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Space 2018: Better Late than Never

It’s going to be a good year in space, and the new players are aiming high. The Indian Space Research Organization intends to send Chandrayaan-2, an uncrewed orbiter, lander and rover, to the moon in March.

In July, Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft will arrive at its target, the asteroid 162173 Ryugu, in an effort to return samples of this space rock to Earth.

And in June, China will launch the first part of its mission to the ‘dark side’ of the Moon, Chang’e 4, which will position a communications satellite 60,000 km beyond the Moon to provide a link with Earth. That 425 kg. relay satellite will also guide the second element of the mission, a lander and rover, down to a soft landing on the far side of the Moon,
where nobody has gone before.

One benefit of being on the far side is that the Moon blocks out stray radio signals from Earth, so the view of the radio spectrum of the universe is far better. But the Chang’e 4 lander will also carry seeds and insects to test whether plants and animals can be grown on the Moon.

“The container will send potatoes, arabidopsis seeds and silkworm eggs to the surface of the Moon,” explained Zhang Yuanxun, chief designer of the container. “The eggs will hatch into silkworms, which can produce carbon dioxide, while the potatoes and seeds emit oxygen through photosynthesis. Together, they can establish a simple ecosystem on the Moon.” Very simple – but the first step towards a sustained human presence on the Moon.

The older space powers are also breaking new ground. Russia is testing a nuclear engine this year that could cut travel time to Mars from 18 months to just 6 weeks. In October the European Space Agency will launch a mission to Mercury. NASA’s InSight Mars lander will launch in May, and the American agency’s OSIRIS-REx vehicle will rendezvous with near-Earth asteroid Bennu in August and start taking samples for return to Earth.

But the main event of the year, beyond doubt, is the planned launch of Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy vehicle from Cape Canaveral. (The launch window opens on 15 January.) “It’s guaranteed to be exciting,” said Musk last July. “There’s a real good chance that it doesn’t make it into orbit….I hope it makes it far enough from the pad that it doesn’t cause pad damage. I would consider even that a win. Major pucker factor.”

This is known as ‘lowering expectations’, but it is also known as realism. Falcon Heavy will boost two-and-a- half times the payload of any existing rocket into Low Earth Orbit: more than 50 tons. Moreover, both the main rocket and the two boosters that are strapped onto it are designed to return to Earth and land, ready for reuse, which would transform the economics of putting things into orbit. If it all works.

It almost certainly will all work eventually, but this is effectively a new design, not just an upgrade, and there are many elements in a big vehicle like Falcon Heavy that cannot be tested on the ground. The aerodynamics are different, the stresses are different, and nobody has ever launched a vehicle with 27 rockets before. The old adage applies: Anything Can Happen And Probably Will.

Yet Elon Musk is also one of the greatest showmen and self-publicists of our time, so he’s an inveterate optimist. In early December he tweeted: “Payload will be my midnight cherry Tesla Roadster playing Space Oddity. Destination is Mars orbit. Will be in deep space for a billion years or so if it doesn’t blow up on ascent.” (That is, a solar orbit like that of Mars, not an orbit around Mars. But everybody knows he does intend to go to Mars eventually.)

It’s easy to get carried away by hope, of course, but after Falcon Heavy comes NASA’s Space Launch System vehicle, which is designed to put 70 tons into Low Earth Orbit, with a follow-on version capable of 130 tons (although its rockets will not be reusable). And Musk’s future plans include the BFR (Big Fucking Rocket) that would really go to Mars.

These are the sort of vehicles we need if we are really serious about getting out into space in a big way. When I watched the last of the Apollo Moon landings on TV in 1972, I assumed that we would be seeing rockets like this by the early 1980s. (See Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Oddysey’, released in 1968, for a perfectly reasonable vision of where we could have been in space technology by the turn of the century.)

Instead the money was cut, and then the Cold War ended. The whole enterprise was mothballed for forty years, except for unmanned interplanetary missions and a low-orbit International Space Station. But this year it does feel like we are back on track and going somewhere. Forty wasted years, but better late than never.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“The container…Moon”; and “This…works”)

The Race to Mars

5 November 2013

The Race to Mars

By Gwynne Dyer

The Curse of Mars also applies to Asian countries. About two-thirds of the attempted missions to Mars have failed, many of them even before leaving Earth orbit, and most of the rest when they tried to land. Japan’s only Mars mission failed in 1998, China’s first try failed when the Russian rocket carrying its Mars orbiter into space fell back to Earth in 2011 – and so India seized the opportunity to be the first Asian country to go to Mars.

Fifteen months after the decision was announced by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in an Independence Day speech from the Red Fort in Delhi, India’s half-tonne Mangalyaan vehicle blasted off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on the country’s east coast on Tuesday. It is already in Earth orbit, and within two weeks it will set course for Mars. Unless the Mars Curse gets it, of course.

There is something faintly ridiculous about India and China “racing” to be the first Asian country to reach Mars, but it’s no more ridiculous than the Russian-American space race of the 1960s. Besides, to be fair to the Indian Space Research Organisation, the launch window for making a relatively low-energy transition to a Mars orbit will close before the end of this month, and it won’t open again for more than two years.

Once Mangalyaan gets there, if it does, it will go into orbit around Mars and carry out various scientific experiments, notably a search for methane (an indicator of the presence of life) in the Martian atmosphere. At this point, various arrogant and/or sanctimonious people will point out that the American Mars rover Curiosity has already reported finding no methane on Mars, and that India is too poor to be indulging in such foolishness anyway.

The Indians will reply that NASA, the American space agency, also said that there was no evidence of water on the Moon – until the Indian lunar orbiter Chandrayaan-1 reported the presence of water molecules in the lunar soil in 2008. They might also mention that if the United States waited until there were no more poor Americans before sending people to the Moon, the first US mission might leave fifty years from now. Or maybe not even then.

The Indian space programme operates on an amazingly small budget (about $1 billion a year), but it has put dozens of satellites in orbit that provide practical benefits for earthbound Indians: remote sensing, flood management, cyclone alerts, fishery and forest management, etc. But that’s all in near space; the question is really whether long-range space exploration is a rational proposition.

Nationalism is part of the motivation behind every country’s space programme, and while it has its comical side it does at least persuade the political authorities to provide the large sums that are needed. China is planning to land a rover on the Moon next month, and is talking about a manned landing there by 2024. That will certainly speed up India’s manned space programme.

Like the old Russo-American space race, the Chinese-Indian one will accelerate the development of new technologies and techniques. It will fill some of the gap left by the loss of momentum in the older space powers, and some useful science will get done. But the biggest reason for welcoming the entry of major new players in space exploration is the one that everybody is too embarrassed to mention: the future of the human race.

Well, almost everybody. Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX, the private company that aims to dominate the delivery-to-orbit service once provided by NASA, actually wants to create a human colony on Mars in his own lifetime – and he’s 41 now.

He is a serious player, whose large fortune (derived from his creation and subsequent sale of PayPal) is now devoted to manufacturing electric cars and building space transportation systems. Both projects are prospering, and he sees them as providing the financial and technological basis for pursuing his real goal: spreading human beings beyond this single planetary habitat while the launch window for that is still open.

Musk was quite frank about that in an interview with Rory Carroll in The Guardian newspaper last July.”The lessons of history suggest that civilisations move in cycles,” he said. “You can track that back quite far – the Babylonians, the Sumerians. We’re in a very upward cycle right now, and hopefully that remains the case. But it might not.

“There could be some series of events that cause that technology level to decline. Given that this is the first time in 4.5 billion years where it’s been possible for humanity to extend life beyond Earth, it seems like we’d be wise to act while the window was open and not count on the fact that it will be open a long time.”

