NASA has granted funding to a dozen imaginative tech concepts, in the hopes that one or more of them will lead to big breakthroughs in space science and exploration.

The 12 ideas, which were selected under Phase 1 of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, are ambitious and varied. One aims to build biomaterials such as human tissue with a 3D printer, for example, while another proposes to induce deep-sleep torpor states in astronauts making the long journey to Mars.

"These new Phase 1 selections include potential breakthroughs for Earth and space science, diverse operations and the potential for new paths that expand human civilization and commerce into space," NIAC program executive Jay Falker said in a statement. [Future Visions of Human Spaceflight]

Phase 1 awards are worth about $100,000. The selected mission teams will use the money to conduct nine-month initial analysis studies, after which they can apply for Phase 2 funding of approximately $500,000 for two more years of concept development.

The 12 selected concepts, along with their principal investigators, are:

  • Pulsed Fission-Fusion (PuFF) Propulsion System (Rob Adams, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center) that could improve propulsion for long-distance space travel
  • Torpor-Inducing Transfer Habitat For Human Stasis To Mars (John Bradford, Spaceworks Engineering, Inc.) that could induce deep sleep states in astronauts for extended periods of time
  • Two-Dimensional Planetary Surface Landers (Hamid Hemmati, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory) that could be printed on flexible sheets, could collect data in an inexpensive manner and wouldn't require a landing mechanism
  • Dual-mode Propulsion System Enabling CubeSat Exploration of the Solar System (Nathan Jerred, Universities Space Research Association) that could enable small satellites to travel to extra-terrestrial bodies within the Milky Way
  • Growth Adapted Tensegrity Structures: A New Calculus for the Space Economy (Anthony Longman) that could enable an economically sensible, multi-purpose space habitat
  • Eternal Flight as the Solution for 'X' (Mark Moore, NASA Langley Research Center) that could lead to more efficient designs for space missions
  • Deep Mapping of Small Solar System Bodies with Galactic Cosmic Ray Secondary Particle Showers (Thomas Prettyman, Planetary Science Institute) that could provide a more efficient method of examining the internal structures of comets, asteroids and other small bodies
  • Biomaterials Out of Thin Air: In Situ, On-Demand Printing of Advanced Biocomposites (Lynn Rothschild, NASA Ames Research Center) that could allow 3D printing of cells for necessary objects (even body parts!) on space missions
  • Plasmonic Force Propulsion Revolutionizes Nano/PicoSatellite Capability (Joshua Rovey, University of Missouri, Rolla) that could make tiny spacecraft more controllable for missions on Earth or into deep space
  • Transformers For Extreme Environments (Adrian Stoica, Jet Propulsion Laboratory) that could change shape and react to environments surrounding roving space vehicles
  • 10-Meter Sub-Orbital Large Balloon Reflector (Christopher Walker, University of Arizona) that could operate as a telescope and remote sensor for telecommunication activities
  • Low-Mass Planar Photonic Imaging Sensor (Ben Yoo, University of California, Davis) that could provide a cost-efficient way to capture images for outer planet missions, even in high radiation environments
The NIAC program has been operating in its present form since 2011. The original NIAC, called the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, ran from 1998 through 2007. (In 2008, Congress ordered the U.S. National Research Council to investigate NIAC's effectiveness and importance. The reviews were favorable, leading to the program's resurrection several years later.)

To learn more about the 2013 Phase 1 selections, go to the NIAC page here.

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12 ambitious space tech ideas funded by NASA
From fission and fusion to biomaterials, NASA hopes these innovations will benefit Earth and space science.