NASA Advanced Innovative Concepts funds wacky tech

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

orbiting rainbow
The orbiting rainbows project would send a dust cloud of tiny particles above Earth to zoom in on distant planets.

When it comes to ultra-futuristic space projects, nothing comes close to the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program. Earlier this year, the NIAC announced 12 projects that it would fund as part of its Phase I, offering about $100,000 to wacky tech like an asteroid catcher, a comet hitchhiker, and gravity-reading robotic swarms. Now, NIAC has revealed 5 projects for its Phase II that will get $500,000 each, including orbiting rainbows, an asteroid-mapping cosmic ray, and an inflatable balloon telescope!

Let’s start with the craziest sounding one – the orbiting rainbow. Researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) are trying to create a dust cloud of tiny light-bending objects that can be rearranged in space to detect super distant planets with high-resolution images. Basically, it’s like shattering a telescope into microscopic particles, scattering it way above Earth, and programming the little bits to rearrange themselves into a mega lens. Whoa!

Next up is the 10-meter Suborbital Large Balloon Reflector, which would turn an inflatable reflector into a balloon-carried telescope. This would allow distant observations to be made from the stratosphere, which is the second layer (going upward) of Earth’s atmosphere. It’s currently being developed at the Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

Last, but certainly not least, is the asteroid-mapping galactic cosmic ray, which would shoot super tiny particles to map the inside and detailed outside of rocky bodies traveling through the Solar System. Then, depending on the findings, scientists could determine which asteroids are ripe for space mining or exploration!

The other two projects that won funding are a spacecraft-rover hybrid, where a “mothership” can deploy a smaller spacecraft onto a low-gravity object like an asteroid or moon, and a lightweight “electro-optical” imaging sensor that would replace the bulkier materials currently used in telescopes.

Images courtesy of NASA.