I’ll let you in on a little secret. That is a big part of the motivation (though a rarely admitted part) for half the people who work in any of the national space programmes, including India’s. They value the science, and they may even revel in the glory from time to time, but that’s what it’s really about.

 

The 100-Year Starship

12 September 2012

The 100-Year Starship

By Gwynne Dyer

Never mind the constraints of the miserable present: the shrinking budgets, the lost opportunities, the collapsing morale. Thinking is free, so let’s think really big. Let’s think about…building a starship in the year 2112.

Well, I’ve already been thinking about that for decades, actually, but that was just wishful thinking. Now there’s a whole organisation for thinking about it, with a proper budget and government support and participation by private enterprise, and this week they’re holding a public conference in Houston, Texas: the first annual symposium of the 100 Year Starship Initiative.

The sessions have ambitious titles: “Time and Distance Solutions”; “The Mission: Human, Robotic or Reconstituted?”; “Destinations and Habitats”; “Becoming an Interstellar Civilisation”. But the organisers also realise that this project will take as long as building a Gothic cathedral: one session is simply called “Research Priorities for the First Ten of 100 Years”. Then they’ll have to set priorities for the next ten years, and the next, and the next….

DARPA wanted to create an organization to foster “persistent, long-term, private-sector investment into the myriad of disciplines needed to make long-distance space travel possible.” The winning proposal, by the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, declared that “100 Year Starship will unreservedly dedicate itself to identifying and pushing the radical leaps in knowledge and technology needed to achieve interstellar flight.”

The 100YSS, as it’s known, would probably not exist if the professionals interested in space flight had really challenging near-space projects to work on. They don’t: one American space scientist described the current American space programme, and indeed those of its rivals elsewhere, as “trying to finish what we started in the 1960s.” Low-orbit operations are vital, but they are not inspiring.

Some of these frustrated professionals work at NASA and the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), so there is official support for thinking big. There’s not much money: DARPA gave the 100YSS only half a million dollars of seed money (out of its $3 billion budget), but then nobody is planning to build expensive hardware now. They just want to think about what kind of hardware (and software) would be needed to go to the stars.

If they want to go on thinking big thoughts for very long, of course, they’ll need more than half a million dollars, but the rest of the money will have to come from private enterprise. For the moment, that means mainly from the well-funded space companies founded by billionaire entrepreneurs who made their money in other new technologies, and now want to do something even more interesting.

So appoint a charismatic former astronaut to lead the organisation – Dr Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space – and make sure that both private business and potential international partners feel comfortable with the approach. It’s a natural area for international cooperation: there are probably never going to be rival national starship programmes. Add a truckload of ambition, a pinch of hard-nosed realism, and stir.

The first public outing for this enterprise is the symposium in Houston, and its popular appeal is obvious. It’s a heady thought that this may be where the future course of human history is set, and at this stage nobody has to deal with dreary things like budgets and project management. The most outrageous concepts can be welcomed, examined, and pursued or rejected. But is there any realistic prospect that human beings could ever build a starship?

Nobody knows. As Douglas Adams’s seminal work, “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, sagely observed: “Space…is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is.”

Building a starship would therefore require not just four or five generations of technological revolutions. It would also require the overturning, or at least the wholesale reinterpretation, of the laws of physics as currently understood. Last time around, it took about five centuries, say from 1450 to 1950, to get through a comparable scale of change in technology and physics. But of course things move much faster now.

At any rate, it’s hard to see what harm the 100YSS could do, even if it never achieves its objective. If the history of space-flight up to now is any guide, at the very least it would produce radically new technologies that have major positive impacts on human welfare. And if it actually succeeded… That would be the biggest deal in human history.

