2D Spacecraft, Reprogrammable Microbes & More: NASA Eyes Wild Space Tech Ideas

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program
NASA has picked 13 wild space technology ideas, including concepts for two-dimensional spacecraft and microbes that could turn Mars dirt into usable material, for Phase 1 funding under the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program. (Image credit: NASA/NIAC)

Get ready for two-dimensional spacecraft and microorganisms that can recycle Mars dirt into working electronics. While both may sound like science fiction, they could soon be a reality, thanks to the latest round of space technology funding from NASA.

These are just two of the 13 exciting new concepts to win Phase 1 funding this year from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts(NIAC) program, which aims to encourage and invest in groundbreaking research that could transform how NASA does space exploration.

Having won the first round of grants from NIAC means the researchers on all 13 projects get $100,000 and nine months to prove the feasibility of their concepts through definition and analysis. If they pass feasibility tests, the researchers can then apply for Phase 2 funding, which gives them up to an additional $500,000 and two more years to continue developing their concept.

While the two-dimensional spacecraft — which would be sent to space to wrap around space debris and pull it out of orbit — and reprogrammable microorganisms — which would use the Martian resources to recycle and print electronics — are certainly innovative, the other 13 projects are equally impressive and have great implications for the future of space explorations, should they pan out.

"All of the final candidates were outstanding, and limiting the choice to what fit in our budget was difficult," Jason Derleth, NIAC program executive, said in a statement. "We hope each new study will push boundaries and explore new approaches — that's what makes NIAC unique."

The NIAC 2016 projects, including the spacecraft and microorganisms are:

  • Light Weight Multifunctional Planetary Probe for Extreme Environment Exploration and Locomotion, Javid Bayandor, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg;
  • Venus Interior Probe Using In-situ Power and Propulsion(VIP-INSPR), Ratnakumar Bugga, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California;
  • Project RAMA: Reconstituting Asteroids into MechanicalAutomata, Jason Dunn, Made In Space, Inc. in Moffett Field, California;
  • Molecular Composition Analysis of Distant Targets, Gary Hughes, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo;
  • Brane Craft, Siegfried Janson, The Aerospace Corporation in Los Angeles;
  • Stellar Echo Imaging of Exoplanets, Chris Mann, Nanohmics, Inc. in Austin, Texas;
  • Mars Molniya Orbit Atmospheric Resource Mining, Robert Mueller, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida;
  • strong>Journey to the Center of Icy Moons, Masahiro Ono, JPL;
  • E-Glider: Active Electrostatic Flight for Airless Body Exploration, Marco Quadrelli, JPL;
  • Urban biomining meets printable electronics: end-to-end destination biological recycling and reprinting, Lynn Rothschild, NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California;
  • Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments, Jonathan Sauder, JPL;
  • Fusion-Enabled Pluto Orbiter and Lander, Stephanie Thomas, Princeton Satellite Systems, Inc. in Plainsboro Township, New Jersey;
  • NIMPH- Nano Icy Moons Propellant Harvester, Michael VanWoerkom, ExoTerra Resource, LLC.

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Kasandra Brabaw
Contributing Writer

Kasandra Brabaw is a freelance science writer who covers space, health, and psychology. She's been writing for Space.com since 2014, covering NASA events, sci-fi entertainment, and space news. In addition to Space.com, Kasandra has written for Prevention, Women's Health, SELF, and other health publications. She has also worked with academics to edit books written for popular audiences.