NASA has announced its 2013 class of Innovative Advanced Technology Concepts for further development. The NASA concepts chosen include spherical robots, photonic laser thrusters, on-orbit construction of large objects, a new method of gravitational wave detection, sample return systems for harsh environments and a system to use the sun as a navigational tool.

The six concepts chosen by NASA will be given a grant of up to $500,000 and will be funded for two years. The goal of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program is to develop new technologies that could advance, or radically transform, future space missions. According to NASA, “These proposals have been selected based on the potential of their concepts to transform future aerospace missions, enable new capabilities, or significantly alter and improve current approaches.”

For the six concepts chosen for Phase II, the researchers leading the projects build off of the progress of Phase I concepts, which explored proof of concept and benefit of these programs. The two-year window will aim to explore and improve the designs of the concept and determine how these concepts can be implemented.

Michael Gazarik, NASA's associate administrator for space technology in Washington, said in a statement, “As NASA begins a new chapter in exploration, we're investing in these seed-corn advanced concepts of next-generation technologies that will truly transform how we investigate and learn about our universe. Advancing these proposals from universities, private companies and NASA researchers to Phase 2 studies allows new, futuristic ideas to move closer to becoming real tools for exploration.”

The concepts selected for Phase II of the NIAC Program are a long way from being ready but could play a crucial role in the future of space flight. NASA estimates at least 10 years before any of these concepts will be seen on a mission but the space agency considers the program an investment. As noted by NASA, 2012’s class of Phase II concepts has piqued interest from potential investors and may be incorporated in other NASA programs.

One of the projects selected by NASA is being developed by the Y.K . Bae Corporation and explores the concept of using laser thrusters which could improve a spacecraft’s maneuverability. The SpiderFab concept is examining ways of on-board construction of large objects, such as antenna or panels. Detecting gravitational waves could lead to the observation hard-to-observe objects that emit little light, such as black holes. The Spherical Ball Bot concept could lead to the creation of a collapsable robot system for exploring unknown terrain. The full list of concepts can be viewed below.

  • Propellant-less Spacecraft Formation-Flying and Maneuvering with Photonic Laser Thrusters (Young Bae, Y.K. Bae Corporation, Tustin, Calif.)
  • SpiderFab: Architecture for On-Orbit Construction of Kilometer-Scale Apertures (Robert Hoyt, Tethers Unlimited, Inc., Bothell, Wash.)
  • A Gravitational Wave Detector Based on an Atom Interferometer (Babak Saif, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.)
  • Super Ball Bot: Structures for Planetary Landing and Exploration (Vytas SunSpiral, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.)
  • Nomadic Exploration: Following Routes of Solar Sustenance and Temperate Climate (David Wettergreen, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pa.)
  • Sample Return Systems for Extreme Environments: Phase II (Robert Winglee, University of Washington, Seattle)