While my lovely co-writer friend Jiangmin has been having a summer holiday filled with medicine, biological research and UKCAT revision (good luck!), she’s headed off this week to complete a Summer school course – just wanted to say, all the best Jiangmin!
I thought this week I might leave Physics aside for a little and talk about the importance of space flight and exploration, especially the Mars issue.
Many leading scientists believe that in order for humans to progress and maintain our survival we must think about progressing in terms of space exploration, whether that be missions like Juno and Cassini to aid research on planetary science, missions like Voyager – the furthest space craft from Earth to explore the outskirts of the solar system or actually sending humans to Mars which seems to either be the general public’s cup of tea, or not.
Sending humans to Mars excites people perhaps due to a reason below:
- There have been many many claims to say that there may be life on Mars due to its location in the Goldilocks zone, thus technically habitable temperature for life, and people are excited about the prospects of this.
- Mars is the closest planet to Earth, and yet no human has set foot on it despite missions to the moon several times.
- It will become a milestone in human history and encourage more similar missions.
Now, I can’t count the number of times people have criticised why we haven’t made it to Mars yet, since we were making so much progress during the cold war, and I must say, conducting such a mission is not an easy task. I believe the cold war had been the main drive to many of the successful space flights and explorations in the 20th Century and I do think that if we’d a similar drive now, space exploration would be all the much different.
On why human space flight to Mars is not easy. Firstly, there are many problems to face when we start thinking about the mission logically. Mars is a very different destination compared to the moon. With the moon only taking 3 days to reach, the journey to Mars is likely going to last for many months. Also, the journey isn’t as simple as travelling in a straight line, when we do the calculations for this, we must take into account the orbits of the planets. Mars’ orbit around the Sun is slightly slower than that of Earth’s due to its greater distance from it, thus experiencing less of the Sun’s gravitational influence resulting in a slower orbital speed. The orbital velocities of the planets in the solar system follow a Keplerian Decline as mentioned in a previous post regarding Dark Matter. This means there is an optimum time period to launch the spacecraft to Mars which is why you cannot make the journey whenever you immediately wish and is something completely out of our control.
Well, how about upon landing on Mars? Not only due to the atmosphere and gravity, will we have to very carefully consider the construction of the spacecraft landing and how to land safely, the atmosphere itself is incredibly thin and is vastly occupied by carbon dioxide, there is too little of oxygen in order for a human breathe in the air and survive. It’s the whole problem of oxygen, food supplies and water. We must figure out how we should maintain these life essentials for a good number of months on an unfamiliar isolated planet because of the need to wait for the optimum time period to travel back to Earth. And…there’s a whole lot more I haven’t mentioned. Another problem with the Mars issue is funding, NASA has declared they don’t have enough budget to send humans to the planet, because yes, the process does involve a tonne of work and NASA aren’t in fact getting as much funding now as they did during the cold war, its 4% of the national budget at the time has now decreased to something like 0.05%.
And, welcome to the other side of the argument, people who think the entire thing about going to Mars is stupid. Being a regular user of Facebook and a follower of many Science pages on it, it is, I say, very common to see comments like the following on a post related to the space industry, and I quote, “Why are we trying to colonise other planets when we haven’t figured out how to live peacefully together on Earth? Why isn’t this money spent on helping to eradicate poverty and increase education standards?” Rolls one’s eyes. Though I must clarify that much more of countries’ budget is used on the latter two than space exploration. I guess these people’s main “argument” in a sense is, there are much more important things to deal with on Earth than exploring other worlds, thus concluding space exploration is a complete waste of time, and I profoundly disagree.
My question to such a person is, why can’t we do both? The clear implications of the argument on this side shows that there is a lack of knowledge and understanding regarding space travel. It is not just simply about “colonising” other planets and I assume that this isn’t the main intention of many space organisations. Research within the space industry have helped vastly with the developments of new technologies which contribute to making our civilisation a more advanced one, its discoveries from foreign worlds have aided much of the research in astronomy, astrophysics and many more natural science disciplines which broaden our understanding of the universe, and its achievements have helped bring people together.
I am disheartened that NASA with its funding at the moment is unable to take humans to the red planet, however despite this, there are a few hopeful private space industry companies that are able and willing to do so, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX who have promised this mission by the mid 2020s – I’m not sure if this is too optimistic, we’ll just have to wait and see – therefore it is safe to say, I think, that the future is bright…but you have to be patient.
Author – Susan Chen
Susan is a 5th year high school student currently studying three STEM subjects at Scottish Higher level-Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry (Crash Course). She particularly loves ideas in cosmology and hopes to embark on an academic journey in the area of Physics.