Goodbye, Pluto, we never knew you!
As I write this the last space shuttle mission is nearing its completion, and the last space shuttle will soon be a museum relic reminding us that once upon a time, sending people into orbit was a routine achievement. Oh there will be manned space launches in the future as well, but the prime mover after the Soviet collapse was the USA. The Americans will now send their astronauts to the International Space Station via Kazakhstan, in Soyuz capsules actually originating before the space shuttle itself. I do not intend to dig at the Russians here, as the Soyuz design has a better service record all in all, is a good design (and yes it has had developments since 1966 to be sure). I must admit it is far better suited as a taxi than the shuttle. That is not my point. My point is that sending astronauts into space by a charter flight is a clear signal the civilian space program is being put on the back burner. Why is this a bad thing? For one, abandoning the shuttle without replacing it with superior or equivalent systems means in fact going back a step technology wise. That has happened before. The US had the infrastructure to send people to the moon, but not anymore. To me that signals “We can’t be bothered by this”. Russia actually had its own space shuttle program, and the shuttle managed one remote controlled unmanned flight before the program was shut down by lack of funding when the Soviet collapsed and Russia had its economical meltdown. Still, NASA really is more interested in deep space than in the relatively near orbits the shuttle program would launch hardware into… or…?
The Hubble telescope, one of the most important instruments in the field of astrophysics, was put into orbit and serviced by the shuttle. It was in fact originally planned to be taken back to earth by another shuttle at the end of its service life, but this was cancelled mainly due to costs. The ISS program was serviced by this iconic craft… Well several when it comes to it. Strangely I went through childhood beleving there was only one shuttle. Turned out it was 5 of them in all. Not counting the Enterprise, which was really a test prototype without re-entry heat shields, and never actually went into space. I blame my outdated textbooks in school for that one, really. Anyway, Costs, costs, costs… This is not a lament about the space shuttle really. It is more a gripe about the abandoning of a program. NASA actually claim they no longer want the Space Shuttle. They want to send more unmanned missions into deep space. The same way they did not want the Saturn rockets anymore. The Saturn is to date the only rocket that has sent people beyond Earth’s low orbit. Skylab, Mir, ISS – all those are in what is called Low Orbit. Saturn was a ‘family’ of rocket models that the Apollo Program used to send the astronauts to the moon. Just to be clear: We can’t do that anymore. Yes, we know how to, but tech is more than just information, it is resources, training and infrastructure as well. The Apollo Program is defunct and would have to be reinvented for anybody to play golf up there again.
So this would be OK if it meant actual progress. NASA insists it does. We see more and more images of asteroids like Vesta (an asteroid so big they estimate it constitutes 10% of the asteroid belt!) and actually land at comets orbiting the solar system… BUUUT I am skeptical. I used to be skeptical about the militarization of space, as Bush seemed overly enthusiastic about scrapped Star Wars projects from the darkest Reagan era, but the last time I checked the US military space agency DARPA as of now have only a sixth of NASAs funding (also, they do a lot more than Star Wars systems). However, and this may sound like whining: What about manned space exploration?
During the late nineties I was optimistic about where we were going. The space plane seemed closer and closer, and the newspapers hinted about a new, enormous tenth planet somewhere out there. Speculations were wild, some reports hinted at it being bigger than Jupiter and something like a fraction of a lightyear away… And then, astronomers discovered… Eris.
Which turned out to be so small that astronomers needed to rework the term “planet”. As opposed to “asteroid on steroids”. There had already been another, smaller object further out named Sedna, so this was becoming an issue. So when it turned out that what had been touted as the tenth planet not only was too small to be called a proper planet (the terms planetoid and dwarf planet were coined to describe this new category of cosmic underachievers) but also at least the size of Pluto… Yep. We went from nine planets to eight. We went DOWN a notch. And just in case you want to say “Well planetoid is good too? It’ll be like Very Special planets?”, well: There are more than two or three planetoids. More than a hundred, in fact. Oh, sorry, did I say a hundred? Because Wikipedia says more than a quarter of a million. Dwarf plantes are slightly more exclusive: To date there are about fifty of them.
