It wasn't long ago that landing a remotely operated vehicle on another planet was considered an impossibility, but on August 16 the third of these ROVs that NASA calls Rovers, successfully landed on Mars' surface. Not only can the vehicles capture images of the planet's surface, but they collect soil samples and perform scientific experiments. The results are then sent back to Earth for analysis.
Throughout history, most of the innovations to the world's space program started as science fiction. The "Star Trek" series as well as movies like "2001: A Space Odyssey" created fictional technology allowing humans to explore the Universe, but scientists continue to make those accounts less fictional. Here are a few ideas that seem impossible now, but may be reality in the not-so-distant future.
The Space Elevator
China's 2,073 foot Shanghai Tower will soon hold the highest and fastest traveling elevator. Its top speed will be 3,281 feet per minute allowing it to travel the length of the world's tallest building in less than a minute. If a space elevator is built, the Shanghai Tower elevator will seem small.
A Chinese company plans to have an elevator in place that will reach 22,000 miles into space, delivering passengers to a space station at 124 mph. The trip would take about one week to complete using a 30 passenger car running on a cable more than 60,000 miles long. The goal is to have the elevator in place by 2050, but the steep cost of such a project has it on hold.
Build the Enterprise
If you're a "Star Trek" fan, the idea of building a working version of the Starship Enterprise is intriguing and exciting. One engineer working for a Fortune 500 company started a website that gained the attention of many sci-fi fans. Buildtheenterprise.org contends that we now possess the technology to build the first generation Starship Enterprise.
BTE Dan, as he calls himself, lays out everything from engine design specifics to a way to pay for the ship that is larger than any structure ever made. He proposes spending 0.27% of GDP to fund the project for 20 years. He points out that during the Apollo space era, the United States spent 0.5% of GDP, nearly double the amount of his proposal.
Bussard Interstellar Ramjet
We know that the Universe is big, but it's difficult to conceptualize how big. Using current technology, it would take a lifetime or more to get to the nearest star. A spacecraft that could travel nearly 186,000 miles per second would be needed to accomplish such a mission. Even if we could build an engine that could travel near the speed of light, it would need to be refueled multiple times.
The ramjet is the late Dr. Robert W. Bussard's attempt to solve this problem. Once a vehicle accelerates to a high enough speed, it can collect air, heat it and turn it into thrust. Missiles and high-speed aircraft already use ramjet technology and scientists think that a variant of the ramjet called the Ram Augmented Interstellar Rocket that uses nuclear technology to augment Bussard's idea could be the first step in high-speed space travel.
It's been the subject of science fiction novels and movies for generations, but building a colony on the surface of Mars is no longer as futuristic as one might think. NASA already knows how to transport machinery to Mars and the three rovers on the planet have found evidence that the soil would allow for the growing of food.
Building a colony won't be cheap. An interstellar railroad-like infrastructure to keep the colony supplied is essential until the colony evolves to the point of being able to sustain itself. Some believe that mining Mars' surface for vital minerals may help to defray the millions-per-trip price tag, but that would likely not happen until years after the colony was formed.
For the future entrepreneur, space mining may be the next big frontier. A 1,600 foot in diameter asteroid weighing about one ton could yield the equivalent of all of the platinum-based metals ever mined on Earth. The platinum alone could yield $50 million and the other metals could make the one ton rock worth more than $1 billion.
The Bottom Line
Advancements in science often start as impossible dreams, but those dreams put the late Neil Armstrong on the moon, sent shuttles on numerous missions to space and created the International Space Station. How many of these ideas will we see in our lifetime?