#6 Space Exploration; Using Science to Look Forward. And Back
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#6 Should we all live in space?
The key to understanding our existence and, possibly, prolonging it lies beyond our own planet. Our fascination with the stars goes back thousands of years. Astronomy is claimed to be humanity’s oldest science and study of the night sky probably predates henges – the earliest known solar observatories.
Today, our space observation techniques are somewhat more advanced. Following discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) in 1964, we have studied this afterglow from events in the first 380,000 years after the Big Bang with increasing resolution: first using the COBE (Cosmic Microwave Background Explorer) and then WMPA (Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe) satellites and, most recently, the Planck satellite launched in 2009.
Echoes of the Past
Planck spent four years mapping the sky, at millimetre wavelengths in nine frequency bands, down to an angular resolution of 0.07 degrees. Having achieved this resolution, it is physically impossible to capture any more finely-detailed images of the CMB (Figure 1), although the process of extracting knowledge from the data collected will go on for several years.
Figure 1. The sky as seen by Planck (Copyright: ESA/Planck Collaboration)
To achieve this unsurpassable precision the Planck instruments’ sensors were cooled to -273.6°C to detect the CMB radiation glowing faintly at about 3 Kelvin ± 5µK. The results have enabled us to calculate the age of the universe as 13.8 billion years and refine our ideas about how it all began.
Planck may have captured all the information the CMB can offer, but there remains more to learn about the Universe’s tempestuous youth. The James Webb Space Telescope (Webb), launching in 2021, will examine near- and mid-infrared wavelengths to demystify the second half-billion years; the epoch of reionization, when the first stars were born leading to the formation of galaxies. Over time and distance, the radiation from these stars has stretched, shifting visible wavelengths into the red region where the sensors onboard Webb are tuned. Webb will also make observations within our own solar system, seeking answers to issues closer to home – just some mundane stuff like the building blocks of planets, the origins of life…
Launching into the Future
So much for where we came from. What about where we’re going? Science Fiction author Ray Bradbury’s series The Martian Chronicles inspired generations of astrophysicists and seeded the idea that the human race may colonise another planet through necessity. Driven by our natural curiosity about what’s out there, missions such as Voyager and New Horizons, and the Hubble Space Telescope, are gathering information that could be valuable to future generations of interplanetary colonists. Hubble recently discovered sodium chloride deposits on the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa, which may originate from a subsurface ocean capable of hosting microorganisms.
Launched in 1977, Voyagers 1 and 2 both remain alive and well, sending data from interstellar space as they travel beyond the planets in our solar system and escape the influence of our sun altogether.
New Horizons is only a few billion miles behind them, having provided us with better pictures of our neighbours than we have ever seen (Figure 2) and new knowledge about objects in the Kuiper belt at the edge of our solar system.
Figure 2. Composite image of Jupiter and Io as seen from New Horizons. Photo: NASA
Humans may never travel as far as New Horizons but our nearest neighbour, Mars, could become a destination (Figure 3) as suggested by Bradbury. There are fascinating possibilities: is there indigenous life? Could humans survive on Mars? The Mars Rover missions continue to map the planet’s surface, study its geology, and look for essential resources such as water.
Figure 3. An artist’s concept of human habitats on Mars. Credit: NASA.
If humans are to go to Mars, we need to know more than whether there is water. At -63°C the average surface temperature is much lower than Earth’s. Just as important to understand are the effects that Martian gravity will have on the human body, being less than 40% of the Earth’s. Living there would come after a journey of about nine months through space, so a manned mission to Mars would likely draw on knowledge of living and working in space gained from experiments onboard the International Space Station (ISS). Current ISS projects include Bioscience-3 and Tangolab Mission 11, studying the effects of microgravity on the body’s vascular system and white blood cell behaviour. The results will also increase our general understanding of cardiovascular disease mechanisms to benefit those of us destined to live as mere earthlings.
Since 2012 commercial operators have been taking on some of the responsibility for delivering new experiments and essential supplies to the ISS. Indeed, the batch of experiments including Bioscience-3 was delivered on-board SpaceX vehicles including the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon docking vehicle. Commercialising transportation to and from low earth orbits, through initiatives such as NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, is expected to make access to space more affordable, allowing new markets to be developed. In addition to Elon Musk’s SpaceX, other space-centric enterprises of famous billionaires include Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit. Blue Origin suggests millions of people could live and work in space, utilising the resources and energy out there to preserve what’s here on Earth. Bezos also sees opportunities on the Moon and recently unveiled his Blue Moon lander (equipped with Gigabit optical communications) to deliver experiments.
Perhaps inevitably, the Branson dimension puts passenger spaceflight on the timeline, and in May this year his Virgin Galactic company transferred operations into the world’s first purpose-built spaceport (Figure 4) ready to begin commercial services.
Figure 4. Spaceport America in New Mexico could host the first space tourism departures. Copyright: Virgin Galactic
But you don’t have to be a billionaire to get a project into space. There are now low-cost pico-satellites such as CubeSat, which began as an initiative to aid university learning and research. From this the U (University) form factor was born, measuring 10cm x 10cm x 10cm and with mass typically about 1.0-1.33kg. U-class space vehicles can scale along one axis, allowing 1U, 1.5U, 2U, 3U etc. form factors. Despite the frugal proportions, a CubeSat mission can cost over $100,000, although NASA has a scheme to let selected missions hitch a ride on one of their rockets in exchange for a report on the findings.
For as little as $8000 including launch to polar low-earth orbit, commercial organisation Interorbital Systems (IOS) offers TubeSat, a similarly-sized personal satellite available in kit form and ready for missions such as scientific experiments, photography, animal tracking, or space art. The kit includes Arduino-controlled electronics, solar cells, and a radio transceiver for two-way communication.
While mass-market access to space could boost our understanding of everything, there could be some disadvantages. The quantity of space debris orbiting the earth, mostly slowly-descending parts of discarded space vehicles, could significantly increase. Travelling at thousands of miles per hour, even a particle as small as a fleck of paint can damage working satellites.
To combat this, orbital space debris mitigation is becoming formalised as a design requirement for space vehicles. Picosatellites, at least, will not contribute to the problem: CubeSats must demonstrate mitigation compliance to get a ride with NASA, while IOS averts long-term build-up by placing CubeSats and TubeSats into a self-decaying orbit.
It appears that not even time itself can prevent us from exploring where we came from and where we might journey to 50 years after humans first landed on the Moon. We can begin to contemplate spaceflight as a tourist activity and interplanetary travel as a genuine possibility.
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