Shape-Shifting Robots on Titan and 24 Other Wild Tech Ideas Have Caught NASA's Eye

Shapeshifter — a wild idea for shapeshifting robots that could explore the air, land and seas of Saturn's largest moon Titan — is one of 25 concepts to receive NASA support under the 2018 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) funding round. (Image credit: Ali Agh/Jose Mendez/JPL)

A futuristic space-exploration proposal from NASA would see shape-shifting robots roaming the surface or atmosphere of the soupy Saturn moon Titan, which may host a precursor to the chemistry of life. 

The flying, amphibious robot, called Shapeshifter — one of 25 NASA-funded proposals — could be used to cruise through Titan's atmosphere, go spelunking in caves or dive into the moon's many seas.

"Shapeshifter can morph into a ball that rolls on the surface, a flight array that can fly and hover above-surface and move in subsurface voids, and a torpedo-like structure to swim under liquid efficiently, among other mobility modes," NASA officials wrote in a statement. [Incredible Technology for Space Exploration]

Shapeshifter is one of 25 early-stage technology proposals selected in the 2018 round of NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Phase 1 concepts. Other proposals include space telescope swarms and meteoroid impact detection. Each of the proposals is valued at approximately $125,000. Investigators have nine months to work on the definition and analysis of the concepts.

At the end of the process, the teams can apply for Phase 2 awards. These are valued at up to $500,000 for two years of study. This year's NIAC selection includes nine Phase 2 proposals, which range from interstellar precursor missions, to a huge space telescope, to an exploration concept for an icy Neptune moon called Triton

In general, NIAC proposals are considered very early stage, years or decades away from a mission flight — if they remain of interest for long enough. But their work provides a library of concepts from which NASA can draw during mission development, the agency said.

"The NIAC program gives NASA the opportunity to explore visionary ideas that could transform future NASA missions by creating radically better or entirely new concepts while engaging America's innovators and entrepreneurs as partners in the journey," Jim Reuter, acting associate administrator of NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in the NASA statement. "The concepts can then be evaluated for potential inclusion into our early stage technology portfolio."

The full list of NIAC Phase 1 recipients is:

The full list of NIAC Phase 2 recipients is:

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: