NASA Invests In Suspended Animation, Growable Space Habitats, And More

To take us to Mars and beyond

NASA wants to put humans on Mars in the 2030s, and it’s probably going to take some crazy ideas to get us there. Toward that end, the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program has just announced a second round of funding for 8 crazy, futuristic, brain-tickling ideas.

These Phase II awards can be worth as much as $500,000 each, and they’re predicated on the fact that the concepts demonstrated feasibility and benefit during their Phase I NIAC funding.

These concepts are still in their infancy. They could very well fail or take 10 years or more to fully mature, but here are some of the most exciting concepts that just got funded.

Human Hibernation

Nine months is a long time to be stuck on a spaceship. That’s about how long the journey to Mars would take, and not only would it be tedious, it would also require a lot of supplies to get astronauts there and back. But if astronauts could sleep the whole way, that would save a lot of cargo weight and a lot of boredom.

A project called “Torpor Inducing Transfer Habitat For Human Stasis To Mars” suggests we could put future Mars explorers in a state of advanced hypothermia, lowering their core body temperatures by about 10 degrees Fahrenheit to reduce their metabolic rate. They would be fed intravenously along the journey.

SpaceWorks, the company behind the idea, even has some spacecraft module designs worked up for the interplanetary slumber party.

If they can get it to work safely, this technology could helps us colonize Mars or even travel to other star systems.

Interstellar Travel

Concept drawing for a laser-propelled spacecraft
Concept drawing for a laser-propelled spacecraft destined to visit another star system. Philip Lubin, University of California

Not with humans onboard, but still pretty cool. Physicist Philip Lubin’s concept of using lasers to drive tiny spacecraft to another star system–a project that recently got a big investment from billionaire Yuri Milner–is getting a second round of funding from NASA. The concept won’t be ready to launch for 30 years or so, but when it does, scientists think the little starships could reach the sun’s nearest neighbor 20 years later.

Magnetoshells For Spacecraft

magnetoshell helps spacecraft enter Mars' atmosphere
A magnetoshell made of plasma could make it safer and cheaper to land manned missions on Mars. Screenshot from Powerpoint

When NASA sends large spacecraft to Mars, they usually rely on Mars’ thin atmosphere to slow down the spacecraft before it lands. The spacecraft’s friction with the atmosphere can be dangerous, however, and requires heat protection that can be heavy–and in spaceflight, every extra pound of weight can add several thousand dollars to a mission’s cost. However, propulsion researcher David Kirtley thinks that wrapping the spaceship in a shell of plasma could do the aerobraking in a more controlled way–and it could shave thousands of pounds and up to $1.8 billion dollars off of each manned mission to Mars. It could even potentially protect astronauts from radiation on their way to Mars.

A Growable Habitat

NASA doesn’t provide a lot of details about this one, but the name of the concept (“Tensegrity Approaches to In-Space Construction of a 1g Growable Habitat”) gives us a clue as to how it would work. The concept’s creator, Robert Skelton, describes tensegrity as:

Other tensegrity structures could be used to tumble around on planets.

These are just the four most intriguing and exciting ideas to win second-round funding. Read the full list of projects on NASA’s website.