Space lives! 10 projects powering the next generation of space tech

Space exploration is far from dead. There are many innovative projects occurring around the world to advance our understanding of the universe, and they're using amazing technologies.

The Solar Probe Plus will launch by 2018.
Image: NASA

When NASA started announcing huge budget cuts, it crushed the hopes of space exploration geeks everywhere. But fear not — innovation is still alive and well in the US and around the world through private and public companies, governments, and space agencies. There are plenty of projects to progress planetary science, deep space exploration, and the search for extraterrestrial life forms. Here are 10 of the most mind-blowing ones we know.

1. WorldView-3

The WorldView-3 offers extremely detailed images of Earth. It was created by DigitalGlobe, whose satellites are used by Google Earth. The company now has five satellites orbiting the Earth. The WorldView-3 weighs 6,200-pounds, is 18.7 feet tall, and can scan 251,000 square miles each day. The level of detail went from about 15 inches to 11 inches, allowing people to see things like an individual plant or the type of car model. It also gathers data to determine what types of plants are in a field, if an area of soil is lacking water, or if there is a shortage of crops in a certain place. Then, researchers can map the possible outcomes of the situations. It's been called "supercomputer among satellites."

2. Solar Probe Plus

This NASA spacecraft, the size of a compact car, is supposed to launch before 2018. It will study the sun's atmosphere, driving as close as 4 million miles from the sun's surface as many as 24 times. The first pass will be two months after the launch at a distance of 15 million miles from the sun, and will then gradually get closer. Eventually, it will be closer than Mercury's orbit. The mission will supposedly last three years, and Solar Probe Plus will swing by Venus on its way. It has a special carbon composite head shield to protect it from temperatures as high as 2,550 degrees.

3. Deep space energy storage

Image: NASA

This is a fuel cell that NASA may use to power deep space missions. New energy storage is needed to progress NASA's research, so the organization just accepted four proposals. Energy storage is critical for missions to asteroids, Mars, or beyond. The proposals for this project were submitted by various NASA centers, federally funded research centers, and academic institutions. To better understand deep space and how to explore it, NASA is also working with the Department of Energy.

4. EmDrive

EmDrive is an early-stage experiment of jet propulsion technology that was created by Roger Shawyer, a British scientist. He invented it in 2006, but NASA just started testing the engine this year, and researchers around the world are making their own versions.

EmDrive is a microwave thruster, which is an engine powered by solar electricity that can be launched deep into space without propellant fuel like other spacecrafts need. It launches microwaves off the walls inside a tiny space to thrust the spacecraft. No one is really sure why it works — it actually defies the law of conservation of momentum, which is what space travel relies on by creating a sort of unbalanced formula of momentum created and destroyed.

5. Hello Kitty's messages

Image: Sonria

Japan is trying to get children and students interested in studying astrophysics by sending Hello Kitty up into space on a satellite, and having her deliver messages back down to Earth. One of the goals of the project is to get more private companies investing in satellites. Since Hello Kitty is one of the most popular cultural icons in Japan, it made perfect sense to have her be the one to raise awareness about space technology. Sanrio, which is Hello Kitty's parent company, is also holding a contest to allow people to send messages for their loved ones up into space to be broadcasted.

6. Rosetta

Image: ESA

The Rosetta comet chaser is now orbiting around a comet heading towards the sun at speeds of up to 93,000 miles per hour. The spacecraft's journey was 10 years in the making and it will deploy a lander in November to take samples of the comet. The goal is to understand how planets could have originally been formed from comets.

7. Japanese space elevator

Obayashi Corp, located in Tokyo, has plans to build a space station by 2050 that is more than 22,000 miles above the Earth (the International Space Station is only 205 miles up). The company wants to send tourists up through a carbon nanotube pulley at about 125 miles per hour (it would take about a week) and power the entire thing with solar cells attached to the space station and a counterweight floating much higher than the station itself. Obayashi said it has no idea how much this massive feat will cost, but they're working on the research.

8. SpiderFab

Image: TUI

Tethers Unlimited now has a $500,000 contract to develop a facility called SpiderFab that would use 3D printers to build structures that would progress the search for extraterrestrial life. With something like SpiderFab, the components would not have to be shipped from Earth, so it would be much less expensive and complicated.

3D printing offers many benefits to space exploration — decreasing travel time, waste, and cost and increasing the customizability and size of parts — but the materials weren't available until now. NASA created a 3D printer that can switch between different types of alloys to print parts of spacecrafts. SpaceX recently printed the Main Oxidizer Valve on one of its rockets. The company said it has been using the technology for three years, and will soon try to print an engine chamber.

9. Skylon

Image: Reaction Engines

The Skylon spaceplane, invented by a British engineer, is designed to withstand many uses as an emergency or rapid response unit for space missions. The takeoff and landing process is similar to that of a regular airplane — though obviously it would require much more room on the runway — but the engine runs on liquid oxygen and hydrogen. The team said it may be ready for test flights by 2018.

10. 3D printed space telescopes

Image: NASA

One NASA aerospace engineer is working on building a space telescope entirely from 3D printed parts. Using rapid prototyping to 3D print using metal, NASA said the project may only take three months to complete. This particular prototype is supposed to be finished next month. Space telescopes are difficult to manufacture, so 3D printing everything — even the mirror and camera pieces — offers a way to overcome the material and operational challenges that these simple things pose in space.

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About Lyndsey Gilpin

Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.

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