Space exploration and the technological advancements needed to make it feasible

March 23, 2017
by John Websell

With Stargazing Live returning to UK screens next week after an interminably long 12-month wait and Mass Effect Andromeda – the latest entry in the pre-eminent series of sci-fi video games – releasing in Europe today, I thought it’d be fitting to write an article or two on space technology.

Next Thursday we’ll be discussing the ever-fascinating subject of terraforming, but today, ABRS is focusing on the technological innovations humanity must develop if we ever hope to explore outer space within and beyond the solar system; a topic that’s particularly relevant right now, following the discovery of the Trappist-1 star system a few weeks back.

Technological revolution

Space is an extremely hostile to life; even for the men and women secreted securely inside the benevolent bosom of a spacecraft. For starters, the deterioration of bone, organ and muscle tissue reported by International Space Station (ISS) crew members after months spent living in a zero-G environment is a real issue. At present, the body begins to repair itself once back on Earth, taking a year or more in some cases before the individual is back to normal. This isn’t an option for those participating in the longest missions, of course, so interstellar ships will have to be equipped with artificial gravity technology to prevent such problems from arising; a spinning centrifuge a la 2001: A Space Odyssey is could well be the answer. Worse still, cosmic radiation poses a significant threat to astronauts in a startling variety of ways. The incessant deluge of harmful particles can, according to the latest research, increase a person’s chance of developing cancer, cataracts and possibly even Alzheimer’s disease. The Space Radiation Superconducting Shield project is attempting to combat the insidious effects of these cosmic rays by creating a type of magnet-based shielding material that envelopes the craft to stop them from penetrating the vessel’s hull. Meanwhile, the effects of long-term space missions on our psychological wellbeing can’t be dismissed either. Cabin fever is a constant menace; being stuck in a confined space for months on end, surrounded by the same individuals day in and day out can cause considerable emotional distress as anyone who’s spent a fortnight away with the in-laws will attest to. For this reason, some form of suspended animation would prove crucial during long missions, enabling the astronauts to sleep through the majority of the journey. And, as a consequence, this would alleviate the pressure placed on precious resources such as food, water and oxygen. Speaking of which…

Cruising through interstellar space light years from home means resupplying spacecraft with vital supplies is out of the question. Astronauts must be self-sufficient, therefore ships must include all the tools necessary to enable them to obtain air, grow food and gather H2O as and when needed; fortunately, this shouldn’t be too tricky. Aeroponic crops and lab-grown meat should provide adequate nourishment over long periods, whilst scientists are working on various technologies that can produce a consistent supply of breathable air and life-preserving water during deep space missions.

Speed is another significant hurdle scientists must overcome if our dreams of space exploration are to be realised. Trappist-1, for example, is considered a close neighbour of ours sitting at a mere 40 light years away. Yet, using the technology currently available to us (liquid propellant-dependent engines that are absurdly expensive to fuel, extremely heavy and potentially dangerous), it would take over 300,000 years to reach the system. Since warp drives (a type of engine that actually moulds space-time around a ship to suit our logistical needs) remain the stuff of science fiction, for now, engines based on nuclear fusion or solar sails are our best bet for increasing our cosmological reach in the near future.

Communicating with the crew of a deep space mission over the unimaginably vast distances of space is similarly problematic. Despite the fact that radio waves travel at the speed of light, it still takes satellites in orbit around Mars and Jupiter hours to return a signal; on a deep space scale, we’re looking at transmission times of tens of thousands of years. Thus we’ll need to find ways to circumvent the cosmic speed limit (since the laws of physics forbid us from travelling faster than light). NASA’s communications relay system is fine for the solar system, however, beyond that, we’ll need a more sophisticated form of technology altogether, presumably something that utilises wormholes.

Navigation isn’t easy once you leave behind the familiar surroundings of the solar system either. Scientists point out that, while the stars can show you where you’re headed, they’re too distant to be used as reference points by astronauts trying to discover where they are at any given moment. NASA is in the process of designing a Deep Space Quantum Clock (DSAC) they hope will fix the problem, although an entirely different method has been suggested in the past by space navigation doyenne Joseph Guinn, namely an autonomous system capable of triangulating a ship’s position using a catalogue of images taken from nearby celestial objects.

