Eyes offworld for human future
When it all gets too much I like to think about space.
For the last few weeks we have been bogged down in the very Earthly matters of royalty, budgets, politics, humanity and celebrity - all good prompts to look away, up into the infinite.
More than just a solipsistic folly, musing about worlds beyond our planet can be a way to connect with the very ground we walk on.
Explorations of space - both literal and figurative - are breathtaking and emotionally uplifting, relaxing and rejuvenating, providing a sense of awe, curiosity and intellectual stimulation. Leaving Earth’s atmosphere is one of humanity’s grandest achievements.
This is before we factor in the scientific and technological advancement, economic and societal benefits.
Over the last few years I have written briefly and in depth about goings-on in space. While the world remains mired in strife and ruction it seems timely to revisit those vast frontiers, far from crude concerns here on our tiny planet.
Back in 2016, I was buoyed to learn of the OSIRIS-REx probe; part of NASA’s first ever mission to collect a sample from an asteroid.
In December 2018, the spacecraft completed its 2 billion km outbound journey, arrived at the asteroid Bennu and entered its orbit, making Bennu the smallest object ever to be orbited by a spacecraft. This kicked off a year of approaches, scans and sample acquisition.
In 2021, with its sample capsules full, OSIRIS fired its thrusters to initiate a return trip to Earth. The spacecraft is on track to deliver an asteroid sample to Earth on September 24, 2023.
Just days after the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft delivers the sample it collected from Bennu back to Earth, the original mission team will split – a sample analysis team will analyse the Bennu materials, while the spacecraft and instrument team will rename itself OSIRIS-APEX, and send the probe back out to study near-Earth asteroid Apophis for 18 months. Apophis will make a close approach to Earth in 2029.
Where will interest rates be in 2029? Probably nowhere good, but in the face of the wonders of space, it’s honestly hard to worry.
In early 2021, NASA's Perseverance rover landed on Mars after a seven-month journey over nearly half a billion kilometres.
The Perseverance rover is the largest and most advanced rover ever sent to Mars, and has been hard at work searching for signs of past microbial life, studying the planet's geology and climate, and testing new technologies that could help pave the way for future human missions to Mars.
Perseverance has been exploring the Jezero Crater, a site that scientists believe was once a lakebed and may contain signs of past life. The rover is equipped with a suite of advanced instruments, including a laser that can vapourise rocks to study their composition, and a drill that can collect rock and soil samples for analysis.
All this equipment has allowed it to stay very busy.
In the last few years, Perseverance has;
captured close-up images of craters,
found more hints of watery environments on ancient Mars
collected its first Mars samples
hunted for rocks worthy of further study on Earth.
deposited ten sample tubes on Mars' surface for future study on Earth.
New papers are being published every few weeks based on the findings of the probe. Several space agencies are working on plans to bring the samples back soon.
These are far from the only ongoing outworld programs, which are too numerous to list here, but it is worth noting that eyes are back on the Moon.
This focus includes NASA’s Artemis mission, which will see humanity’s return to the Moon more than 50 years after the Apollo era.
The Artemis program seeks to revive lunar exploration, landing both a woman and a man on the Moon, with a tentative timeline set for around 2025.
NASA's vision is to establish a lasting base on the Moon, utilising the program as a crucial stepping stone towards the ultimate endeavour - a crewed expedition to Mars. Never far from the interplanetary action, CSIRO is of course helping out.
Two astronauts will land on surface of the Moon at a site where no humans have ever been - the lunar South Pole. NASA says this is the ideal location for a future base camp because of its potential access to ice and other mineral resources. Back on Earth, engineers are already working on ways to mine and process materials in other environments. We will need to be extremely industrious to sustain a presence on another world.
To support these and other missions, bigger and bigger rocketships are being designed and tested too.
The Space Age continues and while it may be just an expensive distraction, or purely academic; time spent thinking about our future in space is, to my mind, never wasted.