If you’re a “Star Trek” fan, then that opening voiceover by William Shatner probably still gives you goose bumps: “To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
Enthralling as that notion may be, to most people, it probably seems like a sci-fi writer’s wishful thinking. While astronauts have ventured as far away as the Moon and, over the last few decades, have routinely orbited Earth, they’ve yet to venture to other planets in our solar system, let alone into the vast emptiness between our solar system and those of other stars. The immense distances involved — 36 million miles (57.9 million kilometers) to Mars, 21.1 trillion miles (39.9 trillion kilometers) to Proxima Centauri, the nearest star — make deep space travel seem beyond reach of even the most extreme human ingenuity. What would power spacecraft over such long distances? What would keep astronauts safe from the perils of radiation and the muscle-and-bone-wasting effects of microgravity? How would crews avoid running out of food and water? And once they arrived at their destinations, how would they even be able to send messages back to Earth? It all sounds impossible.
Or not. NASA researchers and other brains are hard at work contemplating the challenges of deep space travel and dreaming up technologies to meet those challenges. They’ve already come up with a number of ideas — solar sails to power spacecraft, super-precise, atomic-powered instruments for navigation, and laser relays for long-distance communication — that are in the early stages of development and may be ready for testing in the next few years, according to NASA. Additionally, in 2011, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s research and development arm, promised to invest up to $500,000 in seed money in technologies needed for interstellar travel, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Many potential breakthroughs are still on the drawing board, and while they still have a ways to go, the fact that these inspirations come from credible scientists and engineers gives us hope that someday they’ll become a reality — and humans will roam the cosmos. Here are 10 of the most interesting technological notions.