The final frontier: 4 futuristic missions in the NASA pipeline

From landing on Venus to catching an asteroid, the future of space travel sounds amazing.

Peter Iantorno May 6, 2015

Since the first man gazed up at the stars and wondered what was up there, the human race has always been drawn to explore beyond the realms of what we know here on Earth.

Historically the Americans, Russians and Chinese have led the way in space exploration, but with more than AED20 billion invested in the aerospace industry so far and plans to send a spaceship to Mars by 2021, the UAE is staking its claim to take part in the world's space race. However, with the country still very much the new kid on the cosmological block, and increasingly ambitious missions being planned by NASA, keeping ahead of the curve is going to be no easy task.

Here are four missions in the NASA pipeline that will push mankind further into space than ever before:

Visiting Venus

With all the talk of man going to Mars, Earth's neighbour on the other side, Venus, often gets overlooked when it comes to humans paying a visit. To be fair, there are some good reasons for that. Often described as Earth's 'evil twin', Venus has a toxic sulphuric acid-laced atmosphere, ground temperatures are around 500 degrees centigrade and the pressure is equivalent to that more than 1.5km under the Earth's ocean. Not the most hospitable place...

However, around 50km above Venus' surface, the conditions are far more welcoming, with similar gravity levels to Earth and temperatures only slightly hotter, and the really big boon is that where a round trip to Mars would take anywhere from 650 to 900 days, a return visit to Venus would take just 440 days. What is more, the amount of solar energy available on Venus is far more than on Mars, meaning a mission could easily be sustained there.

With all that in mind, NASA's Glenn Research Centre has been working on a mission that would see astronauts orbit around the planet to operate a remote-controlled rover on its surface. The team is even exploring the possibility of humans living in balloons in the more temperate upper reaches of Venus' atmosphere, which would allow a much more involved exploration of the planet.

Melting Europa's ice

In one of Jupiter's moons, Europa, the solar system has an icy world slightly smaller than the Earth's moon that many cosmologists believe is the most likely place in the solar system that present-day life could exist beyond our home planet.

While Europa's massive distance from the Sun means that its average temperature is more than 170 degrees Celsius below freezing, if it has similar tectonic activity to Earth, there's a very real potential that warmer water may flow under the ice, which could well mean life.

Even if there is life in Europa's subterranean oceans, getting to it through the 100km-thick outer layer of ice will be no mean feat. However, NASA is currently developing a robot - codenamed Valkyrie - that uses nuclear power to melt ice. At the moment it can only melt around 8km per year, but the project is currently receiving major funding and the hope it that the process can be sped up and we'll soon get a glimpse into those warm oceans.

Exploring the depths of Titan's seas

Saturn's largest moon, Titan, has been the subject of a lot of interest among cosmologists for the simple reason that it is the only object other than Earth where clear evidence of stable bodies of surface liquid have been found.

The weather system on titan is pretty similar to that on Earth, with clouds forming, then raining down to create lakes and seas on the planet's surface. The only difference - albeit quite a big one - is that Titan's rain is mainly methane.

This, along with the fact that the planet's thick smog precludes any possible use of solar power, does present something of a hurdle to any possible exploration mission. However, NASA and the European Planetary Science Congress have both made proposals to send an unmanned submarine to explore the planet's largest ocean, Kraken Mare.

Catching an asteroid

NASA's fixation with putting a man on Mars has been ongoing for years, and in the pursuit of this goal, the Asteroid Redirect Mission aims to give the space agency the skills and knowhow it will need to reach the Red Planet.

The premise is simple, yet kind of crazy: to identify and capture an an asteroid, and move it into orbit around the Earth's moon. Once the asteroid is in the Moon's orbit, astronauts will perform space walks to obtain samples from it. As well as helping to guard against any future potentially hazardous Earth-bound asteroids, the mission is also expected to provide the groundwork for a human mission to the Martian system in the 2030s.

The particular asteroid that will be captured hasn't yet been identified, and exactly how it will be captured is also still up for debate, with two concepts - a large inflatable bag-like device, and robotic grasping arms - in the running. This might all sound pie in the sky at the moment, but NASA expects this mission to be well underway within the next decade.