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Nasa unveils 12 futuristic designs

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Submarines on Titan and giant nets to capture asteroids: Nasa unveils 12 futuristic designs that could help explore new worlds

  • Nasa has unveiled proposals for next-gen exploration tech in Washington
  • The Nasa Innovative Advanced Concepts programme picked 12 missions
  • These will each receive $100,000 of funding for study over 18 months
  • Concepts include a proposal to send a submarine to Titan’s biggest sea
  • Another is a spacecraft that could travel from the sun to Neptune in a year

By Jonathan O’Callaghan


Will the next amazing technology to explore the solar system and beyond be an advanced telescope, a high-speed mission to Neptune, or something else entirely?

With that question in mind, Nasa has selected 12 advanced proposals for further study in the first phase of its 2014 Nasa Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) programme.

The goal of NIAC is to turn science fiction into science fact through pioneering technology development – and the ideas will now be given funding to try and bring them to fruition.

  NASA's asteroid net

Nasa has revealed 12 concepts for future space travel and cosmic science as part of its Nasa Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) programme. This includes a proposal to snag an asteroid with a net to prep it for further study (illustration shown)


The selected proposals cover a wide range of imaginative concepts, including a submarine to explore the methane lakes of Titan and a concept to safely capture a tumbling asteroid.

It is hoped the seedling investments may provide the breakthrough technologies needed to support Nasa’s plans for exploration beyond low-Earth orbit, into deep space, and even on to Mars.

These initial 12 proposals will be studied for nine months before Nasa then selects which ideas to study for a further two years.


‘The latest NIAC selections include a number of exciting concepts for planetary exploration,’ said Michael Gazarik, NASA’s associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington.

‘We are working with innovators around the nation to transform the future of aerospace, while also focusing our investments on concepts to address challenges of current interests both in space and here on Earth.’

The proposals range from exploration concepts for use within our solar system to new techniques to advance existing experimental technologies. Illustrated here is a proposal to send an autonomous submarine into Titan's largest sea, Kraken Mare, to see what is 'underwater'

The proposals range from exploration concepts for use within our solar system to new techniques to advance existing experimental technologies. Illustrated here is a proposal to send an autonomous submarine into Titan’s largest sea, Kraken Mare, to see what is ‘underwater’

Nasa’s Space Technology Mission Directorate chose this year’s proposals based on their potential to transform future aerospace missions.

All of them plan to do this by enabling either entirely new missions or breakthroughs in future aerospace capabilities that could accelerate progress toward Nasa’s goals.

NIAC Phase I awards are approximately £60,000 ($100,000), providing awardees the funding needed to conduct a nine-month initial definition and analysis study of their concepts.

If the basic feasibility studies are successful, proposers can apply for Phase II awards, which provide up to £300,000 ($500,000) for two more years of concept development.


Titan Submarine: Exploring the Depths of Kraken A proposal for a submarine to explore Titan’s largest northern sea, Kraken Mare. The craft would autonomously carry out detailed scientific investigations under the surface of the methane sea. Heliopause Electrostatic Rapid Transit System (Herts) A propellant-less propulsion concept for deep space missions. Herts is like an electric solar sail – it is an array of wires extending out up to 20 miles (30km) from a rotating spacecraft that would gather energy from the sun. It would be capable of reaching speeds more than 430 miles (700km) per second – and at top speed could travel from the sun to Neptune in a year. Swarm Flyby Gravimetry A method for working out the gravity and mass of small solar system bodies (such as asteroids and comets) using a swarm of small, low-cost probes (illustration below).

Nasa swam concept

The Aragoscope: Ultra-High Resolution Optics at Low Cost A giant disc that could boost the viewing power of space telescopes by up to a factor of 1,000.

ChipSat exploration concept

Exploration Architecture with Quantum Inertial Gravimetry and In-Situ ChipSat Sensors Spacecraft-on-a-chip systems, ChipSats, would be deployed on other planets or moons such as Europa to perform science at reduced time and risk (illustration to the right). 3D Photocatalytic Air Processor for Dramatic Reduction of Life Support Mass & Complexity A device to be used on manned spacecraft that could turn light from the sun into oxygen.   Wrangler: Capture and De-Spin of Asteroids and Space Debris This nanosatellite-scale sub-satellite, called the Weightless Rendezvous And Net Grapple to Limit Excess Rotation (Wrangler) System, will capture and de-spin a space object such as an asteroid using a large ‘net’, in tandem with a tether deployer and winch mechanism. Titan Aerial Daughtercraft     A small rotorcraft weighing under 10kg (22lbs), not too dissimilar to small portable quadracopter drones on Earth, that would be deployed on Titan by a balloon to acquire close-up, high resolution imagery and mapping data of the surface. Using the Hottest Particles in the Universe to Probe Icy Solar System Worlds A method to measure the ice depth on outer planet moons such as Europa, Ganymede and Enceladus using experimental techniques adapted from high-energy physics (illustration below).

Measuring icy surfaces with high-energy particles

Periscope: Periapsis Subsurface Cave Optical Explorer A proposed method to map subsurface structure on the moon using a ‘seeing-around-the-corner’ imaging technique adapted from periscopes. Mars Ecopoiesis Test Bed A device for studying the survival of terrestrial life forms on the surface of Mars. It would take life from Earth and see if it can live on the red planet as a precursor to one day terraforming Mars. Comet Hitchhiker: Harvesting Kinetic Energy from Small Bodies to Enable Fast and Low-Cost Deep Space Exploration A tethered spacecraft that hitches rides on comets to tour the solar system. This would be done by firing a ‘harpoon’ with a tether attached that would reel the spacecraft in, like a sort of cosmic fishing rod (illustration below).

Comet hitchhiking

One of the most interesting proposals is the Heliopause Electrostatic Rapid Transit System (Herts), illustrated here. This would use electrically biased wires to harness the energy of the sun and accelerate to speeds of more than 430 miles (700 kilometres) a second, enough to travel from the sun to neptune in just a year

Nasa unveils 12 futuristic designs

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