10 Awesome And Wacky Space Technologies Of The Future

The future promises crazy adventures throughout the cosmos, and it should be considered our good luck that we’re alive at the right time to witness the birth of a spacefaring race. In true sci-fi fashion, the upcoming space technologies responsible for our ascension to the stars range from wacky to downright suicidal.

Startram The Magnetic Space Train

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For the measly cost of $20 billion, the proposed launch system Startram is expected to send 300,000-ton payloads into orbit at an ultracompetitive rate of about $40 per kilogram ($20/lb). That’s 99 percent less than the current cost of $11,000 per kilogram ($5,000/lb) of using solar power satellites.

To do this, Startram will not use rockets, propellants, or ionic drives. Instead, it will use electromagnetic repulsion. The concept is an old one in science fiction and an awesome one in practice, with real-life levitating trainscurrently ferrying passengers at nearly 600 kilometers per hour (370 mph).

However, these current maglev vehicles, such as Japan’s great bullet trains, are limited by drag as they scream through the air at high speeds. To achieve truly pants-wetting speeds, one must bypass all the pesky nitrogen, oxygen, and other mixed gases that slow us down.

Startram will do this by launching from the near vacuum of a ridiculously long tube, elevated by potent magnets and held in place by tethers at a height of 20 kilometers (12 mi). There, the thinner air allows comfortable launches at much greater speeds.

If the first generation of Startram works, a second, human-worthy version will follow. However, its completion will require about 20 years of work and an estimated investment of $60 billion.

Comet Hitchhiker

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For all its scientific accuracy—namely, that comets are bad—1998’s thriller Armageddon grossly underestimated the difficulty of landing on one. Even NASA would rather explore other options. It recently granted preliminary funding to develop the Comet Hitchhiker, a harpoon-wielding craft that reels itself between asteroids like a fisherman pulling in a prize marlin.

Comets and asteroids are tricky targets because they have small masses and low gravitational influence. It’s also foolish to spend big money to explore such tiny landmasses, especially when the most interesting ones reside in the Kuiper Belt or the Oort Cloud (which are located beyond the orbit of Neptune and at the “edge” of our solar system, respectively).

The thrifty Comet Hitchhiker bypasses these problems in style, using its retractable harpoon and tether to launch itself between 5–10 rocky bodies during a single cosmic road trip. The Comet Hitchhiker is also incredibly efficient: When it latches onto its quarry, it harvests the space rock’s kinetic gravity, saving it for successive leaps to other bodies. Then, as the harpoon is retrieved, the vehicle is accelerated in the opposite direction, eliminating the need for propellants.

Solar Probe Plus

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Like Earth, the Sun is fairly windy with its own gusts and gales. But while an earthly breeze might mess up your hair, a solar zephyr will turn you into a charred tumor. Although this energetic phenomenon remains mysterious, NASA’s Solar Probe Plus should answer many long-held questions in 2018 by zipping closer to the Sun than any previous craft has.

The robotic vehicle will pass as close as 8.5 solar radii from the Sun’s surface. There, the probe must brave radioactive energies not yet experienced by any man-made object as it smashes through the Sun’s atmosphere at 200 kilometers per hour (125 mph). To survive temperatures of 1,400 degrees Celsius (2,500 °F), the Solar Probe Plus will be clad in a foamy, carbon-composite heat shield that is 12 centimeters (5 in) thick.

But NASA can’t send the probe directly toward the Sun. It must be inched, relatively speaking, into the correct orbit by performing seven Venus flybys. It will spend almost seven years circling our sister planet. The exact schedule can be found here.

Each loop will tighten the probe’s course around the Sun. Finally, it will cozy into an orbit that is 3.8 million miles from the Sun, which is much closer than Mercury’s orbit. This is an amazing feat for a vehicle from Earth, considering that the current record is held by the Helios 2 craft at about about 27 million miles from the Sun.

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