Here’s some cool projects NASA is currently working on, as of now:
1. Orion Spacecraft
If anything is going to bring humans to Mars, it’s the Space Launch System (SLS), an extremely powerful rocket that NASA’s been putting together. It allows up to 70 metric tons of cargo and/or spacecraft to enter low-Earth orbit, at which point the spacecraft is free to continue onward. Just last year, it passed a major milestone test.
But what’s more interesting is the SLS’ planned cargo, the Orion spacecraft. Designed specifically to carry astronauts farther than humankind has ever gone before, it’s easily our best bet for sending humans to Mars. The first test of the SLS and Orion is scheduled for November 2018, when the SLS will transport Orion into a retrograde orbit around the moon.
2. Asteroid Redirect Mission
We’re not in any immediate dangers from asteroids, as the most recent one to graze by the Earth was only the size of a house, and NASA managed to successfully test out their asteroid detection network which they’ve set up around the planet (there’s a bonus project from them, right there).
But it’s good to have something on deck in case we do detect a big one heading in our direction, and NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) is designed for just that. In 2020, NASA plans to send DART to a binary asteroid system called Didymos, to see whether we could actually deflect a big asteroid.
3. Lunar Space Station
The moon has been fairly quiet due to a decades-long dearth of any astronauts making giant leaps there. Sending astronauts to the moon once again is on NASA’s mind, and they’re working on a space station designed to exist in the moon’s orbit alongside Roscosmos, their Russian counterpart.
The coordinated effort is apart of NASA’s plan to continue their awesomely-named Deep Space Gateway project, which will use the space around the moon as a means of sending astronauts much further into the depths of the solar system. There’s no set date for any of this yet, but it’s expected to get going after that Orion test flight in 2018.
4. Europa Flyby
Europa, a small moon orbiting Jupiter, has been an ideal destination for NASA for some time. Mainly because of the giant subsurface ocean which is believed to exist there, which suggests that life could easily exist there (potentially, of course) and which further suggests that our lives could potentially exist there in the future. Once we solve some problems relating to its atmosphere and massive amounts of radiation.
5. Clockwork Venus Rover
Venus is an extremely hostile environment, with so many electrical storms and high temperatures that any conventional machinery probably won’t last more than a few moments on the planet’s surface. Which is why NASA’s Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE) isn’t conventional, it’s a steampunk clockwork tank designed to survive the Venusian hellscape.
Currently, the Venus rover is still in its early concept stages, and it may be a lower priority than Mars or Europa missions. Partly because there’s not much for us there – we couldn’t colonize it without some extreme effort, and any life that could survive on Venus probably isn’t something we want to mess with.
6. Hypersonic Planes
NASA isn’t only focused on space, despite their reputation (which is fair, as they are mostly focused on space). But they’re also working on supersonic passenger planes for moving around the Earth, having tested out quieter supersonic booms at the Kennedy Space Center this past August. Because if these planes are going to fly over towns, it shouldn’t sound like a bomb went off whenever their planes fly overhead.
The ideal result is a hypersonic plane which can cross the United States in under an hour. Since that kind of speed could rip apart a normal plane, making for a troublesome flight home for the holidays, they’re experimenting with boron nitrate to create a material which could withstand the intense heat and stress that comes with a quick commuter flight.
7. X3 Ion Thrusters
Reaching Mars using our current technology is about a three year trip, but that could be shortened to less than six months once NASA is done with their groundbreaking new ion thruster technology. Some recent tests into the powerful and incredibly fuel efficient thrusters have gone very well, breaking records for maximum power output.
If the X3 thrusters prove capable of taking a spacecraft out into the solar system, it could make frequent trips to the moon or Mars fast enough to be actually feasible. The idea of it not being a big hassle to get to and from either body is practically unthinkable outside of sci-fi, but this could be a big step toward that. It would beat Musk’s latest rocket too, which would no doubt be a relief to NASA.