Submarines and Landsailers: Five Futuristic Concepts for NASA Missions

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Much of the science performed at NASA borders on fiction. Their job is to bring it into reality. One team intimately familiar with this task at the space agency is called COMPASS. Since 2006, their job has been to take the most preliminary ideas for space exploration and mold them into real, executable plans. A few of those plans have come to fruition, some are currently being worked on, and many more have been abandoned. All, however, are bold visions of future NASA missions – simultaneously fascinating and inspiring.

Here are five of COMPASS' coolest designs:

1. Mars Ascent Vehicle. You may have heard of the Mars Ascent Vehicle, or MAV, from Andy Weir's book The Martian, but the idea was originally born from a COMPASS design in 2010.  The basic plan is for a launch platform upon which rests a lightweight rocket. This rocket transports Mars samples from the planet's surface into orbit, where they can be picked up by a waiting ship and returned to Earth. Subsequent considerations involve making a MAV that can be used to ferry astronauts from the planet's surface. Some form of the MAV will undoubtedly be used should humans ever make it to the Red Planet.


2. Nuclear Electric Propulsion to Mars. In 2012, COMPASS completed an assessment and design for a spacecraft that could transport six crew-members to Mars orbit for a 400-day stay and subsequent return. The craft would be powered by a 2.5 Megawatt nuclear reactor that would in turn power an electric ion thruster. Ion thrusters, which expel streams of positive ions, have already been used successfully on numerous missions and are currently being ramped up for more.


3. Titan Submarine. Saturn's moon Titan is a wondrous world. Larger than Mercury, it features an eye-catching surface, clouds of methane and ethane in its nitrogen atmosphere, and mystical lakes filled with liquid hydrocarbons. It is into the largest of these lakes, the Kraken Mare, that NASA would like to send a revolutionary submarine. COMPASS designed the sub to explore every part of the lake, including the floor and the shoreline, traversing over 3,000 kilometers during a six-month mission. The earliest recommended landing date is 2047, which would grant continuous lighted conditions during the long Titan summer, as well as direct-to-Earth communications.


4. Venus Landsailer. The surface of Venus is a harsh environment, with baking temperatures of more than 800 degrees Fahrenheit and immense pressures equal to those found 3,000 feet underwater on Earth. It's for this reason that landers haven't fared well at all, operating at most for only two hours. NASA, however, has made significant advances in electronics and solar panel technology of late, granting operability in blazing heat. COMPASS fit those breakthroughs into an innovative rover concept: a landsailer. The rover could launch by 2039 and sail about the relatively flat surface of Venus at a steady, meandering 0.5 meters/second, propelled by the slow, yet powerful winds.

5. HERRO. Human Exploration Using Real-time Robotic Operations is a suggested alternative to boots-on-the-ground exploration of other planets. Rather than send humans to the surface of Mars, which would be costly and dangerous, astronauts could remotely control robots from an orbiting spacecraft. This method could also be applied to Venus, where the surface is far more inhospitable to life than even the inhospitable surface of Mars. As scientists from NASA's Glenn Research Center wrote, "Teleoperation would give scientists real-time control of rovers, aerobots and other sophisticated instruments, thus greatly expanding the scientific return... Upon completion of a mission, the crews would return to Earth, and with appropriate maintenance and outfitting in LEO, HERRO spacecraft could be reused for later missions. This approach to exploration is akin to how modern-day oceanographers in submersibles use telerobots to explore inaccessible regions of the ocean."

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