NASA considers Titan hybrid aircraft mission and other visionary space concepts

The US space agency selected 14 projects that are focused on "making the impossible possible".
Chris Young
An artist's impression of TitanAir.
An artist's impression of TitanAir.

NASA / Quinn Morley 

Part of the value of space exploration comes from the fact it will open new frontiers to science that we don't yet know exist.

With that same spirit in mind, NASA has selected several new experimental space technology concepts for initial study, a blog post from the space agency reveals.

NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program has selected a total of 14 projects that it deems worthy of further investigation. Some may not make it past the concept stage, while others could change space exploration for good.

NASA selects 14 new futuristic space concepts

NASA's NIAC program will grant each of the 14 research teams $175,000 in grants to help further develop their concepts. The studies will "help NASA determine whether these futuristic ideas could set the stage for future space exploration capabilities and enable amazing new missions," Michael LaPointe, program executive for NIAC, said in NASA's post.

All awardees will now conduct Phase I studies, each of which will last approximately nine months. They will have the opportunity to earn more funds for a Phase II study. However, only a few will be selected for a Phase III study, which will see them further develop their technology for potential future use in NASA missions. The NIAC program typically covers a wide range of space science relating to the Earth and further human space exploration.

Awardees include Titan hybrid boat-aircraft concept and lunar pipeline

Amongst the concepts that stand out the most is the TitanAir concept by planetary scientist Quinn Morley of Planet Enterprises. NASA is already planning for its Dragonfly mission to reach Saturn's moon Titan at some point in the 2030s. However, TitanAir stands out due to the fact the concept aircraft can transform into a watercraft, allowing it to sale on the methane lakes of Titan — so, in fact, it's not technically actually a "watercraft".

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Crucially, TitanAir could take liquid samples of Titan's curiously Earth-like rivers, lakes, and oceans, meaning it would provide unprecedented insight into the moon, which some scientists believe may harbor alien life.

Another impressive concept is University of California, Los Angeles assistant professor Artur Davoyan's pellet-beam propulsion concept. The system builds on existing light sail technology to transport heavy spacecraft and space cargo across the Solar System and into interstellar space. It uses a pellet beam of microscopic hypervelocity particles propelled by lasers to propel heavy loads.

According to Davoyan, the pellet beam propulsion system could transport payloads to the outer Solar System in less than a year. In approximately three years, it could also travel distances farther than 100 times the Earth-Sun distance (au).

NASA considers Titan hybrid aircraft mission and other visionary space concepts
An artist's impression of the lunar pipeline concept.

Peter Curreri from Lunar Resources in Houston, meanwhile, has proposed a lunar pipeline for transporting extracted oxygen from the moon's ice supply. The concept would be used for NASA's upcoming Artemis missions, and it was proposed in response to the space agency's current plans for transporting oxygen to lunar habitats.

In a statement, Curreri wrote that the "current funded efforts for in-situ oxygen extraction consist of bottling the oxygen in compressed gas tanks or to liquefy and store it in dewars. Either approach requires trucking tanks or dewars to various facilities for use. The process of moving this oxygen on rovers is more energy intensive than the extraction process and is thought to be the MOST expensive aspect in obtaining in-situ oxygen for use on the Moon considering the long distances a resource extraction area will be from a human habitat or liquefication plant."

Curreri's concept would provide constant access to oxygen for lunar settlers and would drastically cut costs that would otherwise be associated with transportation. For the full list of chosen concepts, take a look at NASA's statement, showing the entire intriguing list of potential game-changing space innovations.