An eel-like robot concept powered by energy from magnetic fields has caught the eye of Nasa

Nasa's sci-fi concepts to change future of space exploration

Curtains that revitalise air inside spaceships or an eel-like robot harvesting energy from magnetic fields for exploration of other planets are among daring concepts that Nasa wants to push from science fiction to science reality.

The two out-of-this-world ideas are among 15 proposals selected by the space agency in the framework of its Innovative Advanced Concepts programme. Each of the concepts will receive $100,000 for a phase 1 study.

"We are working with American innovators to reimagine the future of aerospace and focus our investments on concepts to address challenges of current interests both in space and here on Earth," said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate at Nasa Headquarters in Washington.

A proposal by Cornell University researcher Mason Peck envisions a snake-like soft robotic rover harvesting power from changing magnetic fields in its vicinity. The amphibious creature, the researcher hopes, could help tackle some major limitations in exploration of other celestial bodies. It could potentially go to places where solar energy is not available and where operating a nuclear-powered rover is not feasible. One of the possible destinations for the innovative rover could be Jupiter’s moon Europa.

A concept by William Engblom from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University suggests twin gliders connected by an ultra-strong cable flying at different altitudes that would sail without propulsion in the stratosphere. Such stratospheric kites could replace not only Earth observation satellites, but could also provide navigation and aircraft monitoring capabilities at a fraction of the cost of large satellite constellations.

John Graf from Nasa Johnson Space Center proposed thirsty walls or air revitalising curtains that could replace bulky life-support equipment in spaceships.

"Most of the 2015 NIAC Phase I final candidates were outstanding and choosing only 15 of them proved to be a challenge," said Jason Derleth, NIAC program executive. "We look forward to seeing how each new study will push boundaries and explore new approaches - that's what makes NIAC unique."

If the basic feasibility studies are successful, awardees can apply for Phase II awards, valued up to $500,000 for two additional years of concept development.

The projects in the NIAC programme are chosen through a peer-review process that evaluates their potential, technical approach and benefits that can be realised in a reasonable timeframe.

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