NASA is a pretty forward thinking bunch. Beyond developing technologies for the next decade that could take us back to the moon or detect signals from the ancient universe, the national space agency is also looking to the more distant future. Recently, NASA's Planetary Science Director Jim Green floated an idea about launching a magnetic shield to help Mars grow an atmosphere and become habitable. A recent NASA paper also looked at the feasibility of harvesting and using resources in a colony on the Martian surface. Since 1998, the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program has awarded millions of dollars to projects that could provide critical research for developing the technologies of the next 50 years. The agency just announced the list of 22 new projects, and it includes some wild stuff, like a swarm of robotic spacecraft to pick apart asteroids, a method for growing food in Martian soil, two fusion projects, a JPL study on interstellar propulsion techniques, a system to physically tether spacecraft to Mars' moon Phobos, a study on the effects of Mach speeds in spaceflight, and something called "solar surfing," which we assume is some sort of light sail-based propulsion technology. NIAC selects the research that it considers most likely to be relevant decades from now, and those projects receive $125,000 in funding for nine months of research to prove that the work is feasible and valuable. If all goes well in Phase I, a project can get Phase II funding from NIAC for up to $500,000 and two additional years of funding. The Phase II projects this year include a Venus spacecraft that would be powered by the Venusian atmosphere, technology for mining asteroids, and a fusion-powered Pluto orbiter. In the past, futuristic concepts like a space elevator and 3D printed spacecraft have been funded by NIAC. It remains to be seen which ones actually come to fruition, and which ones stay firmly planted in the domains of science fiction. Until then, you can get a kick out of looking at the 2017 NIAC projects below.
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