Thursday, December 13, 2018

A Busy Month in Space

A great deal has been going on in space over the past 30+ days.  Just yesterday, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic spaceplane made its most successful flight to date, reaching an altitude of over 80 kilometers, which qualifies it in NASA terms as having exited the atmosphere.  Virgin Galactic is something like the old X-15 program in that it ascends under a duel-fusilage jet airplane for the first part of the trip, then separates and mounts to the target altitude on rocket power through parts of the ionosphere to thin on oxygen for ordinary jets.  Unlike X-15, Virgin Galactic's mission is lucrative rather than scientific,  eventually to charge a quarter of a million dollars a pop to transport high rollers into suborbital space.  Over a hundred space pigeons have already anteed up.  It may seem that Branson's scheme, along with such other ventures as the Bigelow Space Hotel that is being tested on the ISS, is little more than astro-tourism attached to the flames of late-stage capitalism.  Yet science fiction writers like ourselves have already incorporated more ambitious astro-tourism into our stories, and we believe that Carnival Cruises to Mars and the Outer Planets may not be just a pipe dream, depending on what transformations happen down here on Earth over the next half-century.

Going a bit farther out, the vehicle carrying China's Chang'e-4 moon lander has reached orbit and seems poised to touch down on the Dark Side for a historic first.  Previously missions have orbited the Dark Side without landing, since the Moon's tidal locking necessitates a communication relay via a dedicated satellite, which China pre-positioned several months ago.  Some parties see this as a dangerous expansion in the same terms as China's occupation of the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, but with the nation effectively shut out of most space activity by potential partners, they have little choice but to go it on their own, or else (unrealistically) give up on space exploration.  Chang'e-4 does carry an international payload, with components designed in Germany, France, and Britain as well as their homeland, which suggests that China, which has already been quite active in launching satellites from other nations, will continue to welcome cooperation outside the atmosphere, and hopefully inside as well.

Reaching still farther, two significant asteroids are about to be probed by shadowing spacecraft: Japan's Hayabusa-2 approaches closer and closer to Ryugu before attempting to set its lander on the unusually uneven surface and collect samples, while NASA's Osirus-REX readies itself to gather an even bigger scoop of the "primitive" carboniferous Bennu.  Hayabusa-1 has already succeeded in bringing back material from another asteroid for study and the results of the two currently active missions promise to add greatly to human knowledge of the Solar System's small fry.  While NASA seems chiefly interested in both asteroid mining and employment of asteroids in future Mars missions, another even more important application of these explorations is to enable Earth to defend itself in the future from possible asteroid collisions of disastrous proportions.  Recent geological work on our planet, permitted in part by improved satellite sensing, has shown in the last few years that such collisions have been even more numerous than previously thought, especially because of the discovery of an as yet mysterious crater beneath the surface of the Antarctic ice.

One step beyond, NASA's Insight lander has touched down just days ago and begun to send images that will soon be joined, if all goes according to plan, by a deeper analysis of the Martian subsurface than any obtained to this date.  This type of data is essential not only to the eternal question of what type of life, if any, developed on the Red Planet in ancient eras and whether any traces may still linger today.  Moreover, an eventual human landing, foreseen for the 2030's or beyond, requires a greatly enhanced picture of the planet's environment before it is deemed feasible to permit even the shortest currently envisioned stayover of at least two years, given the restrictions imposed by relative orbital trajectories.  While there are persistent rumors of ultra-fast engines being developed that would greatly shorten travel time and make human landings more amenable, for now work proceeds on schedule on the RS-25 engines for the SLS rocket that would power at least the preparatory steps for the great leap envisioned by the likes of Bradbury and Heinlein.  Once again, though, the key factor in success may be the cooperation of the peoples on Earth to fulfill the enormous logistical needs of Mars travel at the same time as we deal with the staggering challenges of overpopulation, famine, climate change, and war.  It is not impossible that a private individual like Elon Musk or a coalition of individuals may be able to bypass global problems to make the first moves.  What would have happened in the Age of Discovery without Prince Henry the Navigator, Isabella of Castile, Francois I, the overseas companies of Holland and England, or the Czar's intrepid Cossacks daring to forge ahead beyond the most practical and guaranteed interests that held others back?  Will the transnational or the individual achieve more than traditional regimes can hope?  Jules Verne's isolated geniuses like Robur the Conqueror and Captain Nemo were far ahead of their time, but ultimately succumbed to failures from within and without.  

Meanwhile, in the lonelier expanses beyond the last known planets of our system, another old traveler named Voyager 2 has left our vicinity to venture into what NASA has termed interstellar space, joining three mechanical predecessors.  Technically, it is still in the realm of Sol, since it has yet to even enter the Oort Cloud of comet-like debris that extends more millions of miles into the cosmos.  Stephen Hawking, before his untimely passing, expressed doubt about whether it was a good idea to advertise humanity's whereabouts with these "notes in a bottle."  Waggish wits on Facebook joke about aliens becoming indignant at pictures of naked bodies and musical tune lists cluttering up their galaxy.  One hopes at least that our artefacts don't wind up as target practice for a Klingon warship or morphing into homicidal AIs as they did in various Star Trek stories.  Chances of any encounter for these flotsam are of course in the range of hit-or-miss carried to an almost infinite power.  On the other hand, prospects of a directed probe sent toward the Centauri systems would loom more and more possible, should a major breakthrough in propulsion technology occur.   Just what could or should be probed begins to take on philosophical, if not pressing, importance.

Of course, not every month will be as exciting as this one has been.  Still, it is within the range of imagination that sometime at least one may be quite a bit more exciting.