Home » Science » New space race concentrates on Mars, extraterrestrial life – The Science Show – ABC Radio National (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

New space race concentrates on Mars, extraterrestrial life – The Science Show – ABC Radio National (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)







Space is more crowded than ever, with an increasing number of nations and corporations getting involved with the exploration of the solar system. Yet despite the diversity of participants, many players have a common goal: the search for life. Erica Vowles investigates.

Adelaide-born astronaut Andy Thomas is one of only 500 or so people who know what it is like to be blasted into space. He says it is a breathtaking experience.

‘You have this amazing ride on this incredible vehicle which, when you approach it on the day of launch, just seethes with energy. You can just feel the immensity of that power and that energy as you sit on your back waiting for the launch countdown to proceed.

I don’t see a specific destination as the most important thing, but rather this ability to live further and further from Earth and figuring out how to pioneer space, to be able to stay there for long periods of time.


‘You feel everything start shaking and you can see the launch tower rush by the window as you leap off the Earth and you see clouds rush by the window. You can watch the sky slowly darken from blue to purple and eventually to black as you leave the upper atmosphere, travelling at this phenomenal speed.

‘Then just eight and a half minutes after you’ve left the launch pad and had the ride of your life, the engines shut down, it all gets quiet, and any loose objects in the cabin just start floating around you and you are there in space, travelling at 30,000 kilometres an hour.’

Assessing the spend

While the experience of going to space and living there for long periods has been life changing for Thomas, he remains realistic about the costs and risks associated with space exploration. He concedes that NASA’s state goal of getting humans to Mars by the 2030s may be too expensive to be realised.

According to Thomas, the agency needs to re-examine its funding model for projects like the Orion deep exploration space craft, which is currently in development.

‘NASA uses a structure called cost-plus-fixed-fee where contractors get a fee based on how much money they spend. So they are obviously dis-incentivised to reduce costs because it reduces their fee.

‘I think that is not a good paradigm if we are to go forward with reasonable costs for some of these missions. A mission to Mars, by some people’s estimates, is going to be $1 trillion. Well, that’s simply unsustainable. There is no government agency or collection of government agencies that’s going to be willing to spend that much money.’

Thomas believes an alternative funding scheme that NASA has begun trialling, which involves contracting corporations like Space X and Orbital Sciences to ferry cargo to the International Space Station, is a positive sign.

‘The commercial provider makes a substantial investment, and NASA essentially buys a service,’ he says. ‘Those vehicles eventually are planned to be human-rated so that they can actually carry humans to the space station, hopefully with much lower costs than we were able to achieve with the shuttle.’

To boldly go everywhere

While many people are fixated on the goal of reaching the nearby planet of Mars, NASA’s head of advanced exploration systems, Jason Crusan, sees things a little differently.

‘I don’t see a specific destination as the most important thing, but rather this ability to live further and further from Earth and figuring out how to pioneer space, to be able to stay there for long periods of time,’ he says.

‘Maybe that’s my own influence as a child growing up. Most of the sci-fi which you watched at the time—Star Trek and Star Wars type stuff—to me that was about how do you have this group of individuals living off the planet that is literally the explorers and the pioneers like we used to have.’

Aside from the astronomical cost that would be involved with any Mars mission, there are still many technical hurdles to overcome. For instance, Andy Thomas says no one really has really worked out how to actually land on Mars.

‘The entry, descent and landing problem of Mars, what we call the EDL problem, is a big challenge because Mars does have an atmosphere. Not much of an atmosphere, but it’s just enough that you have to deal with it, but it’s not enough that it lets you use parachutes to slow the vehicle down and land, like capsules did here on Earth.

‘So you have to do some kind of aerodynamic capture into the atmosphere, which is an entering into the atmosphere with aerodynamic heating. Then you need some kind of propulsion system that can be engaged once the aerodynamic heating has stopped to slow the vehicle down and bring it to the surface.

‘That is actually a very big technical challenge for a vehicle that is likely to be of a size that is necessary to carry humans, which would be something in the 30 to 40 tonne range.’

A robotic solution

While scientists try and solve the EDL problem, some argue that a sensible initial Mars mission could involve sending astronauts to orbit around the planet or one of its moons. The astronauts could then use something called tele-robotic technology to get around their inability to land on the planet.

Astronomer Jack Burns, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Colorado in Boulder, conducted a tele-robotics experiment in 2013 which saw astronauts on the International Space Station remotely operate rovers at the NASA Ames Centre in California.

Professor Burns wants NASA to send astronauts to the far side of the moon in the early 2020s so that a new low-frequency radio telescope can be laid down using robots operated remotely from a nearby spacecraft.

‘I am most interested in utilising the far side of the Moon as the only pristine radio-quiet environment in our solar system, so that we are able to probe very weak signals coming from the first stars and galaxies that happen to radiate at very low radio frequencies,’ he says.

