Thankfully, the folks from NASA are working on several far flung concepts. In fact, they even developed an entire branch, called the Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC), solely to delve into this sort of research. Unfortunately, it was disbanded in 2007. (a similar program was recently reinstated) Still, many of the ground breaking concepts can still be found online, others are still in development, which gives us an opportunity to blow your mind.
5. Solar Probe Plus Will Meet the Sun
NASA seems to get pleasure out of intentionally destroying sophisticated technology. They've bombed the moon several times now (once in 2009 and again in 2012, when "Ebb" and "Flow" finished their primary missions) and they sent the Galileo spacecraft spiraling into the Jovian atmosphere in 2003 (the same fate awaits the beloved Hubble Space Telescope when it ceased to be work). Most of those missions were not developed for the sole purpose of being disintegrated, but NASA outdid themselves with the Solar Probe Plus.
The spacecraft, which is in development, will make close-up observations of Venus before face-diving into the sun's corona. The temperatures in this region can exceed 2,550 degrees Fahrenheit (1,400 degrees Celsius), which is about five times hotter than the temperature in Low-Earth orbit. Needless to say, it's freaking hot. The searing heat is further compounded by the stark increase in luminosity, as it's estimated that from the corona, the sun appears more than 500 times brighter than it does on Earth. (We can't forget about the high energy particles that reside near the sun's atmosphere) Obviously, this is ambitious for several reasons. Not least of all because the sun's environment makes Venus look like the Bahamas in comparison.
If this one sounds vaguely familiar, it should. This concept is very similar to the main plot of a film entitled "Sunshine." In the movie, which is set in the near future, a team of Earth-based scientists are sent on a mission to rejuvenate a dying sun, by bombing it—creating a "star within a star;" with a payload equivalent in mass to the island of Manhattan. Like Icarus 2 from the movie, the Solar Probe Plus will have a huge sun-shield to temporarily protect it from the elements, until it, quite literally, is incinerated by our local star. (It's expected to make it about 4 million miles from the sun beforehand)
and to think.. this has absolutely nothing on:
4. A Giant Sun- Shield to Combat Global Warming
Discussing the merits of global warming has now eclipsed the discussions held about the moon landing conspiracy. (It happened. Get over it) Everyone seems to have an opinion on the subject (and as Neil deGrasse Tyson said, "Science is true. Whether or not you believe in it.") With that said, regardless of the mechanism driving it — be it man-made, or something less nefarious — the temperatures are rising, which means something must be done to staunch the damage before the United States is relegated to the ocean floor.
In this particular solution (many different concepts have came to light before), a scientist from the University of Arizona proposed that we develop trillions of free flying mirror units. After the individual units are deployed into space (using a large cannon that operates using electromagnetic propulsion, with the barrel alone coming in at about 0.06 miles across), they would collectively act as a lens, forming a huge shade that would extend some 100,000 square miles across. When sun rays come in contact with the units, they would be defected slightly (instead of hitting Earth)—thus lowering the soaring temperatures.
All it would cost is some 200 trillion dollars (or about 100 billion dollars per year) Kickstarter, anyone?
(On a more serious note, the units could be manufactured in a way that would be conducive to collecting solar energy. Maybe eventually; the project would pay for itself)
3. Spray-on Space Suits
The number one cause of death in space is space itself.. It's an extremely hostile environment. Exposure to the vacuum alone can kill you in a hundred different — all equally terrifying — ways. If any of them fail to turn you into a space kabob, the physical side effects of microgravity will eventually kick in. To get around that, space agencies have invested billions of dollars toward developing a functional space suit that can shield astronauts from the brunt of the dangers, whilst allowing them to effectively work and perform their necessary experiments. However, most of our modern spacesuits are completely ineffective at accomplishing most of those goals — a problem that will only become worse whenever we venture beyond low-Earth-orbit, into deep space.
One of the most interesting concepts that came from NIAC revolved around spray-on polymer fabric spacesuits, which meet most of the things researchers want next-generation space suits to have. The team of researchers discussed the possibility of covering an astronaut's body with this organic, biodegradable technology, working similarly to a spray-on tan. Underneath the layer of flexible material, the person would also be equipped with temperature-controlled underwear, biosensors, electronic equipment and even artificial muscle fibers, which could improve strength, stamina and mobility (All of which can prevent the effects of muscle degradation in space) Such a technology could have practical applications here on Earth too — particularly for firefighters.
2. Inflatable Space Habitats
Like with our current spacesuits - another problematic aspect of space colonization is developing technologies that can give astronauts the needed space for living quarters, while still having proper room to carry out their experiments. Not to mention, we would also need a rocket that could carry all of this into space.
A rather ingenious solution to both of these problems is developing expandable modules - created using a strong and rigid, but highly effective material, which can be deployed into space using traditional rockets. Once they arrive to their destination, they can be inflated using pressurized air, providing us with a safe, roomy enclosure. (Ironically, the atypical structures are more durable than conventional metal ones.
They could even better shield astronauts from micrometeorite impacts and harmful radiation) Incredibly, we may see inflatable structures in space sooner than one might think. Earlier this year, NASA and Bigelow Aerospace (a private company that has done a tremendous amount of research on the topic) reached an agreement that would actually put an inflatable module on-board the ISS. Assuming all goes well, the technology could evolve into a functional prototype for a lunar space station.
Perhaps by creating a series of these habitats, scattering them about the solar system, it could even provide a cost effective way to explore our own neighborhood.
1. Laser Propulsion Systems
Modern space-shuttles — like the one used to carry men to the moon — accelerate using three different types of chemical propulsion systems (each of which require specific fuel). Unfortunately, the conventional methods are somewhat dangerous and they don't offer too many advantages as far as interstellar travel is concerned. Because of this, a lot of exciting work is being done in developing more effective propulsion systems. (My personal favorite is ion thruster propulsion)
Another concept NASA is currently exploring completely throws the need for multiple propulsion systems out, capitalizing instead on photonic laser thrusters! Such a system would operate using a photon beam amplification system and (obviously) a photonic laser. As trapped photons — which have no mass, only momentum — bounce between mirrors on a series of spacecrafts, they produce substantial thrust (through photonic energy) that can accelerate a spacecraft to exceptional, energy-efficient, speeds. (Given enough time for acceleration, a vehicle using this type of system could propel to speeds approaching that of the speed of light. Never at — or above — that speed though, as it would take an infinite amount of energy to accelerate an object with mass to light-speed)
On a more relatable note, according to Dr. Young Bae (of the Bae Institute), by using photonic laser thrusters, we could make the trip from Earth to Mars in merely one week! (Compared to the typical 6 month journey)
So, among these, which concept do you think has the most promise?