NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts program funds the development of early-stage, far-out technologies that have the potential to essentially turn science fiction into reality. The space agency last week announced a list of 22 projects it's investing in this year. These include two ways to explore the surface of Pluto; a soft, asteroid-tossing robot; and technology that could make interstellar travel possible.
Flip through this slideshow for a look at the dozen most fascinating projects, including this one from a team at UC Berkeley working to develop synthetic microorganisms that can both detoxify the soil on Mars and fertilize it to make it ready for agricultural use.
Getting into and around space typically requires very big, powerful rockets, but NASA's also interested in the potential of high-powered lasers to project things around the solar system. We've heard about the notion of using lasers to propel nanocraft that could survey the Alpha Centauri system, but this is a little different. Rather than being pushed by the lasers themselves, the idea here is to beam lasers to a craft where the light is then converted to electricity that powers an ion propulsion system.
The Red Planet's very thin atmosphere can make it tough for anyone or anything to float around above the surface, and NASA thinks the answer could be a vacuum airship. The airship, which is basically a variation on the blimps and dirigibles we're familiar with, could make it easier to traverse the tough terrain that even the bravest rover would never attempt.
In recent years, the so-called EmDrive, or "Impossible Drive," has garnered headlines for its apparent physics-defying ability to create thrust without any kind of exhaust. Now, NASA plans to study a different but similar phenomenon called the Mach Effect that the space agency describes as "based on peer-reviewed, technically credible physics."
When NASA says "technically credible" there, what it really means is "seems too good to be true so we should at least check it out."
If it works, researchers say a Mach Effect Thruster could allow us to seek out "Planet 9" and make interstellar travel possible -- a trip to Proxima b could take just over 20 years, versus the tens of thousands of years it would take to get there with technology currently being used.
Some engineers think the best way to get around on Pluto could be to literally hop around the dwarf planet. NASA thinks it's worth looking into a plan to build a lander that could be deployed on the surface before it begins jumping around, taking advantage of relatively weak gravity to skip around and do science as it goes. Researchers behind the proposal say the lander could leap a few kilometers in a single bound.
One of the peskier problems of space is the lack of gravity there. It's a challenge that's led scientists and sci-fi writers alike to propose all sorts of ambitious means of generating artificial gravity, like huge rotating space stations.
NASA's going to spend money looking into a smaller solution that could allow astronauts to get a little dose of gravity to counteract the negative health impacts of living without it. The so-called Turbolift basically generates that downward pull you feel when an elevator lurches upward, but then immediately flips 180 degrees and heads in the other direction so the force is constantly pushing down on an astronaut in the lift, just like gravity.
Driving a robotic rover around on the surface of a nearby planet or asteroid can be tricky: It seems none of the aliens have thought to pave roads for our robots just yet.
NASA will soon be looking into developing so-called "soft bot" spacecraft, which are a kind of bizarre cross between a blob and a snake. This soft-body design should allow such a robot to move over, and even grasp and throw rubble on the surface of an asteroid. Imagine a robot that can land on an asteroid, pluck a chunk of the space rock and then toss it to a nearby spacecraft in orbit where it could be mined for resources like water or metals.
NASA is looking into creating what would essentially be the world's most effective sunscreen for sending a spacecraft to literally surf the outer edge of our star and come closer to Mercury. The high-temperature coating could reflect up to 99.9 percent of the sun's irradiance, allowing for flights eight times closer to the surface of the sun than the upcoming Solar Probe Plus, set to launch in 2018.
NASA will continue funding a project to develop a probe that could float around and navigate the atmosphere of Venus, our toxic and hellish neighbor that's home to boiling temperatures and poisonous gases. This balloon-based probe could harvest its own fuel from the deadly atmosphere to better explore our nearest neighbor we know so little about.
When stars fluctuate, the changes in intensity may "echo" off nearby planets. NASA is continuing research into using these fluctuations to detect and perhaps even directly image exoplanets using computational imaging techniques.
The surface of Venus is hot enough to melt lead, with pressures high enough to crush the hull of a submarine. Using high-temperature electronics, NASA is continuing work on a project that could produce a rover that can handle the second planet's uber-extreme conditions.
NASA's New Horizons revolutionized our view of Pluto, but it took the better part of a decade to get there and the mission was just a flyby. Now the space agency is continuing to fund a Pluto orbiter and lander concept that could allow a craft to return and touch the surface of the most intriguing dwarf planet around with the help of a direct-fusion drive that could shorten the trip to four years.
Check out the full list of bleeding-edge technologies that NASA is funding or continuing to fund this year with its Innovative Advanced Concepts program here.