NASA's NIAC Program Gives a Sneak Peek at the Future of Space Travel

Star Trek-like medical scanners have inspired NASA and other space agencies to explore concepts for off-planet agricultural. Researchers are gathering at a virtual conference to discuss sci-fi-inspired ideas and brainstorming for NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts.
Although it might seem impossible to imagine a drone helicopter flying around a Martian crater, or a lunar rover mapping moon ice, the copter flew earlier in the year and is currently being planned. The conference organizers are now seeking proposals for exploratory projects that the agency may fund. We invest in far-fetched technologies that are long-term and likely to fail. The ones that work might make a difference. Jason Derleth, NIAC program executive, said that it is high-risk and high-payoff almost like a venture capital portfolio.

Derleth states that the program doesn't focus on incremental development but rather seeks to develop game-changing technologies that are 10 times more advanced than current state of the art. It is similar to the Pentagons Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. This agency also explored extremely speculative ideas, but created the precursor to modern internet.

You can view the annual conference livestream on It will continue through Thursday, September 23. Many of the ideas discussed thus far, such as new ways to launch space stations or astronaut habitats or extract resources from other planets, revolve around the idea that for long space journeys you need to maximize every rocket launch.

Space travelers of the future will require resources to survive, build protective structures and fuel their journey home. We have two choices: Take everything with you, as if we were on a desert hike. Amelia Greig, an aerospace engineering student at University of Texas at El Paso presented at Tuesday's conference.

Greig and her coworkers propose ablative-arc mining technology to help lunar resources be reused creatively. This would allow water ice to be sucked up and also extract metals that can be used in building materials. Using controlled lightning bolts to extract the moon is like it was during her presentation. The van-sized mooncrawler, named after Jawa sandcrawlers from Star Wars, is described in her concept. It picks a spot and places a ringed device on its front that it holds parallel to the ground. The ring can have a diameter of up to a meter and emit electric arcs that rip particles off the moon's surface. These charged particles can then be moved by the electromagnetic fields to sort and sort them. Instead of focusing on one resource, one piece of equipment can fill a container with water, another one with oxygen, and yet others with silicon, aluminum or other metal particles.