Space subs and solar sails chosen for NASA program

NASA announced the seven phase II competitors of its Innovative Advanced Concepts program, which fields futuristic technology with potential space applications.

With a solar wind-powered spacecraft, a fleet of miniature satellites that measures the gravity of celestial bodies and a hydrodynamic skin-clad submarine meant to explore seas of liquid gas chosen for phase II of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts competition, it’s clear the space agency’s penchant for turning science fiction into reality has not withered with time.

The announcement for NIAC finalists came two months after NASA unveiled the competition’s first round of victors June 7, awarding them $100,000 each for their early-stage, futuristic space tech projects. Over that time, NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate assessed the 21 phase I proposals on a rubric of feasibility, benefit and technological viability. Only a third were deemed worthy of continued research in phase II.

“NASA’s investments in early-stage research are important for advancing new systems concepts and developing requirements for technologies to enable future space exploration missions,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. “This round of Phase II selections demonstrates the agency’s continued commitment to innovations that may transform our nation’s space, technology and science capabilities.”

The pool of phase II finalists is comprised of universities, private sector companies and a number of NASA’s own research centers. The teams could receive up to $500,000 for research in this phase, allowing them to refine their designs and further probe the efficacy of their concepts over a two-year period.


NASA Glenn Research Center’s “Titan Submarine: Exploring the Depths of Kraken Mare” project blueprints. (Steve Oleson)

Among the seven winning projects is “Titan Submarine: Exploring the Kraken Mare,” the brainchild of Steven Oleson of NASA’s Glenn Research Center. The proposal would see the design, construction and eventual launch of an “interstellar submarine” capable of enduring a journey through the frigid seas of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.

“The major risks found in the Phase I conceptual design center around vehicle operations in a liquid hydrocarbon sea,” states the phase II proposal for Oleson’s submarine. “Basic physics questions of operating in this cryogen need to be answered.”

NASA estimates that the majority of the ideas will require up to a decade of perpetual investment and research in order to reach fruition. The teams, however, remain confident.

Further research, Oleson goes on to state, should “ready the Titan Submarine (Titan Sub) concept to a confidence level that allow further NASA investment.”


This sense of optimism is shared by NIAC’s orchestrators, who have stressed the innovative nature of the victorious proposals.

“This is an excellent group of NIAC studies,” said Jason Derleth, NIAC program executive. “From seeing into cave formations on the moon to a radically new kind of solar sail that uses solar wind instead of light, NIAC continues to push the bounds of current technology.”

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