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NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts program has funded a slew of new space mission concepts! Which one is your favorite?

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What if we sent a lander to hop around on Pluto?

Or a pancake-shaped robot to mine asteroids for us? Well, someday, we might.

In April, NASA announced that they’d funded 15 new space mission concepts, as part of their Innovative Advanced Concepts program, or NIAC. These concepts are still in the very early planning stages, so in a lot of cases, we know more about the goals of each project than how the researchers are going to accomplish those goals. And at most only a few of them will ever be fully developed.

But the whole point of NIAC is funding some science fiction-y sounding ideas, and if researchers figure out how to do them, then NASA has some amazingly useful technology. The 15 concepts NASA’s funding this year all fall into four main categories: propulsion, exploring Mars, exploring the rest of the solar system, and asteroid mining. One new way to propel spacecraft would involve shining a giant, 10-kilometer-wide set of lasers from Earth to the spacecraft’s solar panels, giving it enough power to travel 75 billion kilometers — more than 15 times farther than Neptune — in just 12 years.

Another group of researchers wants to take advantage of what are called Mach effects, which is an idea in physics where an accelerating object’s mass fluctuates in tiny ways that you can use to propel it forward. Problem is, Mach effects are still very theoretical and haven’t really been proven to work yet, but if this project works, a spacecraft propelled by Mach effects wouldn’t need fuel. NASA also funded two teams that want to build faster spacecraft that run on nuclear fusion, where you combine two smaller atoms into a larger one.

So far, no one has been able to design a fusion reactor that could realistically fit on a spacecraft. We might eventually use one of these ideas to zoom around the solar system faster and farther than ever before, but in the meantime, NASA wants to send humans to Mars. One problem is that the pull of gravity on Mars is less than half of what you’d experience on Earth.

And after a couple of years there, astronauts would end up with all sorts of issues, like weak muscles and heart problems. So this group of researchers wants to invent a sort of elevator-trampoline hybrid that would let astronauts experience stronger gravity in short bursts, which would hopefully keep them healthy. Another Mars-focused concept would use genetic engineering to design microbes that would let astronauts use Martian soil to grow crops.

Kind of like what they did in the book The Martian, but hopefully with fewer explosions. The microbes would remove perchlorates, a kind of salt in Martian soil that makes it hard to grow stuff, and produce ammonia to help plants get the nitrogen they need. A third research team wants to invent a whole new kind of Mars probe: airships!

These ships would float a lot like balloons do on Earth, but instead of being filled with helium, the insides of the airships would be a vacuum, with a /very/ low density. The concept wouldn’t work on Earth, because the pressure from our atmosphere would make a vacuumed-out airship collapse. But Mars has so little atmosphere that the pressure isn’t strong enough to do that.

And these airships could maybe do a lot more than just float around. They’d be able to touch down on the surface to collect data, or even transport other probes. Now, lots of the mission concepts would explore the solar system in other ways, like one that would send a probe to Mars’s moon Phobos.

This probe would be tethered to a mothership parked about 3 kilometers above the surface, and just kind of dangle there as it did all of its measuring. Which might be easier than trying to actually land on a world with such low gravity: about one 1700th of what you would experience on Earth. Another probe would go all the way to Pluto!

The researchers want to design a lander that would take advantage of Pluto’s thick atmosphere to help it slow down and land without needing much fuel. A third concept would launch a spacecraft to study the way that normal matter interacts with dark energy, which is what scientists think is responsible for the acceleration of the expansion of the universe. Dark energy seems to make up 73% of the universe, but we still don’t really know anything about it.

There’s also a team that wants to develop a super reflective material that could reflect enough heat to keep a probe safe within 700,000 kilometers of the sun’s surface. That’s about 8 times closer than we have ever been. And yet another group wants to send a telescope outside the solar system, where it could take advantage of the fact that the sun’s gravity bends light, and use that bending to get a much clearer picture of exoplanets than we can get from Earth.

Finally, there are three missions that would help us mine asteroids, an idea that’s been getting really popular lately. One would send three small spacecraft into orbit around the sun, where they would look for mining targets and asteroids that could be a threat to Earth. Another team wants to develop a way to use the stuff mined from asteroids to create heat shields that would protect deliveries of mined material as they fall through Earth’s atmosphere.

That way, they don’t actually have to ship up the heat shields. Finally, there are the pancake space bots, which would be designed to explore small asteroids, with a wide, flat surface to let them get a good grip. They would also be able to anchor themselves in one spot, to mine material from the asteroid and then toss it up to a collector out in orbit.

We’ve never sent any kind of probe to wander around on an asteroid, and we’ve definitely never mined one. But if this idea works, we could have whole fleets of mining bots out there someday. So there you have it. 15 new mission concepts.

Personally, I’m rooting for the Mars farming microbes and the pancake asteroid bots, but which of these missions are you most excited about? Let us know in the comments. And thank you for watching this episode of SciShow Space.

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