NASA Will Invest in Biobots, Shapeshifters, and Other New Space Tech

NASA will invest millions into 25 early-stage tech proposals that could one day be used in space exploration and travel.
Shelby Rogers

From shapeshifting technologies to space telescope swarms, NASA has quite a bit on its radar for investments. The space agency has selected 25 early-stage technology proposals that could transform human and robotic space exploration with the hopes of seeing those technologies become a reality. 

These aerospace improvements come as part of the organization's 2018 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. The program is split into two phases. Phase I concepts cover a broad range of innovations that could potentially improve space travel in a variety of ways. Each project selected for inclusion in Phase I earns $125,000 over the course of nine months that will help subsidize the project and support further analysis of the concepts surrounding the technology. 

"The 2018 Phase I competition was especially fierce, with over 230 proposals and only 25 winners," said Jason Derleth, NIAC program executive. "I can't wait to see what the new NIAC Fellows can do for NASA!"

Those 25 winners include a wide range of technologies. One project regards shapeshifting -- but not those as one would associate with science fiction novels or movies. Aliakbar Aghamohammadi's shapeshifting concept would create a new type of technology functional across a variety of planetary bodies with varying atmospheres. For example, shapeshifting tech that works on Venus could theoretically work on Mars as well. 

There's also Sigrid Close of Stanford University's meteoroid impact detection system. Rather than be dedicated to the destruction of asteroids for the safety of earth, Close's system would seek out what can be excavated and what those findings would tell researchers about the compositions of some of the most mysterious bodies in the universe. 

If a team is chosen for a Phase I study, they're then able to apply for a Phase II award as well. The Phase II studies will give awardees the time needed to fine tune their designs, dive deeper into the issues surrounding their research, and give more details about how their technology would be applied in a real-world scenario. NASA's Phase II participants earn up to $500,000 for a two year study to develop those Phase I concepts and demonstrate an initial feasibility and benefit. 


Much like the Phase I finalists, the Phase II participants include a wide range of topics and technologies. They include propulsion architecure for interstellar missions, a large space telescope, and how to best build new space exploration tools for trips to Triton. 

This year's investments include projects like John Slough's shield against galactic cosmic radiation. His proposed magnetospheric protection shields against galactic cosmic radiation by using particle code and what's known as the Magnetospheric Dipolar Torus configuration. 

"Phase II studies are given to the most successful Phase I fellows, whose ideas have the best possibility of changing the possible," said Derleth. "Their two-year timeframe and larger budget allow them to really get going on the business of creating the future."

All projects in both Phase I and Phase II were selected through an extensive peer-review process that evaluated both the project's innovativeness and technical viability. NASA also made it clear in its press release that all projects regardless of phase are still in early stages and will require at least a decade or more of maturation before the agency would use these technologies on a mission.