NASA Funds Advanced Concepts

NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover acquired this image using its left Mastcam-Z camera. Mastcam-Z is a pair of cameras located high on the rover’s mast. This is one still frame from a sequence captured by the camera while taking video. This image was acquired on Apr. 22, 2021.

It’s the time of year when the out-there concepts aiming to push the boundaries of space exploration get a nod and a boost from the powers that be. Yesterday, NASA announced that it awarded 13 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NAIC) awards to individuals building unconventional, early-stage space technologies.

“The daring missions NASA undertakes for the benefit of humanity all begin as just an idea, and NIAC is responsible for inspiring many of those ideas,” said Jim Free, NASA associate administrator, in a press release.

A storied history: NASA has been soliciting unusual ideas for space exploration through the NAIC program (under various names) for more than 20 years. The early-stage funding mechanism lives under the auspices of the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and has been responsible for boosting ideas including the Ingenuity Mars helicopter.

The contracts: The agency awarded up to $175,000 apiece for 13 projects. The researchers and founders leading each projects are now participating in the NASA fellowship, and they’ll have access to agency resources and advice as they build out the details of their concepts.

The projects are not technically NASA missions yet, but the agency may choose to pursue any of them down the line.

A few highlights: The projects funded in this batch of Phase I awards include:

  • A Venus sample return concept led by Geoff Landis at NASA’s Glenn Research Center
  • A new method do detoxify water on Mars for human consumption led by Lynn Rothschild at NASA Ames
  • A nuclear-powered rocket design by James Bickford at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory
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