For many decades now, scientists have been exploring as far into space as possible – putting men on the moon, sending probes outside of the solar system and even putting telescopes into space so they can see other worlds where life may exist. But what’s next for space exploration and will we ever see man set foot on another planet?
Back in January 2015, NASA announced their plans for an exciting new age of spaceflight, which could see man back on the moon before the decade is out. But why is the moon such an important part of our exploration of space and do we really need to go back?
Honestly, yes. In order to explore more distant worlds, mankind needs to be able to carry out extended lunar stays to learn more about the expertise needed for the desired much longer-term space missions. With a base on the moon, astronauts will be able to learn vital skills to further human presence into deeper space such as the ability to replenish rocket fuel and oxygen supplies from local material. After obtaining these new abilities, there’s no telling where mankind will be able to go to next- Mars or maybe even further afield.
Addressing the National Space Symposium in April, NASA’s Administrator Charles Bolden reiterated just how much he believed Mars mattered in space exploration. Noting how far humans had come compared to six years ago, when President Obama announced that he believed NASA should pursue a human mission to Mars, Bolden remarked “we’re closer to sending human beings to Mars today, than anyone, anywhere, at any time, has ever been”.
However, national organisations like NASA aren’t the only ones looking into space exploration and in recent months, it seems like other places may just reach their goals sooner. SpaceX, the private-sector space transportation company, have in the last month had their first successful upright landing of the Falcon 9 rocket at sea on a remote-controlled barge. Being able to land a rocket back on Earth, upright and intact, is a huge technological feat. It seems even more amazing when you realize that the SpaceX landing pad was only 250 x 150 feet. One landing is not a proven technology, but if SpaceX can perfect their landing technique, the cost of launching stuff into space may be reduced significantly.
Alongside reusable rockets, the Falcon 9 launch was also host to some very precious cargo. The capsule onboard held the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM. This module could solve the decade long conundrum on the limit of cargo size in spacecraft. The module itself was condensed to less than its final intended size, loaded and fired into orbit, before expanding in space. This technology means that it is possible to have two-thirds the size of the International Space Station launched in less than five percent of launches.
It’s not just manned space exploration that is seeking to explore further than before. The planned launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) in 2018, a telescope the size of a tennis court, aims to look deeper into space than any of its predecessors. With goals such as understanding the formation of the first galaxies, and the formation of stars and planets, the JWST may be the next step in answering some of the big unknowns in the field of astronomy and cosmology.
Some of the big names in the field of science and technology are also jumping on the exploration bandwagon. The Starshot Project has many well-known faces backing it, among them physicist Stephen Hawking and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The aim of the project is to send “nano craft” deep into space to be able to explore far more remote regions than humans have ever done before. Talking at the projects announcement, Hawking said, “The limit that now confronts us is the great void between us and the stars. But now we can transcend it, with light beams, light sails, and the lightest spacecraft ever built. Today we commit to this next great leap into the cosmos, because we are human and our nature is to fly.”
With the tiny rockets that the Starshot project plan to use, it will be possible to the reach the Alpha Centauri system (which is 25 trillion miles away) in just 20 years. Since the small craft will be able to take pictures, it is thought that they may be able to send back images of possible planets, leading to the potential of finding life on other worlds. Eventually, with the decreasing price of the computer components required to build such craft, each rocket would only cost a few hundred thousand dollars to build. This means that we would have a much more affordable way of reaching all that much further into the deep void of space.
The quest to explore space has not been this exciting since the 1960s. Humans have barely adventured far from our little blue dot. With the current advancements in both manned and unmanned space technologies, it may be about to change in years to come. For now though, humans are very much remaining on terra firma.