Dr. Mark Garlick—an illustrator and astrophysicist—created this moonscape depicting a lunar elevator docking at a terminal on the Moon’s South Pole, a liquid mirror telescope, and a bulldozer mining for helium-3, some of the exciting technologies featured in the American Museum of Natural History’s new exhibition Beyond Earth: The Future of Space Exploration. © AMNH\\Mark Garlick

On November 19th, the American Museum of Natural History invites visitors to imagine what may be next in space exploration.

Beyond Planet Earth: The Future of Space Exploration is a brand new exhibit developed by astronomer Dr. Michael Shara, curator of the Department of Astrophysics, that considers the possibilities for science and exploration. "It tips a hat to the first space flight and the Hubble," Dr. Shara said, "but the real focus is on what's next." He's looking to the next 50, 100, even 500 years and wants us to consider what we may be doing in space.

So, what is next? Space tourism is a strong possibility. And it's a possibility that excites Dr. Shara who believes that it won't necessarily be out of reach for the adventurous. The price will come down with the right opportunity, which could take the form of Helium-3 mining. The isotope is highly sought for nuclear fusion research and is extremely rare here on Earth, but there may be great deposits on the moon and on the gas giants in our solar system. Mining will require a lunar base, which will open the door for settlement. And this in turn invites tourism, which Dr. Shara believes will be a huge source of funding for the work we'll attempt in space. But we'll need to make a cognitive leap first, from building transportation like the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria to building space ships and shuttles.

And make no mistake, we need to go into space—if only to gain a better understanding of asteroids, for example. And truthfully, that's a pretty important task. Asteroids creep past our planet all the time, and the impact threat is something that we have very little means of controlling. Space exploration can help us better understand patterns, composition, possibly even creation of these near-Earth objects.

While we're out there, we'll likely want to take a look for life. And since we'll be plumbing the gas giants for Helium-3, it makes sense to check out Europa, which may be hosting life in its deep, salty ocean. "Europa is the second best place in the solar system to go look for life," said Dr. Shara. "There's possibly life at the bottom of the oceans of Europa just as there's life in the deep underground pores and cracks--we think--under Mars where there's water. Probably. We don't know. We have to go look."

What we do next in space will depend on nerve, whether we can get young people interested in STEM, and whether we have a sense of collective imagination. Beyond Planet Earth is one vision for the future of space exploration—what's your vision?

Beyond Planet Earth: The Future of Space Exploration will open on November 19th, 2011.