NASA funds nuclear probes for icy moons, huge new space telescopes and other far-out tech ideas

The Jupiter moon Europa harbors a huge, potentially habitable ocean beneath its icy shell.
The Jupiter moon Europa harbors a huge, potentially habitable ocean beneath its icy shell. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute)

NASA has funded a new set of visionary concepts for space exploration that could one day prove useful — and perhaps even transformative.

The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program provides funding for early-stage studies into technologies that could support future missions. NIAC grants worth $175,000 apiece will be given to 14 researchers who are probing the boundaries of what is possible to allow NASA to evaluate potential new technologies, the agency announced earlier this month. 

This year's Phase 1 NIAC selections include ideas for space telescopes, such as a new kind of observatory comprised of thousands of identical small satellites using the concept of interferometry, and another using fluidic shaping in microgravity to create a 164-foot-wide (50 meters) unsegmented mirror for a new generation of space telescopes. Another telescope concept seeks to be able to resolve Earth-like planets orbiting sun-like stars within 10 parsecs (32.6 light-years) of Earth.

Related: NASA and DARPA will build a nuclear rocket by 2027

Pellet-beam propulsion and nuclear engine concepts will be investigated for possible application to space transportation. A flying boat for exploring Saturn's huge moon Titan and a hybrid fusion fast fission nuclear reactor for accessing ocean-harboring icy moons such as Jupiter's Europa are also among the newly funded concepts.

"NASA dares to make the impossible possible. That's only achievable because of the innovators, thinkers and doers who are helping us imagine and prepare for the future of space exploration," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement released by the agency on Jan. 9.

"The NIAC program helps give these forward-thinking scientists and engineers the tools and support they need to spur technology that will enable future NASA missions," Nelson said.

The full list of ideas and their principal investigators chosen for Phase 1 NIAC 2023 grants is below:

The NIAC program started in 2011 and is funded by NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate.

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Andrew Jones
Contributing Writer

Andrew is a freelance space journalist with a focus on reporting on China's rapidly growing space sector. He began writing for in 2019 and writes for SpaceNews, IEEE Spectrum, National Geographic, Sky & Telescope, New Scientist and others. Andrew first caught the space bug when, as a youngster, he saw Voyager images of other worlds in our solar system for the first time. Away from space, Andrew enjoys trail running in the forests of Finland. You can follow him on Twitter @AJ_FI.