5 of the weirdest spaceships considered by NASA

24 Jul 2015

NASA does some great stuff: sending people to the moon, sending spaceships outside our known universe, even sending photographers to Pluto, kinda.

But for all those successes, they need some brainstorming, with ideas of various shapes and sizes being proposed.

That brainstorming has evolved towards a tender-type proposal system, where different research bodies can suggest missions of spacecraft, with NASA then evaluating the potential of each idea.

Within this realm there have been some really, really weird ideas. Below are just five.

Space squid: The soft-robotic rover

Soft-robotic rover - strange spacecraft

Right now Jupiter’s moons offer some of the most interesting locations to investigate, now that scientists are adamant that they are home to bodies of highly-salinated water.

Europa is one such moon and it is to be a key location for ESA’s JUpiter ICy moons Explorer (Juice) mission, which launches in 2022 and arrives in the Jovian system in 2030.

Alongside detailed studies of Jupiter itself, Juice will explore and characterise three of the gas giant’s potentially habitable icy moons, with Ganymede and Callisto joining Europa on the list.

This Cornell University proposal to NASA, though, is what really catches the eye.

“This rover resembles a squid, with tentacle-like structures that serve both as electrodynamic tethers to harvest power from locally changing magnetic fields and as a means of bio-inspired propulsion,” reads the proposal.


Windbots - strange spacecraft

As we reported just today, Jupiter could be expecting an array of different spacecraft, with windbots one of the latest suggestions of how to navigate around this gassy, explosive planet.

NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) programme is working on a study on small robotic probes powered by Jupiter’s storms, which survive there for an extensive period.

According to the principal investigator on the study, Adrian Stoica, much of this windbot concept’s design is taking the example of nature and following the humble dandelion.

“A dandelion seed is great at staying airborne,” Stoica says. “It rotates as it falls, creating lift, which allows it to stay afloat for long time, carried by the wind. We’ll be exploring this effect on windbot designs.”

Venus fly trap

Venus cloud city - strange spacecraft

Venus, also dogged by countless environmental elements that make it uninhabitable for man, could be presented with a new skyline – that’s if a late-2014 proposal gets the go-ahead.

Rather than looking to land boots on the ground, so to speak, NASA’s high-altitude operational concept (HAVOC) suggests that the surface isn’t where we should be looking.

HAVOC’s proposed mission ships are blimps, filled with helium and powered through solar panelling, brought there by a series of consecutive missions.

The first would be a robotic exploration in a relatively small blimp, then the 30-day crewed mission around Venus’ orbit, before a similar mission within the planet’s atmosphere. Pretty soon, if all went well, a permanent human presence within stationed blimps could be maintained.

Super Ball Bot

Super Ball Dot - strange spacecraft

Rovers are great, if limited in their movement. The data the various Martian rovers send back to Earth, for example, is fantastic.

The sluggish pace, however, is not.

So step up the Super Ball Bot, designed with both landing and movement in mind. Landing a rover, for example, takes considerable effort and numerous stages, all of which can go wrong.

The Super Ball Bot, though, relies on a concept called ‘tensegrity’, which translates as rigid components held together by flexible materials.

These weird-looking things are being suggested for Saturn’s moon Titan, particularly because the atmosphere there would allow NASA to slow the spacecraft carrying the Bots’ descent.

They could then be dropped from 100km, absorbing the impact and then getting to work.


CubeSat Strange spacecraft

Satellites are due to get smaller as they get more powerful, following the pattern of Moore’s law, perhaps.

And so to the CubeSat proposals, which relate to NASA’s thirst for cheap, tiny devices,

Joseph Wang and his University of Southern California and University of Utah colleagues want to combine this with our new adoration of landing on comets.

So, by including a “nanosensor-based instrument for low-cost in-situ analysis of asteroid and comet composition”, NASA might be able to echo ESA’s Rosetta project.

On a tinier, squarer scale.

Main image via Shutterstock, all other images via NASA, IEEE, Cornell University, Langley Research Center

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic