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This is a preview of our newest Cosmic Journeys episode. Ancient people saw them as messages from the Gods… as supernatural winds that blew from the realm of spirits. Modern science has linked these polar light shows, called auroras, to vast waves of electrified gas hurled in our direction by the sun.

Today, researchers from a whole new generation see this explosive substance, plasma, as an energy source that may one day fuel humanity’s expansion into space. What can we learn, and how far can we go, by tapping into the strange and elusive fourth state of matter?

Since the dawn of rocketry, we’ve relied on the same basic technology to get us off the ground. Fill a cylinder with volatile chemicals, then ignite them in a controlled explosion. The force of the blast is what pushes the rocket up.

Nowadays, chemical rockets are the only ones with enough thrust to overcome Earth’s gravity and carry a payload into orbit. But they are not very efficient. The heavier the payload, the more fuel a rocket needs to lift it into space. But the more fuel a rocket carries, the more fuel it needs. For long-range missions, most spacecraft rely heavily on the initial speed gained from their launch.

Flight planners often design circuitous routes to give the craft a gravitational boost by sending it around the moon or another planet. One small cadre of scientists believes it has a quicker and more efficient way to get around in space.