Ten Amazing Innovations for Future Spaceflight
NASA may be grounding the Space Shuttles, but new ideas for exploration keep coming. From skin-tight spacesuits to new heat shields for spaceships, these ten lofty ideas prove space can stay in our reach. By John Brandon

Precise Mars landing

1. Precise Mars landing
The next Mars rover, called Curiosity, is set to launch next November. It’s ten times more advanced than the rovers currently on Mars. It has ten times the number of experiments it can conduct and weighs five times as much. One of the most interesting upgrades: a spacecraft will deliver the rover to a precise location within a 12-mile radius, use reverse thrusters to gently lower the delivery vessel. The rover will also start preparing itself for operation during descent and start moving immediately after landing.


Infrared radiation provides power for future spacecrafts

2. Power via infrared radiation
One of the great challenges of space travel is figuring out how to fly across the galaxy -- or back to the moon -- without tons of fuel. KYG Systems is working on a new technology called nantennas for use initially on unmanned aerial vehicles. Billions of tiny antennae are arrayed on the wings, which convert the power to electricity and drive the on-board motor.

Diesel-powered space engine runs like a Chevy Volt

3. A diesel space engine 
What if NASA’s next space vehicle used a hybrid diesel-electric engine? That's the idea behind TIGON, a Colorado startup that has designed a new engine for unmanned aerial vehicles. Like the extended range Chevy Volt, which uses a gas engine and an electric motor, a TIGON engine would use diesel fuel for fast ascents and then run only on electric power when gliding. “TIGON uses a clutchless parallel design which is much simpler and less expensive to design and integrate,” Les Makepeace, the TIGON EnerTec CEO, told

Robot motor that can withstand Venus temps

4. A robot motor for Venus' heat
Honeybee Robotics is working on a new robotic motor that can withstand extreme heat -- up to 932 degrees. (Competing robotic motors withstand about half that temperature.) That could mean a potential mission to Venus, where unmanned spacecraft can explore surroundings and conduct experiments without the need for an expensive and bulky thermal control system, one that makes it harder to maneuver.

Spacecraft protected by a heat shield

5. New heat shields for spacecraft 
A 12-foot heat shield protected the SpaceX craft when it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere on December 9 after a successful mission. The shield, which is made from "phenolic impregnated carbon ablator," keeps the capsule at room temperature even though the outside temp is somewhere around 4,000 degrees. The shield can be re-used for each mission and is even capable of withstanding the harsher re-entry conditions of Mars. It's similar to the carbon brake pads used on an F1.

The next crew transport vehicle?

6. The next crew transport vehicle?
Now that NASA is retiring the Space Shuttle vehicle, the agency is making plans for how to send astronauts back to the space station. Orbital Sciences is already contracted to make a space vehicle that transports cargo for 8 missions starting next year; it's working on a new crew-transport vehicle that seats four and would be used with the Atlas V launch rockets.

NASA’s powerful rock-zapping laser

7. NASA’s powerful rock-zapping laser
NASA recently developed a rock-zapping laser that will be used on the Mars Science Laboratory, the new rover that will launch next November. With a blast that’s good for up to 22 feet (NASA officially reported a 32-foot distance, but has corrected that fact for, the laser explodes pinhead-sized rocks into fragments that can then be studied for their chemical compounds. When the rocks are blasted, they produce a flash of light that can also be studied for its chemical make-up.

Skin-tight space suit reduces boneless

8. Skin-tight spacesuit reduces bone loss
One of the issues facing astronauts who spend too much time in space -- apart from missing family and aging at a slightly different rate from the rest of us -- is that they suffer bone loss. MIT has invented a new spacesuit, called the Gravity Loading Countermeasure Skinsuit (GLCS), that simulates the effects of gravity on the body and helps reduce bone loss.

(Dava Newman, MIT)

A workout machine for astronauts

9. A workout machine for astronauts
Without strenuous exercise, astronauts will go flabby or even experience serious physical problems, many fear. Yet space workouts in zero gravity mean they have to work even harder to exercise. Earlier this year, NASA delivered an exercise machine to the International Space Station called the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED) that can be set for an ideal 600-pound load for weightlifting in shorter spurts.

Software that simulates space missions

10. Software that simulates space missions
Someday, we will go back to the moon. Until then, Purdue University has developed a computer simulation that helps NASA engineers plan out missions, especially related to how the communication systems work, the battery and vehicle operation. The Jet Propulsion lab is currently using the simulator for mission planning and evaluation, mostly to help coordinate all of the mission variables.

Ten Amazing Innovations for Future Spaceflight

NASA may be grounding the Space Shuttles, but new ideas for exploration keep coming. From skin-tight spacesuits to new heat shields for spaceships, these ten lofty ideas prove space can stay in our reach. By John Brandon

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