propulsion: Interstellar Mission, Heidi Fearn, Space Studies Institute in Mojave, California
  • Pluto Hop, Skip, and Jump, Benjamin Goldman, Global Aerospace Corporation in Irwindale, California
  • Turbolift, Jason Gruber, Innovative Medical Solutions Group in Tampa, Florida
  • Phobos L1 Operational Tether Experiment, Kevin Kempton, NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia
  • Gradient Field Imploding Liner Fusion Propulsion System, Michael LaPointe, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama
  • Massively Expanded NEA Accessibility via Microwave-Sintered Aerobrakes, John Lewis, Deep Space Industries, Inc., in Moffett Field, California
  • Dismantling Rubble Pile Asteroids with Area-of-Effect Soft-bots, Jay McMahon, University of Colorado, Boulder
  • Continuous Electrode Inertial Electrostatic Confinement Fusion, Raymond Sedwick, University of Maryland, College Park
  • Sutter: Breakthrough Telescope Innovation for Asteroid Survey Missions to Start a Gold Rush in Space, Joel Sercel, TransAstra in Lake View Terrace, California
  • Direct Multipixel Imaging and Spectroscopy of an Exoplanet with a Solar Gravity Lens Mission, Slava Turyshev, JPL
  • Solar Surfing, Robert Youngquist, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida
  • A Direct Probe of Dark Energy Interactions with a Solar System Laboratory, Nan Yu, JPL

The selected 2017 Phase II proposals:

  • Venus Interior Probe Using In-situ Power and Propulsion, Ratnakumar Bugga, JPL
  • Remote Laser Evaporative Molecular Absorption Spectroscopy Sensor System, Gary Hughes, California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo
  • Brane Craft Phase II, Siegfried Janson, The Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, California
  • Stellar Echo Imaging of Exoplanets, Chris Mann, Nanohmics, Inc., Austin, Texas
  • Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments, Jonathan Sauder, JPL
  • Optical Mining of Asteroids, Moons, and Planets to Enable Sustainable Human Exploration and Space Industrialization, Joel Sercel, TransAstra Corp.
  • Fusion-Enabled Pluto Orbiter and Lander, Stephanie Thomas, Princeton Satellite Systems, Inc., Plainsboro, New Jersey