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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Future and Vision for Space Exploration

What if we were no longer limited only to what we can lift from Earth's surface? Suppose we could live off of the land in space, what would the advent of this scenario mean for future exploration and use of space? Here, I take an inside approach to the future and vision for space exploration to the Moon, Mars, and Beyond...

The human part of the space program has been trapped in stasis for the last 20 years with precious little exploration being accomplished. Worse, we have been locked in low-Earth orbit with no plans to go beyond, even though robotic space exploration passed that horizon years ago. The International Space Station (ISS) could have served as a test bed for farther destination, but didn't largely due to a result of conscious policy decisions. The tragic loss of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003 only drew attention to the hollowness and lack of direction of our space policy.

The President's new vision proposes that the space shuttle be returned to flight to complete the construction of the ISS and then be retired prior to a costly and risky recertification. A new vehicle will be designed and built for human spaceflight, one which can adapt to different kinds of missions going to various destinations. We will conduct robotic exploration of the Moon in preparation for the resumption of human exploration by the middle of the next decade and use the knowledge and capabilities created from these activities to venture beyond, including human missions to Mars.

New Missions and the Vision: A Return to the Moon

The initial steps in our return to the Moon involve a robotic orbiter, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which will be launched in 2008 and will orbit the Moon for at least 2 years. The purpose of this mission is to collect critical information that will pave the way for human return to the Moon. To that end, the LRO will collect detailed data on the Moon's topography in addition to characterizing exotic environments such as the lunar polar regions.

The experiments and others will provide key strategic data to help plan for habitation on and use of the Moon. We have reason to believe that water ice deposits may exist in the permanently dark regions near the lunar poles. However, we do not know the physical state of these deposits, nor do we have a good idea of their quantity.

Before LRO flies, India plans to send a spacecraft, Chandrayaan-1, to the Moon in early 2008. Mini-SAR (synthetic aperture radar) is an imaging radar experiment that will fly on this spacecraft in order to map the dark regions of both poles of the Moon. Along with other topographic and morphologic data, these missions will allow us to map the ice deposits of the poles, determine their physical setting, and estimate their abundance.

Lunar ice is valuable both to human life and to develop spacing-faring infrastructure. Water can be purified and used as an outpost and broken down into its component hydrogen and oxygen and as rocket propellant. The ability to make rocket propellant on the Moon has potential to completely alter the current model of spaceflight.

The LRO mission will be followed by other robotic missions to the Moon that can include both orbiters and landers. A series of small spacecraft, or microsats, in lunar orbit can create a communications and navigations infrastructure for the Moon. These microsats can provide continuous communications with areas out of sight from Earth and positional information for both orbital and surface navigation around the Moon. For landers, we can explore the surface using rovers and deliver robotic payloads to begin developing the surface infrastructure near a future outpost. Rovers can access the dark floors of polar craters, gathering detailed information on the ice deposits.

In parallel with this program of annual robotic exploration, the Crew Exploration Vehicle, a replacement for the shuttle, will be developed and tested. No later than the year 2020, humans will return to the Moon using the knowledge gained and the equipment placed by the robotic precursors. Returning to use the Moon's resources will enable us to build a space transportation infrastructure in lunar space. Such a system that allows routine access to the Moon and all points in between is a fundamental step forward in creating a true space-faring capability. A system that can routinely land on the Moon, refuel, and return to Earth orbit while bringing with it fuel and consumables produced on the lunar surface will give us the ability to journey to Mars and beyond.

Paving the Way to Human Exploration on Mars

Although the presidential vision did not set a deadline for the first human mission to Mars, it did affirm the continuation and extension of the existing robotic exploration program. Over the past decade, a robotic exploration strategy has been developed for Mars that emphasizes the characterization and history of water on the planet. A series of orbital and lander missions will offer increasingly sophisticated opportunities to trace the evolution and fate of water in martian geological history. Ground-penetrating radar can map the distribution of ground ice many yards below the surface. Drill holes can allow us access to the subsurface into which sensitive instruments can be lowered to measure and characterize the volatiles present. Spectrometers and other devices can determine surface and subsurface mineralogy, including the state and concentration of water-bearing objects.

Long-range rovers, martian aircraft, balloons, and other vehicles can all return critical information on martian history and processes. Beyond the purely scientific areas of interest, we need to collect data on the surface conditions and environment of Mars in addition to possible toxicological hazards of the surface materials before any human landings. As with the robotic mission series that precedes human arrival on the Moon, the martian precursors will map the surface in detail, document landing hazards, measure the chemistry and physical properties of the surface, and determine the nature of potential chemical or biological hazards to human explorers.

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Photos of Comet Mcnaught !
Astro-photographer? Send your photos to pics@exploreuniverse.com and have them featured on this blog with your name. Comet Mcnaught : Pictures taken with Nikon D100 on 19/1/07 from Manning Point, northern NSW, Australia by Mr. Peter Enright.
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