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Google Lunar X prize

Mission to Mars to be undertaken by humans or robots?


By Joshua Hill —— Bio and Archives--October 6, 2007

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For the past year or so we’ve finally seen an uptick in the amount of interest given to space exploration. The Asian space race is on with Japan, China and India seemingly all competing against each other. NASA continue to make strides as they explore past the galaxies outer limit with Voyager and closer to home begin preparations for the James Webb Space Telescope.  Now Google has entered the fray by creating the Google Lunar X Prize, putting $30 million up for the first to send information back from the Moon via an unmanned robot.

Compared to the past several decades, where the interest directed towards space exploration was feeble at best, for those who are fans of what is “out there”, the recent steps have been a boon.

But what is the future of space exploration?

NASA is pledging to be back on the Moon by 2020 and on Mars by 2037, and experts are predicting that Asia might land a man on the moon in the next decade. But are they really on the right track?

Some experts believe not, and they place the future of human exploration of their neighboring planets in the hands of robots.

October the fourth was the 50th anniversary of Sputnik’s launch, an unmanned probe that seems to have been forgotten in the annals of history unless its birthday happens to hit a landmark. The spotlight is more often than not focused squarely on the Apollo missions, and some scientists believe this is a problem.

“Apollo gave us a false sense of security, it showed us what could be done,” commented Doug Millard, space curator of the Science Museum in London. “But all we have managed to do since then—no matter how magnificent it might be—is to send humans round and round in orbit around Earth.”

The prospect of landing a man on Mars in the next couple of decades is a laudable goal, but one that might be beyond us. “I would be surprised if we do it this century,” said Millard.

“Going to the Moon was almost like going out for a little swim with a snorkel. Going to Mars is a totally different order of magnitude,” he added, noting that there are three constraints that he believes are going to extend any timeframe for the first human footprint on mars.

First of all,  he notes that we so far have very little experience in long term space travel, and the little understood hazards that might be encountered along the way. The cosmic rays that did in the Fantastic Four and many other superheroes, prolonged weightlessness and the psychological stress of seeing ones home planet disappear in to invisibility are all issues that will impose serious hindrances to any planned mission to Mars.

Second are the simple financial constraints that surround a manned mission anywhere. According to Millard, adding a human to the mission will increase the cost a hundred fold. “You can now put together a pretty decent unmanned mission for a few hundred million euros (dollars), but you are usually talking about many billions for a manned mission,” especially if it is something new, Millard said.

Lastly, and potentially most important, is the fact that we have never encountered an atmosphere in our space travels. Our moon does not have an atmosphere, and Mars’ atmosphere is entirely different from our own earth’s atmosphere. “We really don’t know how to land anything big on Mars. The Moon has no atmosphere. Mars does, and it is very different to ours,” he said.

And though Millard does not oppose a maintained human presence in space, he along with many other scientists in the field, is concerned about the lack of priority given to our own planet. “We need to do as much as we can to use space to look back on Earth, especially given the concerns about climate change,” he said.

Such concerns are being addressed by the Envisat—Environment Satellite— that was launched by the European Space Agency on the first of March, 2002. Orbiting Earth in about 101 minutes with a repeat cycle of 35 days, Envisat carries nine Earth-Observation instruments that are constantly gathering information focusing on all aspects of our planet.

All of this comes after the triumphal return to operation of the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, after they were affected by dust storms obscuring their precious sunlight. While some may say that robotics is not at a level to continue space exploration, the two rovers currently traversing the rocky surface of mars would beg to differ.

Joshua Hill, a Geek’s-Geek from Melbourne, Australia, Josh is an aspiring author with dreams of publishing his epic fantasy, currently in the works, sometime in the next 5 years. A techie, nerd, sci-fi nut and bookworm.



Guest Column Joshua Hill -- Bio and Archives | Comments

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