So we will never set foot on the planet Pluto. We may set foot on the dwarf planet of Pluto. But, then again, there are other objects out there we should check out… And I am not talking about Planet X or Nibiru, as those are fictional planets (Planet X was a hypothetical super sized Pluto. When they actually found Pluto in 1931 and discovered it wasn’t bigger than Earth. Nibirus existence is confirmed by a single person who was told about it in 1995 by gray aliens (source: Herself) and it will hit Earth in
2003 2021 some date comfortably far off) but other wild hypothetical bodies: The theoretical gas giant Tyche, that some scientists suspect is the reason some comets behave weirdly out in the far end of their orbits. The possible location is “somewhere in the Oort Cloud” so it wouldn’t be a doozy to find. But hey: 4 times the size of Jupiter? We’d have a number 9 again! Right? Right? Oh, and another one: Nemesis. Now this hypothetical star has a slightly gloomy name, possibly because it snuffs almost all life on Earth every 25 million years or so. Or so the theory goes. Apparently a pair of paleontologists compiled some statistics on fossil records, did the math and concluded that Earth experiences a mass extinction event roughly every 25 million years. As to why, the pair shrugged their shoulders and said “I dunno? Any Ideas?” The ball was passed to the astronomers, and two teams independently suggested periodic meteor showers were slingshot towards Earth by the gravitational force of Nemesis. This would be a tiny star, possibly a white or brown dwarf (since we can’t see it) and a really close one, from one and a half to less than a single light year from Earth (basically a part of our solar system). Who’d a thunk it? Earth has its own stalker star!
So what does this have to do with the space shuttle? Well, it has more to do with manned space flight really. And of course, China and India are both planning manned space missions… Scratch that. China has had its first men into space. India are still working on it, but they sent a probe to the lunar surface. Also, Japan, Iran, Malaysia and Ecuador have independent space agencies. But let’s be honest: These countries are still in the bush league. Yes, you heard me. I just called China “bush league”. Because the technology is not yet developed in these countries. USA and the Soviet Union spent billions of dollars to develop rockets that did not explode and space capsules that did not kill you upon reentry. Now I am a lazy guy and 90% of my research is done on the internet (statistical source: Abraham Lincoln) but I count 9 fatalities in space missions and training even before counting in training jet crashes and the two space shuttle crashes. China had two rockets stray and crash with fatalities, one of which crashed in a Chinese village. So space would be safer with the know-how involved. Why? Why should we spend people into space? Well, for one thing automation will only take you so far. An astronomical unit is the time it takes for the light from the Sun to hit Earth, about 8 light minutes. Pluto is about 40 AU out, Eris about 65 – 70. That’s about 5 hours and 20 minute for a radio signal to reach Pluto, maybe… ten hours to reach anything visiting Eris. One way, that is. The Mars Rover is autonomous, meaning it is controlled from Earth more by programming its moves than actually sitting with a joystick. We should have boots on the ground (well in space, yes. You KNOW what I mean!) to more directly explore space. To explore, because that is what we men do. To find cool stuff. Or stuff that may possibly kill us one day.
Oh yes. I did mention the theory of mass extinctions and asteroids? The Earth looks a lot prettier than the moon, no pock marking by meteorites. That is because we have weather and a working ecosystem. Without all the wind, erosion and general plant growth you would see some pretty hefty craters. The one many scientists believe is the reason the dinosaurs went extinct, the Chicxulub crater, is so big it was only discovered from a surveying airplane in the 1970s. It is roughly 180 kilometers in diameter, so it is actually hard to spot from the ground, some 500 million years later. The bad boy who made that crater was probably an asteroid 10 kilometer across hitting Earth with an absurdly powerful smack. 96 teraton is the estimated force of the explotion. The biggest nuke ever exploded, the Tsar Bomba, was 50 megatons strong. The Chicxulub strike was about two MILLION times stronger.
And that is why I want us to colonize space. Keep the ISS going, build bases on the moon, send manned missions to Mars. Just make sure humanity has its eggs in more than one basket. Everybody talks about the dinosaur extinction event. But I have some news for you: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extinction-level_event So I can live without Pluto. Bu t I want humanity to live. I’m soppy and sentimental that way.