NASA Funds Titan Submarine, Other Far-Out Space Exploration Ideas

NIAC Phase 2 Proposals, 2015
Montage of several newly funded NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Phase II studies from fellows Bruce Wiegmann, Adrian Stoica, Steven Oleson, and Justin Atchison. (Image credit: B. Wiegmann/MSFC, A. Stoica/JPL, S. Oleson, J. Atchison)

NASA has just funded seven far-out space-exploration concepts, including a submarine that would explore the hydrocarbon seas of Saturn's huge moon Titan, an origami energy reflector and rapid space transit with an electric sail.

All of the proposals, including the one for the Titan submarine, have been awarded funding under Phase II of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, or NIAC.

Phase II grants, which are worth up to $500,000, allow scientists to continue working on bold ideas that received Phase I NIAC funding. The grants are intended to encourage development of potentially transformative space technology, and offer the resources to test the feasibility and intricacies of brand-new ideas. [Incredible Technology: Space Travel and Exploration]

The seven Phase II selections, along with their principal investigators, are:

  • Swarm Flyby Gravimetry (Justin Atchison, Johns Hopkins University): To investigate asteroids and comets, a spaceship would let loose a swarm of low-cost probes to fly by the objects, measuring its gravitational pull and composition from all different angles.
  • PERISCOPE: PERIapsis Subsurface Cave Optical Explorer (Jeffrey Nosanov,Nosanov Consulting):A low-orbiting spacecraft would peer down at the moon, firing laser pulses into the entrances of subsurface caves to create 3D maps of their inner reaches.
  • Titan Submarine (Steven Oleson, NASA Glenn Research Center):A submarine, incorporating the latest research into cryogenic engineering and data on Saturn's moon Titan, would probe deep beneath Titan's largest sea, Kraken Mare.
  • Trans-Formers for Lunar Extreme Environments (Adrian Stoica, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory): Unfolding reflectors would beam much-needed light and heat down to robot explorers in the moon's deepest crevices and craters.
  • 3D Photocatalytic Air Processor for Dramatic Reduction of Life Support Mass and Complexity (Bin Chen, University of California, Santa Cruz):A new air-processing design would efficiently generate oxygen from titanium dioxide and light in space.
  • Heliopause Electrostatic Rapid Transit System (Bruce Weigmann, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center): An electric sail would let spacecraft ride the solar wind around our system unencumbered by traditional propellants.
  • SCEPS in Space (Michael Paul, Pennsylvania State University):Stored chemical energy power systems, like those used in Navy torpedoes, would be adapted to power landers where no light shines.

You can learn more about the projects here:

"NASA's investments in early-stage research are important for advancing new systems concepts and developing requirements for technologies to enable future space exploration missions," Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a statement. "This round of Phase II selections demonstrates the agency's continued commitment to innovations that may transform our nation's space, technology and science capabilities."

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Sarah Lewin
Associate Editor

Sarah Lewin started writing for in June of 2015 as a Staff Writer and became Associate Editor in 2019 . Her work has been featured by Scientific American, IEEE Spectrum, Quanta Magazine, Wired, The Scientist, Science Friday and WGBH's Inside NOVA. Sarah has an MA from NYU's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program and an AB in mathematics from Brown University. When not writing, reading or thinking about space, Sarah enjoys musical theatre and mathematical papercraft. She is currently Assistant News Editor at Scientific American. You can follow her on Twitter @SarahExplains.