5 Cool Projects that Prove NASA Is Moving Into the Future

Last year, after too many years seemingly spent in aimless loitering, NASA got a sense of direction and started actually doing things again. It announced plans to go lasso an asteroid and then go to Mars. It launched Orion, the spacecraft that it's hoped will one day take astronauts to the Red Planet. Suddenly, NASA was functioning as an actual space program again instead of as the glorified earth-science program it was threatening to become.

And the thing is, apparently, those bold steps toward going where no one has gone before weren't a fluke. So far this year, NASA has continued to do things and work on projects based on getting astronauts to new places in space. Considering this -- and the fact that Congress actually didn't cut the agency's budget this year -- it looks like this habit of space-focused activity will continue. Here are five NASA projects that are solid proof there's some actual life in the space agency:

5. The one where they've got a real flying saucer. Yep, NASA is testing a flying saucer. Of course, the agency doesn't call it that. (After all, that would be playing right into the hands of all those people who swear they spotted a coffin in NASA's Mars video feed, thus proving that there's a fairly high chance aliens have come from Mars, according to those who spotted the alleged coffin anyway.)

While the craft, which is due to be tested in June in Hawaii, looks a lot like the type of spaceship green men crash-landed in Roswell, New Mexico, decades ago, the actual NASA name for this saucer-shaped craft is "Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator." NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been charged with this project. By the time all the kinks are worked out, this type of vehicle will be able to take heavy payloads, including astronauts, to Mars. But first NASA has to confirm that this doughnut-shaped craft can reliably fly.

The craft is slated to undergo its second round of flight tests from June 2 to June 12, weather permitting, from the U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility on the island of Kauai. And once those tests are over, we're one step closer to a world where flying saucers are definitely a thing.

4. The one where they're scheduled to discover alien life by 2025. Yep, just last week, NASA's chief scientist, Ellen Stofan, said that she fully expects NASA will find evidence of alien life within the next 20 years. "We know where to look. We know how to look," Stofan said during a panel discussion Tuesday when she talked about aliens and NASA's search for signs that they exist. (Some might argue the flying-saucer-like LDSD is pretty good evidence that they did exist, they crashed in Roswell and the government is finally cracking their alien technology. But we digress.) "In most cases, we have the technology, and we're on a path to implementing it."

However, she was quick to back away from the obvious conclusion people were jumping to, specifying that NASA is expecting to find microbes, not little green men. While we found this particular caveat a little disappointing, NASA has gone from being the space agency that was trying to get an astronaut into low-earth orbit a few decades back to the space agency that is confidently expecting to find tiny, microbe-size alien life, and it thinks that's going to happen by 2025.

3. The one with the big twin experiment. To send astronauts to new and interesting places, NASA has to figure out how humans will fare during really long trips in space. (It's estimated that it will take about 30 months to get to Mars.) That's where astronaut Scott Kelly comes in. He's spending a year aboard the International Space Station in a study to find out what being in space that long does to the human body. That was the essential premise of the study, but it got even more interesting once Kelly was selected since he happens to be a twin, and his twin happens to be former astronaut Mark Kelly.

Since they have a set of astronaut twins available, NASA scientists are going to compare and contrast the genetically identical brothers in ten separate investigations that will look at space travel's effect on everything from gut bacteria to eyesight. They won't be able to draw any hard-and-fast scientific conclusions from the Twin Study, as NASA is calling it, because it's only one set of twins, but there's still the chance to learn a lot about how space could affect humans.

2. The one where they're going to smash an asteroid out of its orbit. The project, which is being undertaken as a partnership between NASA and the European Space Agency, is formally known as Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment, but really it's just NASA and the ESA doing some target practice with an asteroid. The objective of the mission? To slam a spacecraft into an asteroid with as much force as possible and see what happens.

Pretty nifty, right? This isn't the first time we've smashed a flying object as hard as possible just to see what will happen. In 2005, the Deep Impact project smacked into a comet. Then it stood back to see what happened: The comet moved about ten centimeters off course. That may not sound like a lot, but keep in mind we're talking about an entire comet.

The current project, AIDA, is a lot like Deep Impact, but this time it's focused on bagging an asteroid. Specifically, the ESA is working on the Asteroid Impact Mission, while NASA is toiling away on the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, a.k.a. DART. In 2020, AIM will be launched toward Didymos, a fairly hefty asteroid that's relatively close to Earth. Then, in 2022, DART will launch and wham directly into Didymoon. The hope is that DART will change Didymoon's orbital velocity and AIM will be there to record it.

And for those who think such dark thoughts, NASA already has you covered. Neither Didymos or Didymoon is anywhere near hitting the planet. NASA says that a little more elegantly: "It is important to note that the target Didymos is not an Earth-crossing asteroid, and there is no possibility that the DART deflection experiment would create an impact hazard."

1. The one with all the probes. While NASA is working on figuring out how to get an asteroid to move and how to get astronauts to Mars, it's also busy collecting data from other spots in the solar system via probes. The probe New Horizons will get to Pluto in July; meanwhile, the Juno probe is heading to Jupiter. Dawn is orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres, and last week Maven, the Mars probe, took its 1,000th spin around the planet. In short, even though there currently is still no way to get astronauts to outer space from U.S. soil, NASA is exploring and planning and doing actual scientific things so that when we do start venturing further into space, we'll have more information and have actual scientific questions based on the data collected that NASA astronauts will try to answer. Instead of moldering in the past, NASA is moving into the future.

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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray