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ASTRONAUTS digging into an asteroid for samples to send back to Earth. Experimental robots on the moon, paving the way for extraterrestrial refuelling stations and for astronauts "living off the land". Commercial space taxis ferrying crew members to and from the International Space Station, while a "plasma thruster" - a precursor to engines that will eventually send astronauts to Mars - undergoes tests in space.
All this could be happening a decade from now, following a change of direction for NASA signalled by the White House last week. The Obama administration has said it wants NASA to scrap the Constellation programme, which would have taken astronauts to the moon and Mars. The decision could mark one of the most significant shifts since the agency was set up in 1958.
Though NASA has not yet been set formal new goals, the agency's administrator, Charles Bolden, is betting that the billions of dollars freed up by the change will buy big advances in the technology needed for new ways to explore the solar system. He also reckons that commercial space companies are finally ready to take the strain when it comes to transporting NASA astronauts.
The focus has turned to technologies that can take us further, faster and more affordably into space
The lack of any firm objectives is raising fears that the agency will drift. "It's basically a prescription for tail-chasing," says Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas. "NASA as an agency does not do well when it is given money and no direction."
However, Bolden said last week that the agency is working on a new schedule for reaching destinations beyond low-Earth orbit. The moon, Mars and asteroids "naturally come to mind", he said, though he did not indicate which would come first. Although NASA intends to abandon Constellation, a return to the moon is not off the table, according to Bolden's deputy, Lori Garver. But the focus is now on "technologies that can take us further, faster and more affordably into space", she says.
Louis Friedman, executive director of space advocacy group the Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, shares this optimism. Bolden's plan could "get astronauts beyond the moon and maybe also to the moon's surface more quickly than with Constellation", he says.
$ 7.8 bn
The sum NASA hopes to spend on exploration technologies in the next five years
In the boxes below, we offer a prediction of the ways NASA's activities could be transformed a decade from now.
Whether NASA's shift in direction actually takes place will depend on Congress, which must agree to the funding for any plans before they can take effect. Fierce opposition is expected from representatives of areas where jobs are tied to the Constellation programme. How many of their colleagues will side with them remains to be seen.
Editorial: A turning point for space exploration
Trip to an Asteroid
Eat your heart out Bruce Willis. A decade from now, astronauts could be perching on one of the rocks that occasionally strike our planet.
Asteroids are made of material left over from the formation of the planets, so studying them close up should provide clues about how bodies like Earth came into being. As well as collecting samples, astronauts might install seismometers to detect vibrations set off by small explosive charges, to reveal the asteroid's interior.
Findings from a mission like this could prove vital if we ever need to deflect an asteroid from a collision course with Earth. Many of these bodies are simply loose collections of rubble, and an ill-thought-out attempt at deflecting one could break it up into a dangerous shower of fragments.
A visit by 2020 might just be possible, says Louis Friedman of the Planetary Society, though a major review of NASA space flight last year - the Augustine report - points to the mid 2020s.
A prerequisite will be finding ways to shield astronauts from radiation. "There is a very real chance you could lose a crew because of that," says Daniel Durda of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
NASA's Florida space hub could look a lot different 10 years from now. It may still be the departure point for trips to the International Space Station, but the space shuttle will be long gone. A handful of astronauts could still hitch rides on Russia's dependable Soyuz spacecraft, but US government support for commercial space taxis should have helped drive down the cost of rocket trips, and groups of two or three astronauts may be squeezing into capsules atop small rockets run by private companies.
These newcomers will be beginning to draw enough interest in space tourism and microgravity research to launch several private trips to low-Earth orbit each year. Access to space for all will be well on the way - as long as some key hurdles have been overcome by then. "Making this work for NASA means being able to do this safely and reliably," says Bretton Alexander of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.
Rules will be needed for how private spacecraft are evaluated and certified. The first step - a draft of NASA's human rating requirements - may be released as early as March, Alexander says.
Fuelling in space
If missions could refuel after leaving Earth, astronauts could revisit the moon without the need for expensive new rocket systems.
The technology to build orbiting fuel depots - such as sunshades to keep fuel cool - could be on the way by the end of the 2010s. And the first American visitors to the moon in decades could also be part of the plan: not astronauts, but robots that will manufacture rocket fuel. "Like exploring way out west, you send the scouts out in front of you," says NASA engineer Patrick Troutman.
Test plants could use the sun's heat to release oxygen from lunar soil, while microwaves could extract traces of water as a source of hydrogen and oxygen. Storage technology will need tightening up though. "Hydrogen leaks from everything," says Troutman.
Today's rockets work by ejecting hot gases generated by chemical combustion - a technology dating back to Germany's second world war V2s and beyond. Soon they could be replaced by radically different engines, setting the stage for journeys to Mars that could be completed in a matter of weeks.
Ion and plasma thrusters use electric and magnetic fields to accelerate a propellant. Theyneed much less fuel than chemical rockets, and can boost spacecraft to much higher speeds. In 2013, a plasma thruster called the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) - developed by the Ad-Astra rocket company of Houston, Texas, headed by former astronaut Franklin Chang Díaz - will be sent to the ISS. If tests go well, it could be used to give the station the regular boost it needs to maintain its position in orbit.
To carry humans to Mars, such engines will need a huge power supply that does not add too much mass. Ultra-lightweight solar arrays or space-hardy nuclear reactors would need to be developed for the job, says John Schilling of Silverbird Astronautics in Lancaster, California.
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