The legacy of the 20th century
Since their origins, humans have had an innate sense to explore the unknown and discover new worlds, always seeking to go further. The technological advances of the twentieth century have allowed us to design vehicles capable of overcoming earth’s gravitational pull and traveling beyond the Earth. We have stepped on the Moon and sent probes to different planets, which has allowed us to learn about important aspects of our solar system. However, the years to come promise to be even more exciting and fruitful, as through sophisticated robots and with humans present as far as possible, we extend our senses to remote and hostile environments in our solar system, where the secrets of our origins and our destiny lie hidden.
With space exploration we seek a greater understanding of the past and future of our habitat and of ourselves, in particular to answer the questions: “Where do we come from?” and “Are we alone?” And according to our knowledge of the solar system, the Red Planet is the one that can best help us to understand aspects of our past and future, since in its first two billion years; it had conditions more similar to those of the Earth and could harbor life. Therefore, for years, scientists have identified this as a key objective.
Seeking to make science fiction a reality
Parallel to the real plans to explore and better understand our environment within the solar system, the idea of humans colonizing other planets and preparing to colonize the universe has been developed. Stephen Hawking expressed this notion in 2017 as a necessity, and millionaire Elon Musk, who has created a company to participate in space exploration activities, has proposed goals for the colonization of Mars, which would make humans a multi-planet species: to establish a self-sustaining colony of people before 2030, repopulating it quickly to reach one million inhabitants before the end of the century. This plan considers that, in order to make human life on Mars possible, “terraforming” — a term introduced by Jack Williamson in 1942 in a science fiction novel, which involves changing the conditions of the planet’s atmosphere to resemble those of the Earth — would first have to be carried out. These plans take unrealistic scientific and technological advances for granted. In 2017, in response to Hawking and Musk, astrophysicist Martin Rees said that the idea was “a dangerous delusion; […] dealing with climate change on Earth is a doddle compared with terraforming Mars”. Dr. Bruce Jakosky, principal Investigator of NASA’s MAVEN Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution project, has said that “terraforming Mars is not possible with today’s technology”.
However, the insurmountable problem with the current level of knowledge for man to colonize any planet in the universe derives from his own constitution. Human life has been generated on Earth through an evolutionary process of many millions of years; we are adapted to life on its surface, and any variation in these conditions seriously affects man’s health and survival. “People think of technology as the limiting factor in space flight, but it’s not,” says Thomas Lang, a professor of radiology and biomedical imaging at the University of California, San Francisco. “Human physiology is the limiting factor”. Astronauts who have spent just a year in space have shown irreversible health problems, despite being in the most protected habitat possible with current techniques. A prolonged stay on Mars would add many other health disorders and even sterility, which would hinder the dream of creating self-sustaining colonies.
NASA announces its plan
In 2017, NASA revealed its plan to put a team of astronauts on Martian soil. The one-way trip consists of three stages. The first will be to reach a station, Deep Space Gateway, built previously and orbiting the Moon. From here they will move onto the Deep Space Transport spacecraft, which must also be prepared in lunar orbit and which will take them on a nine-month trip to Mars. Part of this ship will remain orbiting Mars while a capsule with the astronauts on board will be detached from it and descend to Martian soil. Mars rotates like the Earth around the Sun, but it takes twice as long as the Earth to complete a complete revolution, which is why the distance between the Earth and Mars is variable. Thus, to travel between both, the astronauts will have to take advantage of the times when the distances are minimal. Consequently, they will have to stay on the surface of the Red Planet for several months, waiting for Earth and Mars to be in correct alignment for their return. They will have to ascend in the same capsule as the descent until they dock with the Deep Space Transport and begin the return to the Earth in a trip lasting another nine months.
We can already see that this is a complex operation that requires many preparatory steps. Many of them will be performed on the Moon and others on the Red Planet itself. Preliminary research must be carried out on the conditions of the Martian soil and atmosphere, testing all the necessary equipment and the different propulsion systems and spacecraft to be used, and implementing logistics to place means of living on the ground, as well as for the transport or research that astronauts will need to carry out their work.
The Moon, previous objective
Artemis is Apollo’s sister in Greek mythology and is the name NASA has chosen for its lunar program of this century, making visible the continuity with the program that in the last century put a man on the Moon for the first time. It will consist of a series of flights, the first of which, Artemis 1, should take place before the end of this year; it will be followed by Artemis 2, a manned mission that will orbit the Moon in 2024 and Artemis 3, whose crew will step on the Moon in 2025. Different missions will continue, with at least one planned each year. Furthermore, starting in 2027, construction will begin on the lunar orbital station Deep Space Gateway and a base at the Moon’s South Pole, where astronauts will test the technologies and skills needed for a future stay on Mars. There are still no detailed plans for the assembly in lunar orbit of the Deep Space Transport, which will weigh in the order of 100 tons, but which, being in lunar orbit, will be carried out under microgravity conditions. It is estimated that after some 15 years of experimentation and work, the manned mission will be ready to be sent to Mars.
