By Daniel Emery

More than a hundred years ago rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky predicted in a letter to a friend that one day humans would explore space.

That was 1911. It must have seemed a pipe dream at the time.

But as future technology predictions go, he was a visionary.

Man has been to the moon and back, has decoded many celestial mysteries, and is continuing to make breakthroughs never believed possible in Tsiolkovsky’s day.

But when he was imagining the inventions of the future, would this genius have foreseen the amount of new upcoming technology which would derive from space travel?

And not just as chips in television sets or heavy-duty car parts. NASA is working on space technology which will ensure severe storms, floods and tornadoes are no longer a threat, which will make it possible to fly from London to Australia in less than 60 minutes.

What kind of futuristic development is this?

It’s real work being done from a lab in California where scientists claim they can change the world for the better.

Working alongside NASA, leading universities across the globe, and a number of commercial partners, American aerospace and defence giant Lockheed Martin has projects ongoing which will not only enhance the preservation of human life, but make the DeLorean from the cult film Back to the Future more of a reality than we ever imagined.

Predicting severe weather

During May 2015 – the wettest on record – there were 412 reports of tornadoes. In China, 81 people died and 100,000 homes were damaged and destroyed with the arrival of the Mei-Yu rains, notching up losses of £3 billion.

The impact of severe weather on the planet should not be underestimated. And the more accurate our predictions, the more lives can be spared.

The Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) could achieve that extra time. It monitors activity in the clouds, which provides data to predict severe weather.

The GLM sensor has been placed into the US weather agency’s satellite GOES-R. An instrument in the same class as the Hubble telescope, it uses technology which usually looks up at the stars to look down at the planet.

There is a steep rise in lightning activity 10 minutes before the arrival of tornadoes.

But this hi-tech weather tracker, which takes pictures of earth at a rate of 500 frames per second, could also help planes to navigate around storm systems and give ample warning when electrical grids on the ground are under threat.

Variants on the original GLM are being developed to deploy around the world, meaning this space satellite information will no doubt save millions of lives in the future.

Hypersonic space travel

The term hypersonic refers to speed above Mach 5, which is five times the speed of sound.

Lockheed Martin is now developing Mach 20 – more than 15,000 miles per hour – and Mach 30 capabilities. These developments in aircraft technology could take a flight from the UK to Australia down to less than an hour.

Attempts to reach Mach 20 have been thwarted in the past by a lack of materials to withstand the temperatures generated at these speeds. But this project has a material which cools itself by shedding electrons - like the human body cools itself by sweating.

Lockheed Martin is working with Imperial College London, which owns a hypersonic gun tunnel used to test these materials.

Hypersonic flight has applications beyond consumer travel. In defence, it could give governments the upper hand over enemies and, in the event of a humanitarian crisis, it would allow aid to reach victims much faster.

Hypersonic materials will be used alongside other innovations, such as carbon nanotubes, to create these machines of the future, meaning the impact of technology on our lives could take a very Doctor Who-esque turn.

Avoiding Armageddon

A mere 66 million years ago, dinosaurs roamed the earth until an asteroid around 10km wide hit the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. The impact set off a chemical reaction that boiled the earth.

Scientists are trying to work out a way to prevent this kind of cataclysmic event. NASA-funded projects have been working to catalogue 90% of “near-earth objects” since 1998, but a mission has launched which will change man’s relationship with asteroids.

Space rocks hit our planet all the time but only the larger ones pose a global threat. An asteroid needs to be more than a quarter of a mile wide, according to NASA. But these only strike Earth once every 1,000 centuries.

OSIRIS-REx is an unmanned mission to one of the most potentially dangerous asteroids -Bennu.

NASA monitors more than 1,400 asteroids that could cause significant damage, but Bennu has a high probability of slamming into Earth in the late 22nd century.

OSIRIS-Rex will go to the asteroid, take a sample and bring it home. This will allow scientists to learn how to impact the path of an asteroid. 

What new technology will come in the future? Who knows.

But space technology and spacecraft design is having an immeasurable effect on the future of mankind.

One thing is for sure. Future technological advances are bringing fictional TV shows like Star Trek a lot closer to reality than we ever dreamed possible.


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