From incredible military planes, to revolutionary nuclear fusion reactors, to all-electric dump trucks, these are the 20 coolest machines of the 2010s.
U.S. Air Force
Think about the X-37B as a younger sibling to the Space Shuttle. It’s property of the U.S. Air Force and has been pretty secretive for the most part.
Originally, the space craft was launched in April 2010, strapped to an Atlas V rocket. Since then, it’s carried out four other missions. In October 2019, at the end of its fifth mission, it broke the record for the most days a test vehicle has spent in orbit, coming in at 780 days.
The X-37B has been described as a “pickup truck with a payload bay measuring 7-feet-by-4-feet wide,” Popular Mechanics previously reported.
2 Elektro Dumper
This hulk-looking dump truck is not only a mean, green marlstone-hauling machine, but it’s also the world’s largest electric vehicle to-date. Kuhn Schweitz, a German manufacturer, named the dump truck the “Elektro Dumper,” or eDumper for short.
The eDumper was modeled on a Komatsu HB 605-7, a massive (regular) dump truck: It’s 30 feet long, 14 feet wide, and 14 feet tall, plus the tires are six feet high and the dump bed reaches up to 28 feet when fully extended.
Kuhn Schweitz built the eDumper to carry marlstone back and forth from quarries. The company claims that making the trip from quarry, to cement factory, and back 20 times in one day produces a surplus of 200 kilowatt-hours of energy (or 77 megawatt-hours per year). Your average dump truck, by contrast, uses between 11,000 and 22,000 gallons of diesel fuel each year.
3 Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft
The Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft, designed and built by Scaled Composites in Mojave, California is like the biggest plane you’ve ever seen—including a wing that’s bigger and longer than a whole house—and there are two of them smashed together. As in, two airplanes connected together!
According to previous reporting from Popular Mechanics, the Stratolaunch is “designed for a maximum takeoff weight of 1,300,000 lbs., making the plane capable of carrying launch vehicles and their payloads weighing up to about 550,000 lbs., with 250,000 lbs. devoted to fuel.”
4 Big Bertha
Bertha, or “Big Bertha” as it’s often called, became the world’s largest boring machine at the time its construction was completed in 2013. At 57.5 feet in diameter, the boring machine spent years working for the Washington State Department of Transportation on its Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel project in Seattle.
In 2017, the 6,700-ton, 326-foot long digger hit sunlight, leaving behind a 1.7 mile-long tunnel beneath Seattle, meant to replace a section of tunnel along State Route 99.
5 The Plasma Liner Experiment
Los Alamos National Laboratory
At Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, a new type of fusion reactor is underway. The Plasma Liner Experiment, as it’s being called, will draw on two different confinement methods to enable the prototype: magnetic and inertial confinement. Cooler still, it has 36 plasma guns, surrounding the spherical chamber, that shoot jets of ionized gas into the chamber, itself. That targets, compresses and heats a cloud of fusion fuel inside. The reactor should be finalized sometime this year.
6 Modular Nuclear Power Reactors
NuScale Power, an Oregon-based energy startup, completed a prototype of its modular nuclear power reactor, which is super tiny at about 1/100th the size of a typical reactor. The beauty of these tiny, powerful reactors is that they can be installed in hives to scale up or scale down, depending on a given plant’s individual needs (after all, some nuclear plants are scaling down due to outdated nuclear tech).
7 Army Infantry Squad Vehicles
The U.S. Army tested three new infantry squad vehicles earlier this decade, which are meant to be airdropped via paratroopers. The trucks prioritize speed over armored protection. That’s because the truck, itself, will jump with airborne troops out of airplanes and allow soldiers to quickly move off the drop zone.
8 NASA’s Curiosity Rover
Anadolu AgencyGetty Images
Originally launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on November 26, 2011, NASA’s Curiosity rover has been exploring the surface of Mars for 2,633 sols (or Martian days) at publication time, according to NASA.