The most recent estimate is that there are about 30,000 planets suitable for our kind of life within a thousand light years of here. Most observers assume that if a planet can support life, then it will almost certainly have life. It would be a great pity to miss out on all that because of a mere lack of ambition.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 7. (“DARPA…flight”; and “If…interesting”)

 

 

The End of the American Adventure in Space

15 July 2011

The End of the American Adventure in Space

by Gwynne Dyer

The Sun always shines in space, so it was no surprise when Sir Paul McCartney called the crew of Atlantis, the last Space Shuttle, on Friday and sang “Good Day Sunshine” to them. Later in the day President Barack Obama called and told the astronauts that their mission “ushers in an exciting new era to push the frontiers of space exploration and human spaceflight.” Pity it was all happy-face lies.

The last Shuttle mission actually ushers in an era when the only hope of getting into space for the few remaining American astronauts will be to hitch a ride on a Russian or Chinese rocket. Most of them will have to find jobs elsewhere. And however brightly the Sun shines, the day when the United States finally gives up on manned space flight is not a good day.

US rockets will still put satellites into orbit. The older ones were built by the military or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); the newer models will be built by private companies that claim they can boost cargo into space at a much cheaper price. But they won’t be able to put a human being in orbit for a very long time, if ever.

This is not to say that the US should have kept the Shuttles going indefinitely. They weren’t safe: two of the four original Shuttles were lost, with fourteen crew, in a total of only 135 trips. They were not cost-effective either: they each flew on average only once a year during their thirty years of service.

NASA had perfectly sensible plans to replace the Shuttles. In 2004, former president George W Bush approved an ambitious NASA plan to build a new generation of powerful rockets to deliver people and materials into near-Earth orbit more cheaply, but also to put a permanent manned base on the Moon by 2020.

NASA calculated that the “Constellation” programme would cost about $8 billion a year until 2020 (the US defence budget burns through that much every five days). Maybe the cost would have risen considerably over time, but that’s not such a big deal: creating big, new technology always takes longer and costs more.

When President Obama cancelled the “Constellation” project in 2010, he talked about doing things in a “smarter way,” and how private enterprise would develop “space taxis” that would put people into orbit more cheaply. In reality, however, he was ending federal government support for manned space flight – though he did promise to invest a little more than a billion dollars a year in those “clever” private companies.

That is not serious money: the US defence budget gets through that much every twelve hours. Lacking federal financial support, the clever companies will concentrate on doing things that make a profit. Putting people into space does not make a profit. Not in the short run, anyway, and the bean-counters are notoriously uninterested in the very long run.

The space entrepreneurs – Virgin Galactic, Northrop Grumman, Interorbital Services, XCOR, Orbital Sciences Corp. and all their rivals – make well-honed pitches about how NASA was a bloated bureaucracy, and how private enterprise will do the same jobs more cheaply and more safely. Which may be true for launching communications satellites and the like, but is certainly not true for manned space flight and deep space exploration.

When Christopher Columbus had this idea for a new way to reach Asia, he did not talk to some Spanish fishermen about scaling up their voyages (making a profit at each stage) until eventually they would cross the entire ocean. He went to the Spanish court and got state support for his venture. Almost all of the early European voyages of discovery had state backing, because the profits were not going to flow for quite a while.

The analogy is less than perfect, but it is relevant. Building a permanent space station, establishing a human base on the Moon, designing and funding the first voyage to Mars – such things are not going to be undertaken by clever companies operating out of old hangars at the Mojave Air and Space Port in the California desert. They haven’t the resources, and it makes no commercial sense.

Does it make sense at all? That depends on whether you share the vision of the human future that Arthur C. Clarke brought to his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Back in 1968, most people assumed that that was indeed the future. It is much behind schedule, but many people still think it should be the future: that human beings should escape the confines of this single planet and get out into the universe.

That enterprise has not been abandoned. The Russians, who were the first into space, have not given up on manned space flight despite their relative lack of resources. The Chinese are catching up fast, and the Indians plan to put their first person into orbit in 2015. Even the Japanese are not to be counted out. It’s just the Americans who are quitting.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“US rockets…service”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

The Shuttle “Atlantis” returns to Earth for the last time on 20 July (weather permitting).