A squid rover and a robotic eel are among the new technologies being funded by NASA in an effort to find life on other planets. Other ideas are to use quasars to help guide spacecraft on missions to faraway targets, and store goods in deep cyrogenic storage in space.
The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program (NIAC) selected 15 projects for awards of $100,000 each. The awards were given to selected proposals to turn science fiction into science fact.
"The latest NIAC selections include a number of exciting concepts. We are working with American innovators to reimagine the future of aerospace and focus our investments on concepts to address challenges of current interests both in space and here on Earth," said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate.
A squid robot designed by Mason Peck of Cornell is one of the most intriguing ideas recognized in phase one of the directive. Its flexible body will allow the electronic explorer to study subsurface oceans like those on Europa, one of the large moons of Jupiter. Tentacle-like appendages attached around the soft-robotic explorer propel the vehicle and collect energy from local magnetic fields. This electricity is used, in part, to separate hydrogen from oxygen within water. When ignited, these gases can propel the device through alien oceans or along the ground. A flexible electroluminescent skin will light up the area immediately around the craft, allowing an installed camera to record photographs.
An eel rover that also won NIAC money from NASA is also designed to feed off electromagnetic fields. The soft-bodied roving explorer would be distinguished by a large antennae attached to the back of the craft, which will gather the raw energy needed for operations.
Observations of the Earth, including our atmosphere, could be carried out using a pair of gliders selected during the latest round of new technology ideas. These two craft, attached by a cable, would ride through the lower stratosphere at different altitudes. Riding wind shear roughly 60,000 feet above the ground, the two vehicles would be propelled in much the same way as a windsurfer attached to a motor boat. The lower glider would use the shear forces to provide forward momentum, while the upper vehicle supplied lift. Such a tandem could, theoretically, stay aloft for decades at a small fraction of the cost of traditional satellites.
The Cryogenic Reservoir Inventory by Cost-Effective Kinetically Enhanced Technology (Cricket) proposal suggests storing volatile supplies, such as water, hydrogen, and nitrogen, in perpetually shadowed regions of planetary bodies, including moons and asteroids.
"The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program nurtures visionary ideas that could transform future NASA missions with the creation of breakthroughs - radically better or entirely new aerospace concepts - while engaging America's innovators and entrepreneurs as partners in the journey," NASA officials wrote.
Check here for a full list of NAIC proposals selected for funding, by year.