During that time, the vehicle has traveled nearly 13.5 miles, which may not sound like much, but is actually quite a feat when you consider that the vehicle is remotely operated with an 11-minute delay for each and every input.
Over that time and distance, the rover has discovered that Mars had the potential to support life in the past, which is probably its most famous discovery. It’s also driven into a dry riverbed, revealing that liquid water existed on Mars in large quantities. In another region, called Yellowknife Bay, Curiosity discovered what was once a giant lake with large deposits of groundwater.
9 “Floating Chernobyl”
The Akademik Lomonosov, also known as “Floating Chernobyl,” is a 459-foot long towed platform ship. The ship has some extremely fragile cargo on board: as in, it’s carrying two 35-megawatt nuclear reactors all the way to Russia’s arctic coast (and that’s a 3,100-mile trip, mind you). The reactors are meant to replace the Bilibino nuclear power plant on Chukotka, in the far east of Russia.
Environmentalists, though, say the floating power plant is an inherent risk to the Arctic region. Meanwhile, Russia is interested in tapping into its outlying region to take advantage of natural resources, such as Western Siberian hydrocarbons.
Whether you love it, hate it, or wish you could use its windows as a shooting target to see if they’re really bulletproof, pretty much everyone who has an internet connection has seen the Cybertruck, which Tesla unveiled just last month. It has sharp, angular lines which gives the whole truck a boxy, futuristic look, like something straight from a sci-fi flick.
As Popular Mechanics previously reported, “the chassis is constructed with stainless steel that’s able to withstand a sledge hammer (demonstrated on stage) and even a 9mm bullet (not demonstrated on stage).” Elon Musk even claims it’s made from the same steel used on SpaceX’s Starship rocket, a proprietary blend called 30X cold-rolled stainless steel.
11 Falcon Heavy
JIM WATSONGetty Images
No rocket launch was as highly anticipated and awe-inspiring as SpaceX’s launch of Falcon Heavy in February 2018. Using a strengthened Falcon 9 as a center core with two strap-on boosters, this monstrous rocket soared into space, sent its payload on its way (in this case, Musk’s Tesla roadster), and returned its two side boosters in an extraordinary landing. It was a moment that rocket nerds live for.
12 New Shepard
In May 2019, Blue Origin’s New Shepard manned capsule conducted its 11th test mission: an uncrewed suborbital mission that carried out 38 science experiments while on board—a new record.
This spacecraft is the brainchild of Jeff Bezos, who originally poured $25 billion of his own personal wealth into his space venture, called Blue Origin.
New Shepard is a two-part vehicle. The propulsion module propels the entire spacecraft from its launchpad and the pressurized crew capsule detaches and heads to space. The capsule then can return to Earth with a parachute.
When New Shepard took its May 2019 trip, it carried 38 experiments with it. Nine of them were supported by NASA, including a 3D-printing experiment led by the University of Kentucky. It could help advance manufacturing technology that can be completed from space.
Orion is an interstellar manned stretch capsule, currently being built and tested by NASA in its Huntsville, Alabama location. The plan is for the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle to venture out into deep space, to visit asteroids and mars.
It contains a capsule mated to a module that provides propulsion and pressurized living quarters for two to six people. It can travel up to 20,000 miles per hour.
Orion made its successful maiden trip in December 2014. It should come in handy when or if NASA astronauts head back to the moon (or further out, to Mars).
“More and more,” Dan Dumbacher, director of NASA’s Exploration Systems Development office, previously told Popular Mechanics, “we’re talking about Mars as our ultimate goal.”
Then again, it’s expensive as hell to run these missions. NASA says it envisages using it only every two years, at $6 billion a pop.
14 Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo
In December 2018, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, now known as “VSS Unity,”took to the skies for the first time (here is the video for proof). The air-launched space plane, owned by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceflight company, plans to eventually carry up to six tourists and two pilots on a two-part journey to space.
