Since the past decades, no more than a week goes by without news of a noteworthy cosmic discovery making the headlines. There has been a substantial increase in the public’s appetite for cosmology and more specifically, astronomical events which never fail to instill a feeling of enthrallment in the minds of astrophiles. The universe is full of mysteries to be unraveled. What exactly is dark matter?; Are we the orphans of the universe? As we delve into the realm of space exploration, we shall seek to find the most plausible answers to these thought-provoking questions while making sure they conform to our current understanding of Physics.
At some point in time, many of us must have dreamt of being an astronaut and being in Space with sensation of weightlessness. Going on a space tour is undoubtedly a feat and the sense of adventure is what pushes humanity to embark on the cosmological odyssey. With the advent of space tourism, commercial space flights open a window of opportunities to take the travel industry a giant leap further. Thanks to the Russian space program, the world’s first space tourist had a visit to the International Space Station in 2001. So far, companies like Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and Space X which are run by pioneers such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are leading the way towards commercial space travel. Other companies envisage trips to the International Space Station (ISS), the moon and even Mars. Admittedly, with advanced simulators accessible to us, spaceports abound and the implementation of cutting edge space technologies, space travel is no longer a journey confined to the imagination.
One of the most renowned icons in the field of theoretical Physics and Cosmology, Stephen Hawking has repeatedly stressed that humanity must expand beyond its birth planet – or face extinction. Colonizing new habitats will ensure the survival of humanity and the biosphere in the event of planetary scale disaster causing mass destruction and even extinction. The idea of terraforming Mars which is considered as the “Earth’s Twin” sparks much fascination in the minds of innovators and those who seek to better the lot of humankind. SpaceX’s starship could launch its first uncrewed flight to Mars in 2024. The company is even ready to start building a permanent human settlement on the red planet with its massive Starship rocket. Nonetheless, the process of colonizing the planet is overwhelming and will require exorbitant financial input. At first glance, Mars seems to be a potential candidate in our solar system to sustain life with its polar ice caps, large valleys, liquid water under its surface and a day barely longer than Earth’s. Unfortunately, Mars is in fact a cold, radioactive desert with a very weak magnetosphere and can hence makes us vulnerable to cosmic rays, radiation or even death. Viewed optimistically, setting up a Mars base will expand our scope for survival and is till now the most ideal place for humanity to thrive outside our home planet. On the flip side, the major challenges lying in wait should be tackled for the project to be feasible.
As the late political economist Joseph Schumpeter stated, the “gale of creative destruction” perfectly describes how the process of industrialization is metastasizing as the old backbone of economy is being replaced by newer and better one. More and more engineers, mathematicians, scientists and other sub-related jobs are being created as space exploration is protracting itself over a broader horizon. Today, it is worth a total of U.S $414.75 billion. With the Covid-19 pandemic’s holocausts in 2020, the NASA is gearing up for a busy 2021. Owing to the global pandemic, many have lost their jobs and are at the mercy of famine and low income. Crucially, space exploration which is advancing at breakneck speed is generating employment as from 2021 itself. NASA is planning to achieve its Artemis program which consists of sending a man and a woman into space for human exploration of Mars which would require the involvement of many scientists and experts. Hence the future of space exploration could easily be a coping mechanism for employment.
In the coming years, space exploration will be paving the road towards exponential economic growth on Earth itself. Satellites are well known for their accuracy and sensibility towards minor changes. They are fit for monitoring the seas and oceans and thus for covering aquaculture, renewable energies, resource extraction, fisheries protection and tourism. The director of the ESA’s Earth Observation Programmes, Volter Liebig, stated that“Data from satellites help identify how our oceans are used and there is a very strong demand from the marine community and operational agencies for this type of information.” Ireland is well aware of the cognitive efficiency of such technologies from space and is working together with European countries under the EU Framework Programme, FP7.
This has resulted in 10 million Euros in contracts annually and the spin- off export sales from Irish investments in ESA has instilled a net of 35 million Euros annually. Thus, space exploration and technologies are being used and will be used in abundance in the future as a vehicle to promote economic growth and Earth Science Researches.
The deep space is pitted with many mysteries that human have not yet dared to explore. However, the unrevealed mysteries might be a box full of treasure and could permit mankind to achieve things more efficiently. For example, it is known that some space metals are responsible for the resiliency of certain victims of amputation where the latter is equipped with metallic body parts composed of metals from space. However, we should also take a moment to think about the secrets that deep space could be hiding from us. This wellspring of curiosity could be unraveled as robotic exploration will be implemented in the future to come where the myopic view of we, humans, could be broadened. Premature stage of automated and robotic exploration has already been witnessed with “The Shuttle Robotic Arm” which has been designed for functions that are better performed by a robotic system in space. Therefore, the future of space exploration will certainly involve automated and robotic exploration of the deep space which will elucidate many lore and questions.
Space exploration has opened new vistas for entrepreneurs and scientists. Yuri Gagarin was a pioneer in space travel; Neil Armstrong was the first to set foot on the moon. Countries now want to accomplish more than this. The next ‘Space Race’ will undoubtedly be one involving the exploitation of rocks and other spatial elements. This is known as space mining. As resources on earth get depleted, materials from outer space may become our beacon of hope. Reportedly, asteroid belts contain vast amounts of materials, ranging from metals — even gold — to rocks. Scientists may be able to obtain elements which are otherwise not stable on earth. This may be very profitable. No wonder, countries now hanker after these asteroids.
Navigating space has led to a new kind of pollution: space junk and pile-ups. Thousands of satellites are sent to outer space yearly. Many of these become debris. They only exacerbate the space congestion caused by active satellites. All these items orbiting the earth may even be hazardous. According to ‘New Scientist’ magazine, a satellite owned by the European Space Agency once had to dodge one owned by Elon Musk. In the future, such collisions may become unavoidable, especially since companies such as Space X plan on launching even more spatial objects. More stringent rules are expected to be in implemented in the form of debris removal programmes by 2030. Unfortunately, according to Pew Research Centre, only 13% of Americans believe that companies will actually adopt a greener approach towards space exploration. To pre-empt the potential catastrophe brought about by the bane of space junk, special programmes such as the Space Sustainability Rating developed by the World Economic Forum are in the pipeline with sustainability at the forefront. Some space giants are even envisaging implementing reusable spacecrafts into their launching activities. A few centuries ago, weightlessness or Zero-G probably used to be the buzzword among astrophiles and space enthusiasts. Today, it is even opening up vistas in the medical world – exomedicine, where research pertaining to new treatments in the zero-gravity environment is being conducted. An Australian biomedical engineer discovered that zero-g had the ability of killing cancer cells. With foresight, if zero-G really proves to be the holy-grail for cancer treatment, it will indubitably become commonplace in the medical world.
“Curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” If it were not for this inherent characteristic of man, Christopher Columbus might have not discovered America, nor would nomadic behavior be justified. Man’s nature will hence always eventually culminate in discoveries. In essence, outer space is already a realm fraught with opportunities – be it in commerce, ecology, and medicine or simply to save our species from a potential “Armageddon” scenario. Perhaps, continuing to explore this infinite realm might allow us to unleash our true potential.
Harshil Seetaram (Lead Author)
Bhavini Dhondea (Editor)