Finally, an advanced generation of durable and ultimately reusable craft must be created not only to explore the interstellar medium, but also the plethora of captivating objects that exist within our home system. A ship robust enough to withstand multiple missions would surely offer a safer environment for the astronauts themselves and would reduce the costs of space travel considerably. Unfortunately, NASA’s shuttle programme has already proved that developing a cost-effective and reliable vessel isn’t straightforward.

Do we really need to explore space?

Yes, yes we do. That’s the immediate response of millions of people around the world (myself included) whenever someone asks this particular question. Sure, there are moral questions that must be answered: To whom does a colonised planet belong? How intrusive should research be if we do find alien life – microbial, complex or intelligent one day? And it’s true, the practical concerns discussed previously and the (pardon the pun) astronomical sums of money required to fund a space mission can’t be ignored. But, even so, the evidence strongly suggests space exploration is highly advantageous. To us all.

Our survival is the most obvious argument in favour of boldly leaving behind the comforts of Earth and branching out into the ether. Every human being lives on this one, fragile planet after all; a delicate rock suspended in space that’s entirely at the mercy of asteroid strikes, nuclear war and overpopulation. Statistics provided by NASA, for instance, show that roughly once every 10,000 years, a large asteroid in excess of 100 metres collides with the Earth, striking with enough force to generate colossal tidal waves capable of decimating nearby coastal settlements. Moreover, if an even larger asteroid of the magnitude of the Chicxulub impactor (the one that scientists believe was responsible for wiping out the dinosaurs) hit us, it would almost certainly cause a bona fide global catastrophe. It’s due primarily to the seemingly tenuous nature of our existence that world-famous theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has long been an advocate of space exploration: “I believe that the long-term future of the human race must be space and that it represents an important life insurance for our future survival”.

Of more interest to the average Joe, however, are the everyday innovations that emerge as a direct result of research into and work on space technologies; things that provide tangible benefits in terms of transformative devices and advances in health care. Instantly recognisable to anyone that’s ever watched an episode of Casualty, a reflective plastic material developed by NASA in the 60’s, for instance, was used when designing a special kind of blanket that conserves as much as 80% of an individual’s body heat and is thus employed to help keep accident victims and marathon runners, among others, warm. As far as medicine is concerned, studies into the effects of microgravity on an astronaut’s bone and muscle density (covered earlier in this article) have proved invaluable in the creation of a drug – Prolia – that better protects elderly people from the ravages of osteoporosis.

Given how fast we’re burning through the planet’s finite supply of fundamental resources, mining the trillions of asteroids, comets and meteorites within our solar system will become critical to supporting our way of life, yet clearly, it’s only possible if we can effectively and efficiently explore space. Helium-3, prized elements such as gold and silver and drinkable water can all be found within the Sun’s influence, the latter of which could have a huge impact on the world’s current water crisis.

And from a purely academic point of view, space exploration enables us to enrich our understanding of the universe. Finding answers to big questions such as “are we alone in the universe?” and “what is dark matter?” is far easier if we’re capable of studying these indescribably complicated subjects from perspectives never before available to us. But for me, the biggest draw is simple: making discoveries. I ask you, who amongst us would turn down the opportunity to be the first human ever to set foot on an extrasolar planet?

An interstellar species

Regardless of the multitudinous challenges associated with space exploration, the available evidence makes clear the panoply of material and abstract advantages of space exploration. Furthermore, as I’ve just alluded to, discovery is one of our fundamental traits. For all our (many) faults, humans have always been a curious and adventurous species; surely, therefore, penetrating the mysteries of the infinite abyss is the next logical step in our quest for deeper understanding.

What happens when astronauts actually reach their destination in terms of landing, setting up a base of operations, making the planet habitable and, eventually colonising it, will be addressed in next week’s article.

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