During the first portion of the trip, VSS Unity’s 60-foot-long, 140-foot-wingspan mothership (called WhiteKnightTwo) will haul it to an altitude of about 50,000 feet before the rocket detaches, fires up its engines, and heads spaceward.
Uh, yeah, the tickets for the first trip cost $250,000 each, so not just anyone will be able to snag a spot. One ticket will grant riders only about four minutes of weightlessness. More than 600 customers, including Justin Bieber, Ashton Kutcher, and Leonardo DiCaprio have signed up for the trip.
“I believe over the next few decades, we will take hundreds of thousands of people to space,” Branson told Popular Mechanics back in 2013. “My vision for Virgin Galactic is to make affordable manned access to space a reality.”
15 Global SuperTanker
David McNewGetty Images
This is not your typical, average Boeing 747. The Global SuperTanker is a jet retrofitted to haul up to 20,000 gallons of water and fire retardant.
As fires raged in the Amazon in 2019, the Global SuperTanker dropped more than 19,000 gallons of water over Bolivia. The jet and its 15-person crew landed their in August and spent two weeks making about four flights per day.
16 Zumwalt Destroyers
This new class of missile destroyers, use revolutionary propulsion systems, stealth and advanced sensors to take warships to the next level.
The ship first went into commission in 2016 and has a seriously commanding view of the battlefield above and below the ocean’s surface. One sensor, called the AN/SPY-3 Multi Function Radar is an x-band, phased array radar that has a range of 200 miles. Bow-mounted sonar scans for submarines and torpedoes, while a towed sonar array dragged along the rear of the ships by a retractable cable can listen for underwater threats at their back, without any interference from the ships’ own propulsion system.
TESS, or the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, probes planets that orbit other stars for signs of habitability. The space telescope, which was launched in 2018 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, was designed to scan about 85 percent of the sky and to measure the brightness of stars within a 300 light-years radius.
So far, the results have been incredible. In April 2019, for example, TESS found a potentially inhabitable new world, which is being called HD 21749c. It’s one of two new planets that it discovered in a star system some 53 light-years away. It may be the size of Earth, but there’s still little chance that it could support life, given that it orbits just a few million miles from its host star (which is way closer than Mercury even is to our own star).
18 Dream Chaser
Sierra Nevada Space Systems
Dream Chaser, first test launched by Sierra Nevada Space Systems in November 2017, wants to reignite U.S. efforts to orbit space by plane, rather than by rocket. Dream Chaser is a winged crew-delivery vehicle directly competing with NASA to land contracts to take people on trips to the International Space Station, in the future.
To boot, Dream Chaser is about as easy to land as your typical plane, according to Mark Sirangelo, former executive vice president of Sierra Nevada, who now works as an entrepreneur scholar-in-residence at the University of Colorado.
“Anywhere a 737 can land, Dream Chaser can too,” he told Popular Mechanicsback in 2013.
Up to seven passengers will be able to take a trip into space inside Dream Chaser when its engineers’ dreams become full reality (and if all goes as planned). It will fly into orbit on the tip of a rocket before detaching, and it’s designed to back into a docking station of the ISS.
19 “Flex-Plane” Drone
This so-called ‘Flex-Plane” Drone can flap its wings like a freakin’ Pterodactyl, plus it was inspired by a Boeing aircraft, so this is one of our favorite big machines of the decade due to its sheer creativity.
“Ran D. St. Clair, an electronics engineer based in California, built the nine-piece drone that plies the air by flexing and flapping its components, floating along even as wind threatens to derail its path,” Popular Mechanics previously reported.
Check out the video above to see one of St. Clair’s test flights, which caught some traction on Reddit. We have to say, it’s not hard to see why the internet was so mesmerized.
20 Large Hadron Collider
The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. It first started up in Switzerland in September 2008, and discovered the Higg’s boson particle in 2012.
Since then, the LHC has quietly revolutionized our understanding of particle physics, and it’s unlikely that it’ll stop any time soon.