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Kayak on Titan? Soar past exoplanets? Epic new NASA video envisions future space travel

A new NASA video advertises a suite of the agency's real-life missions as previewing an "Exoplanet Travel Bureau" of the future.

The one-minute short on YouTube, released Oct. 19, reimagines a set of exploration posters released by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2015 and in 2016 as animated futuristic mini-adventures. (The posters themselves were inspired by art that the Works Progress Administration commissioned to advertise United States national parks between 1936 and 1943, attempting to boost employment during the Depression.)

In the new video from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, a skydiver plunges towards the huge super-Earth HD 40307 g, a family in a bubble-like spacecraft watches the icy moon Enceladus blast out water geysers, and a parent and child watch a rocket lift off from their Martian settlement, among other imaginative ways in which future humans experience worlds near Earth.

Related: These 10 super extreme exoplanets are out of this world

A still from a new NASA video imagines what it would be like to kayak the lakes of Saturn's moon Titan. (Image credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith (KBRwyle) and NASA/JPL-Caltech)

"While our robotic explorers have toured our solar system, the only place beyond Earth where humans have stood is the moon. That's also the next place we'll send astronauts. But not the last! While humans haven't yet visited Mars, we're planning to add boot prints to the rover tire tracks there now," Goddard representatives wrote in a description accompanying the video, noting that the project's goal is to envision the far future of exploration.

The fanciful tour extends far beyond NASA's budgeted plans, of course. The agency is firmly focused on reviving human moon exploration, with hopes to land astronauts on the moon again in the 2020s. This Artemis program will be performed with international collaboration from other space agencies, at least some of whom plan to fly their own astronauts on these missions. 

A still from a new NASA video imagines what it would be like to float over the lava-covered exoplanet 55 Cancri e. (Image credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith (KBRwyle) and NASA/JPL-Caltech)

As for Mars, the earliest NASA might send people there is 2035 — but that was an estimate released under the previous administration in October 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic and a presidential election changed the constraints and priorities of the U.S. government. Technological, legal and funding delays are also slowing Artemis, which is waiting on key equipment such as spacesuits and human landing systems to proceed.

With the new video, Goddard also advertised a link to NASA's new Exoplanet Travel Bureau website, which reframes the agency's ongoing exploration as a set of extraterrestrial tourism opportunities. Along with the JPL posters, the website includes a new set of posters featuring planet-hunting NASA observatories past, present and future: the Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope, the Kepler telescope, and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).

A behind-the-scenes video Goddard released separately on YouTube shows how the new video animations were performed using actors and a green screen, which is a backdrop placed in the background of a camera shot to allow for digital effects, background images and other post-production changes. 

One memorable scene in the video shows a person sitting on a box with a kayak paddle, simulating the experience portrayed in the exploration video of a kayaker on the soupy Saturnian moon Titan. "Goddard video maven Chris Smith employed green screens and computer graphics to bring these scenes to life," Goddard said in the statement accompanying the main Exoplanet Travel Bureau video.

Goddard also released a side-by-side comparison video of the JPL posters and the new animations so that you can spot the similarities and the differences. A suite of JPL illustrators created the original posters (you can see the full list of people on the poster website) led by creative strategists Dan Goods and David Delgado.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a contributing writer for Space.com since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Her latest book, NASA Leadership Moments, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.