NASA to invest in 25 early-stage space tech including shape-shifting probes

As part of its 2018 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) programme, the American space agency has selected 25 early-stage technology proposals, from shape-shifting technologies to space telescope swarms, that could transform human and robotic space exploration with the hopes of seeing those technologies become a reality.

The programme is split into two phases. Phase I concepts cover a broad range of innovations that could potentially improve space travel in a variety of ways. Each project selected for inclusion in Phase I earns $125,000 over the course of nine months that will help subsidise the project and support further analysis of the concepts surrounding the technology.

“The 2018 Phase I competition was especially fierce, with over 230 proposals and only 25 winners,” said Jason Derleth, NIAC programme executive. “I can't wait to see what the new NIAC Fellows can do for NASA.”

Those 25 winners include a wide range of technologies. One project regards shapeshifting. This concept would create a new type of technology functional across a variety of planetary bodies with varying atmospheres.

Rather than be dedicated to the destruction of asteroids for the safety of earth, a meteoroid impact detection system, developed by Stanford University, would seek out what can be excavated and what those findings would tell researchers about the compositions of some of the most mysterious bodies in the universe.

If a team is chosen for a Phase I study, they’re then able to apply for a Phase II award, which will allow them the time needed to fine tune their designs, dive deeper into the issues surrounding their research, and give more details about how their technology would be applied in a real-world scenario. NASA’s Phase II participants also earn up to $500,000 for a two-year study to develop those Phase I concepts and demonstrate an initial feasibility and benefit.

Much like the Phase I finalists, the Phase II participants include a wide range of topics and technologies. They include propulsion architecture for interstellar missions, a large space telescope, and how to best build new space exploration tools for trips to Triton.

This year's investments include projects like a shield against galactic cosmic radiation. This proposed magnetospheric protection works by using particle code and what’s known as the Magnetospheric Dipolar Torus configuration.

“Phase II studies are given to the most successful Phase I fellows, whose ideas have the best possibility of changing the possible,” said Derleth. “Their two-year timeframe and larger budget allow them to really get going on the business of creating the future.”

All projects in both Phase I and Phase II were selected through an extensive peer-review process that evaluated both the project's innovativeness and technical viability. NASA has said that all projects in both phases are in the early stages and will require at least a decade or more of maturation before the agency would use these technologies on a mission.