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Submarines for Saturn, comet hitchhikers, asteroid wranglers and other space fantasies

Capture asteroids with giant nets? Sure, why not! (NASA)

If you thought Elon Musk was the only person coming up with innovative ideas for the exploration of outer space, you’d be wrong. NASA recently announced the 12 winners of its Innovative Advanced Concepts program to fund early-stage space technology initiatives, and there are some incredibly creative concepts in there, such as a submarine to explore the methane sea of Saturn’s moon Titan, a new technology to capture an asteroid, and a way to catch a ride on the back of a comet.

The plan is to give the 12 best ideas nine months and $100,000 to prove their worth, and if this due diligence shows signs of promise, then NASA is willing to re-up for another two years and $500,000 each. While NASA would be the first to admit that all of these concepts are still in the very early stages of development, it’s clear that the future of space exploration is going to look very different than we thought it would. While many of these concepts may not pan out for decades, some of them could pay off sooner than expected.

Take, for example, the plan to wrangle asteroids. Much has been made of earlier NASA announcements that it was seriously looking at ways to lasso an asteroid, and even President Obama has supported these asteroid initiatives as a national space exploration priority. (To understand why this is so, just remember what happened to the dinosaurs when an asteroid collided with Earth way back when.) The latest creative concept calls for a nanosatellite system called WRANGLER (Weightless Rendezvous And Net Grapple to Limit Excess Rotation) to capture and de-spin a space object such as an asteroid using a large net, in combination with a tether deployer and winch mechanism.

The best concepts, ultimately, will be those that challenge the conventional wisdom about what’s possible and what’s not possible with space exploration. When it comes to exploring the surface of a planet, the conventional wisdom is that you land a single landing module on the part of a planet that’s most earth-like, operate it from afar, and let it do it’s thing, such as picking up soil samples. But that assumes that you’re willing to take a one-and-done approach to planetary exploration – once that one rover is done, so is your mission.

To overcome that problem, past concepts submitted to NASA as part of the NIAC program have included things like 2D planetary surface landers – essentially, flat drones that look a lot like flexible solar panels that can be dropped onto a planet en masse. Even if half crash and burn, you still have hundreds left. And, when you’re talking about a billion-dollar mission to a place like Mars, that gives you a little peace of mind.

Or, take a concept from this year – the submarine to explore Titan’s largest methane sea, the Kraken Mare. The submarine might be able to use the liquid hydrocarbon sea as a fuel source, and since the methane won’t interfere with radio signals, this might make it possible to connect with an orbiting satellite in near real time. This submarine explorer might even be coupled in the future with the companion Titan Mare Explorer, a boat that’s being designed for the seas of Saturn’s moon.

And, last but not least, there’s the plan to hitchhike on the back of comets. Think it’s just a fantasy? Well, check out the Rosetta program from the European Space Agency – the goal is to orbit and land on a comet by the end of 2014 and then ride it around the sun on its way back to Jupiter. If successful, it could be the key to super-fast interstellar space travel.

Ultimately, that’s the beauty of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program – it lets people dream big, commits only a relatively small amount of seed money up-front before the next round of funding, and is capable of generating a 10X or 100X return on the initial investment. That’s just the way it works in Silicon Valley. Instead of calling these types of projects a “moonshot” the way Google does, though, we’d be better off coming up with an entirely new nomenclature that hints at their potential to take us to the furthest edges of the solar system.