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(CNN)In the past year, a tiny helicopter flew on Mars, a NASA spacecraft slammed into an asteroid and the James Webb Space Telescope revealed dazzling new insights about the universe.
Beginning decades ago as ideas that seemed more like science fiction, these missions took years of research and testing to come to life.
Technological advances and scientific breakthroughs have transformed how we observe and investigate the cosmos. How will space exploration change in the coming decades, and what new possibilities will emerge?
These questions are at the heart of NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts program, or NIAC, which awards funding for concepts that could be part of future missions.
"NASA dares to make the impossible possible," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. "That's only achievable because of the innovators, thinkers, and doers who are helping us imagine and prepare for the future of space exploration. The NIAC program helps give these forward-thinking scientists and engineers the tools and support they need to spur technology that will enable future NASA missions."
The lastest NIAC competition selected 14 new concepts, awarding each $175,000 in January. Now, these researchers have nine months to use that funding toward refining and testing their ideas to see whether they can advance to the second phase of funding, which is $600,000 to flesh out their concepts and bring them closer to reality.
Only five projects have made it to the third phase during the NIAC program — $2 million to make something implementable.
Active since 2011, the competitive program is open to a broad range of ideas as long as they are technically credible, said Michael LaPointe, program executive for NIAC at NASA.
Some of the latest NIAC-funded concepts include a fluid space telescope, self-growing bricks intended for Mars and a plane that could fly on Saturn's moon Titan, among others. Many of the ideas are the result of creative collaborations between experts in different fields challenging one another to come up with new ideas.
"It really is a community of innovators," LaPointe said. "We're looking for ideas that will enable brand-new ways of doing things."
Self-growing bricks for Mars
For the past few years, Congrui Jin and her research group have used bacteria and fungi to heal cracks in concrete. Jin, an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, now wants to take her idea to space. Her self-growing bricks could one day build habitats and other structures for human explorers on the red planet.
The concept would involve sending bacterial and fungal spores and a bioreactor to Mars. The bioreactor is needed for the microbes to survive because Mars' natural environment would be too harsh for them. But Mars would provide the rest of the necessary ingredients for the self-growing bricks, including dust and soil, sunlight, nitrogen, carbon dioxide and water from melted ice.
In turn, the bacteria can produce oxygen and organic carbon to support the fungi. The process, once all of these ingredients are inside the bioreactor, would also create calcium carbonate to serve as the glue.
The bacteria, fungi and minerals will bind Martian soil together to form blocks, which can later be used to make floors, walls and even furniture.