Shapeshifters, bio-bots and other sci-fi NASA concepts are out of this world

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Apr 2, 2018

NASA is really blurring the lines between science and fiction with this year’s NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) competition.

For Phase I, the space agency just chose 25 early-stage tech proposals that could make the stuff of sci-fi a reality with robotic swarms, spacecraft that change shape depending on what extraterrestrial cave or ocean they are heading to, and other visionary ideas that you may have trouble separating them from whatever sci-fi series you’ve been binge-watching on YouTube lately.

Here are some of the most mind-blowing things to emerge from the brains of contestants:


Shapeshifters (shown above) don’t just live in sci-fi and horror movies. These flying amphibious robots (FARs) meant to explore the methane lakes and subsurface oceans of Titan were brainstormed by NASA JPL scientist Aliakbar Aghamohammadi, who proposed a bot that can go from flying to rolling to floating, swimming and cave diving. Behind the shifting technology are cobots, mini robots which recombine to change the shape—something like autonomous Legos.


How do you take weight off a spacesuit? You make a robot carry the portable life support system (PLSS) around. Wearing an extra 310 pounds can restrict how much of the mission astronauts can actually accomplish, even in low-gravity zones. BioBots can relieve their human companions of some of that weight by connecting to them with an umbilical cord and traveling with them. We’re going to need these if we have any intention of flying back to the moon.


If Swarm of Flapping Wing Flyers for Enhanced Mars Exploration doesn’t sound like the most awesome thing ever, then a bumblebee-sized flyer that hovers over the surface of the Red Planet definitely does. These insectile bots that scientist Chang-kwon Kang calls “bioinspired flapping vehicles” would buzz through the Martian atmosphere with wings the size of of a cicada’s and collect samples from the regolith. Like flying insects, they also weigh next to nothing, meaning they would add minimal weight toa spacecraft’s payload.

Balloon Locomotion for Extreme Terrain (BALLET)

Another genius acronym, BALLET is a balloon platform with six “feet” (which double as payloads) that crawl over terrain which would probably shred your average rover. The underside of the balloon is equipped with a camera to navigate. Five of these feet, which are each tethered to the balloon with three cables to keep it from drifting away, are supposed to stay grounded while one at a time “walks” over a planetary surface in a bizarre sort of space ballet.


So maybe humans aren’t zooming over to Proxima Centauri (yet), but scientist Chris Limbach of Texas A&M University has dreamed up a spacecraft that would literally beam itself over. This “Diffractionless Beamed Propulsion for Breakthrough Interstellar Missions” beats laser propulsion because of an innovative beam design that drastically amps the distance over which it accelerates while reducing the beam size. It would be unreal to see this thing in action, shooting through millions of miles of darkness to the next galaxy over, but it could also explore closer mysteries like the Oort cloud.

Concept art of Marsbees buzzing around a rover. Credit: NASA

Also in NASA’s galaxy of possibilities (you can see all 25 here):

Lofted Environmental and Atmospheric Venus Sensors (LEAVES)

Spacecraft that are impervious to the toxic swirl of Venus’ atmosphere? Yes please.

Meteoroid Impact Detection for Exploraiton of Asteroids (MIDEA)

If asteroid mining is the future, then this is the future of that future.

On-Orbit, Collision-Free Mapping of Small Orbital Debris

We keep getting better at figuring out how to keep our spacecraft from smashing into space junk.

Rotary Motion Extended Array Synthesis (R-MXAS)

R-MXAS may sound like an undisclosed Star Wars droid, but it’s actually supposed to image Earth and watch out for coronal mass ejections.

Steam Propelled Autonomous Retrieval Robot for Ocean Worlds (SPARROW)

One of NASA’s current obsessions is ocean worlds like Europa, Titan and Enceladus, and this steampunk bot would be able to use propulsive hopping to get to the most interesting targets.

Myco-Architecture Off Planet: Growing Surface Structures at Destination

It’s a self-pitching habitat made of super-fungus. And it self-replicates. Enough said.

Modular Active Self-Assembling Space Telescope Swarms

Because sometimes all you need to fuel a swarm of Transformer-like spacecraft is solar power.

Astrophysics and Technical Study of a Solar Neutrino Spacecraft

Forget about a journey to the center of the earth when you’ve got a concept for studying the inside of the sun.

Advanced Diffractive MetaFilm Sailcraft

How to propel a spacecraft using a diffractive sail (light will bend as it passes around the edge) and solar photons.

Spectrally-Resolved Synthetic Imaging Interferometer

This concept sets itself apart from existing interferometers with an innovative shortcut to detecting radio waves

Radioisotope Positron Propulsion

When chemical and ion propellants fall short, just use antimatter.

Leveling up to Phase 2 are nine awesome works-in-progress, including a space telescope that will outdo even Hubble and the infamously delayed James Webb Space Telescope.

“The 2018 Phase I competition was especially fierce,” said NIAC program executive Jason Derleth. “I can’t wait to see what the new NIAC Fellows can do for NASA!”

(via NASA)