‘My geology colleagues would also very much like to explore some unique areas of the far side of the Moon, an area in particular called the South Pole–Aitken basin, which is the oldest impact basin in the inner solar system. This basin was carved out by a huge meteor impact about 4.3 billion years ago when the solar system was still very fresh and new and the Earth-Moon system had just recently formed.

‘This is the time where the first beginnings of life on the Earth were starting to happen. One of the interesting questions is impacts like this that occurred in the South Pole–Aitken basin were also happening on the Earth at the same time, did those stir the pot and maybe help with the early formation of life on our planet?’

 Professor Burns says if such a mission to the moon took place in the early 2020s, it could be a stepping stone towards an eventual manned mission to Mars in the last 2030s.

‘If we had the capability to send unmanned spacecraft with robotic rovers ahead of time to land on the surface, when the astronauts arrive they will have basically a small fleet of explorers, of computer operated explorers that they can directly control from space.’

Currently, the controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California have to be very cautious when operating rovers on Mars, as the distances between Earth and the Red Planet mean the communication time lag can be anywhere from eight to 40 minutes. This lag time would shrink to less than half a second if NASA could send astronauts to orbit around the planet.

NASA’s Jason Crusan argues that if such a mission were successful, the amount of scientific investigation that could be conducted on Mars would be phenomenally sped up.

‘The science community has actively pointed out that even with our Curiosity rover, which is the most capable rover we’ve sent to Mars, the science and analysis and traverse that it’s done in its long period of time that it’s already been on the surface could have been done by an astronaut in a matter of less than a day, and this has been done over the period of years.’

The new space race

Until commercial operators like Space X and Orbital Sciences develop the capability to send humans into space, NASA remains Earthbound and dependent on Russia to send its astronauts to the ISS. Russia is not the only nation that can launch humans into space, however. In October 2003, China became the third nation to independently launch an astronaut into space. Other countries are keen to follow.

Sydney-based Space analyst Dr Morris Jones says that new space rivalries are emerging in the Asia Pacific region, and these could have implications for the volume of science conducted in space and the push to land humans on the Moon and Mars.

‘I think it is beyond question that now we are already well into an Asian space race, and that Asian space race is going to get very hot over the decade ahead,’ says Dr Morris. ‘China has been launching satellites since the 1970s, and for most of the history of the Chinese space program, they’ve had a very low profile.

‘That really changed around about the turn of the century when China suddenly unveiled an astronaut program of their own.’

Dr Jones says since the country first launched a person into space in 2003, Chinese astronauts have performed a spacewalk, launched a space laboratory, and China has landed a probe on the moon.

‘Some people, including me, think that China is steadily gearing up for the ultimate goal of landing Chinese astronauts on the Moon,’ adds Dr Jones.

China’s space program is linked to its military capabilities, as are the United States’ and Russia’s, but Dr Jones argues an increase in nations sending probes and astronauts into space will also be a boon for scientific inquiry.

‘I think it’s going to be wonderful for science because they are sending probes into deep space, and in addition to that China operates astronomical satellites and scientific satellites in near-Earth space, and they publish the results of those findings in scientific journals.’

China is not the only nation in the Asian region increasing its activities in space. In September 2014 India’s Mangalyaan probe—also known as the Mars Orbiter Mission—successfully entered into orbit around the Red Planet. Dr Jones says while India’s probe aims to answer scientific questions, such as whether Mars’ atmosphere contains methane, there were political motivations behind the mission.

‘The Chinese tried to send a small Mars probe as a piggyback on a Russian Mars mission that was going to be launched there a few years ago, and unfortunately the Russian mission failed, and the Chinese lost their small probe, along with the Russian probe.

‘The Indians realised that if they got their act together very quickly they could beat the Chinese to Mars. They very quickly gained approval for the mission, cobbled it together using a lot of components that had previously been designed for their lunar orbiter, and it has reached Mars quite successfully and it’s now carrying out some scientific observations.’

One day, India too hopes to be able to independently launch astronauts into space.

As was the case during the height of the Cold War 50 years ago, Earth-based conflicts will undoubtedly find further expression in space in the 21st Century.  One could be forgiven for viewing space ambitions through cynical eyes, despite the well-worn argument that scientific and technical benefits trickle down from space exploration.

Andy Thomas argues that while space exploration can have scientific payoff back here on Earth, projects pursued by NASA and other space agencies cannot be justified on those terms alone.

‘I think the payoff for space exploration has to be to search for life,’ he says. ‘For example, if we were to find evidence that life once formed on Mars, I think that would be a crowning achievement of intellectual human inquiry. It would be one of the great discoveries of all time.


‘Mostly, what it would give us would be for the first time ever an honest assessment and a rational assessment of our place in the universe. Answering that kind of question, I think more than anything else justifies the cost and risks of space exploration.’



New space race concentrates on Mars, extraterrestrial life – The Science Show – ABC Radio National (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).


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