Activity concerning Mars
Since 1960, 55 missions have been sent to Mars, half of which have failed, giving an idea of the difficulties involved in these operations. In the coming years, these missions will multiply, seeking to learn about the planet, the geological map that represents the different types of terrain, areas with ice, etc. Despite the difficulties, the long list of robotic successes on Mars enables us to say that, at the moment, we understand the conditions on Mars better than we knew the Moon in 1969, when the first manned mission took place. That is why we know that Mars presents a terrible habitat for humans, who require extensive protective equipment that must be transported prior to the arrival of the astronauts. Logistical missions to supply everything necessary for the life, protection, movement and research work of the astronauts during their stay on Martian soil have not yet been defined.
From cooperation to competition
The final impetus to decide to set foot on the Moon was political. On April 12, 1961, Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin became the first man to travel into outer space, completing an orbit around the Earth. The following week, President Kennedy sent a note to his vice president: “Do we have a chance of beating the Soviets by putting a laboratory in space, or by a trip around the moon, or by a rocket to land on the moon, or by a rocket to go to the moon and back with a man? Is there any other space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win? How much additional would it cost? Are we making maximum effort? Are we achieving necessary results?”
A frantic space race began, but once it reached its high point with the arrival of Apollo 11 on the Moon, this competition quickly became cooperative. The result of this collaboration was the launch of the International Space Station, which for more than 20 years has temporarily hosted astronauts from 19 countries.
This period of cooperation has now been quietly shifting to a new space race following the footsteps of geopolitical change.
In 2017, Donald Trump met with a China aiming to dispute world leadership, with ambitions to extend it to the space race. Trump went so far as to offer NASA unlimited funding to carry a manned mission to Mars within his mandate. He was asking for the impossible and had to settle for the more realistic deadline of the early 2040s.
The new space race
We are entering a few years in which great advances in space exploration are anticipated, with the expectation of a major technological evolution and the provision of key data on our past. Because space has been opened to new agents, which is an important catalyst. After 50 years of undisputed leadership by NASA, there are now 72 countries with space programs. Moreover, it has also opened up to private enterprises, where dozens of companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic are heavily involved in space missions with their own projects. At the same time they are participating as contractors to government agencies and are pushing the sector forward more vigorously and quickly than would be the case if everything were left to governments.
One example of this is the case of SpaceX, which ten years ago, with rockets and vehicles developed by the company, became the first commercial company to dock a spacecraft on the International Space Station. Since then this company regularly transports cargo to the Station. And, as Ellen Knickmeyer rightly points out in a recent article, it’s not just rocket fuel propelling spacecraft back to the Moon and Mars after a half-century lull; rather, it is driven by strategic rivalry with China’s ambitious space program.
The Asian giant has already advanced with its moon landing on the invisible face of our satellite. Likewise, they have already landed a robotic rover on the surface of Mars shortly after NASA did so. But the first major milestone that could be passed is the collection and return to Earth of Martian soil and rocks. According to current projections, China plans to bring rocks from Mars by 2031, while the revised plan for the European Space Agency’s Earth Return Orbiter in collaboration with NASA foresees the launch of the spacecraft in 2027 and the samples would return to Earth in 2033.
So why is this milestone important? Because scientists are anxiously awaiting the possibility that these samples contain evidence of past life on Mars, which could have emerged billions of years ago when Mars had a warmer, wetter climate.
An exciting wait
Over the next few years, we will be able to enjoy the dream that humans have not been able to realize for many generations: to venture out and visit distant places in the sky. We have seen that the projects underway to explore Mars require a series of intermediate steps before the final journey. We will progressively execute increasingly daring actions technologically, first on the Moon, which we will go to almost every year, and later a number of robotic missions, at first exclusively for reconnaissance and later to transport all the necessary material for the stay of humans on the Red Planet. Finally, we hope to see man emulating ancient explorers by discovering unknown lands, and taking possession of the new planet. And we’ll have the opportunity to watch it virtually live, sitting at home in the comfort of our own armchairs.
We seek to answer some of life’s most important questions: where we come from and whether we are alone in the universe, but we are also aware that we do not know what we will learn from Mars until we go there, with the confidence that we will learn things we did not expect.
Catholic University of Valencia
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