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The Four Coolest Concepts NASA Just Bankrolled to Solve Spaceflight Challenges

A smart trash bag. A contaminant-resistant spacesuit. These proposals, and over 100 more, have been funded by NASA for development.

Like some glorious love child of Shark Tank and Cosmos, NASA's Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program aims to fund visionary space exploration proposals sourced from small businesses. The idea is to spur innovation in the private sector while also accelerating the exact kinds of technological advances that NASA needs to reach its lofty goals in space, including recycling systems, lightweight materials, and autonomous spaceflight mechanisms.

On Wednesday, NASA officially greenlit 133 of these SBIR concepts to receive Phase II funding. That means an estimated $100 million total in contracts will be doled out to 112 businesses to develop prototypes of their proposed technologies, which range from planetary rover anchors to contaminant-resistant spacesuits.

These companies now have two years to deliver operational versions of their proposals to qualify for Phase III funding, which focus on bringing their products to market.

We scoured all the proposals to pick out our top four favorites, but you should check out the full list for yourself because it is satisfying as hell to see so many ingenious ideas coming from small companies.

Proposal: Adaptable Multi-Segment Altitude Control Balloon for Planetary Exploration
Company: Thin Red Line USA, dba of MKF Interests, LLC

It's high time we started deploying more balloons on cloudy worlds like Venus and Titan, which are not only interesting on their own merits but can also teach scientists more about Earth's climate system. Thin Red Line USA has a new design, abbreviated as AM-SAC, that would allow an interplanetary balloon to float through alien atmospheres for years at a time. This is an enormous extension over past balloon missions, including the Soviet Vega 1 and Vega 2 missions, which only floated in the Venusian atmosphere for a few days.

Read More: How the First Private Moon Landing Will Spur the Future of Space Mining

Proposal: Multipurpose Waste Disposal Bags for Heat Melt Compactor Application
Company: Materials Modification, Inc

Here on Earth, it's easy to haul trash out to the curb. But for astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS), garbage takes up a lot of space in limited quarters, and is normally unloaded only when cargo ships leave the station. Materials Modification is working on a specialized trash bag rigged up with a heat melt compactor that would reduce the volume of trash onboard the ISS—or any future crewed spaceships—while also mining water from the waste and decreasing microbial growth.

Proposal: 200W Deep Space CubeSat Composite Beam Roll-Up Solar Array (COBRA)
Company: Composite Technology Development, Inc

CubeSats, small, affordable spacecraft typically about one liter in volume, are all the rage right now. But so far, no CubeSats have been deployed beyond Earth orbit, in part because current CubeSat solar arrays aren't powerful enough to venture further into deep space. Composite Technology Development hopes to fill this niche with its 200-watt Composite Beam Roll-up Array (COBRA), which is designed for a CubeSat with a volume of about six liters, though it could be scalable to other sizes.  

Current model of a CubeSat. Image: NASA Ames Research Center

Proposal: ERASMUS Food Contact Safe Plastics Recycler and 3D Printer System Company: Tethers Unlimited, Inc

In order to land astronauts on Mars, or rocket them to any other deep space locations, NASA will need to create sustainable systems to support crews over long durations. Tethers Unlimited is pioneering some of this technology with its ERASMUS system, which i integrates a plastics recycler, dry heat sterilizer, and 3D printer into one machine. The idea is to feed used plastics like utensils or medical instruments into the sterilizer so the core materials can be reprinted and reused.

Honorable mentions: In-Space Robotic Assembly System and "Stinger" penetrometer for a planetary rover, both proposed by Honeybee Robotics, Ltd; the Hiawatha Aircraft Anti-Collision System by Nokomis, Inc; FLEXEMS for Detecting Trace Organics by Leiden Measurement Technology, LLC; the Novel Hybrid Propulsion System for Sample Return Missions by Parabilis Space Technologies, Inc; and the Context-Sensitive Augmented Reality for Mission Operations by TRACLabs Inc.

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