Adios La Luna

Moon Closeup

Nasa Axes Lunar mission and Ares rocket in favor of research. So for the foreseeable future and indeed probably my lifetime its improbable that I will see humans on the moon again. Our sister planet is going to keep its mysteries for a bit longer.  But its not all bad in my books, probes will get there and we will still perhaps gleam some of its secrets before I pass. There is one thing that has nagged me more then most as far as lunar mysteries go. Why Life, if its is so resilient and versatile has not found a niche there. Panspermia if valid should have seeded life from earth there in the form of ejecta long ago.

The reaction on the Internet is interesting. There is a a strong editorial generally supporting the mission, yet strong public commentary decrying the loss of US prestige. (Ironic) The decision to look to New propulsion technologies is a wise decision in my book.  The continuing lack of a breakthrough in this field is the genesis of all our broken childhood sci-fi dreams. Chemical rockets, as exemplified by the Ares Rocket is a bootstrap technology without finesse. Its continuing existence as the sole technology providing our lift capability from earths gravity well, is the white elephant in this particular dream of humanity. I have ideas of alternative methods, as Im sure others do around the globe. But whatever solution eventuates, its one that needs to be solved first and pumping whatever available funds the US or any other nation has into a space program would find better use in this field first. So in this I applaud the decision. The money already spent on the Constallation Program is not a complete waste in my book as the money was not all spent on the Booster and Propulsion. We have a spacecraft in the Orion Capsule and the Altair lander that remain viable systems. The Research undertaken in all the peripheries of (human) spaceflight remain viable, if commercial launchers are to carry this banner into the future then Nasa should use its extensive knowledge to mentor such interests. Indeed this is what is being currently proposed.

I see no problem here.

The Case for Robotic missions is strong. Spacecraft such as The Voyagers, New Horizons Galileo, Cassini–Huygens, Messanger, Dawn are bringing us data of amazing worth. Products like Google earth and its alternatives allow us all to interact (to see) these amazing places in our solar system now.  It may not be as good as being there in person, however I would argue that it is as strong an inspiration as watching astronauts and the vicarious nature of living the experience in absentia. Which is what we did in the first manned missions in space via TV and popular press.  Indeed its the Photographs and Films that astronauts record that let us share in the endeavor.

Inspirational as human space flight is, we are many years away from being able to live in space. And that is perhaps a worthier goal then just traveling through space. We need to be able to experiment with the concept of habitats in space. There is little to no advantage going back down a gravity well (moon as example) once you have spent the energy to leave earths. Far less energy is spent sending down long lasting probes to a planetary body and observing by remote. With this in mind it becomes more important to think about space habitats for humans that can sustain groups of people for longer periods. This brings as to the question of why you would need people at all in space? One very good one is that information takes time to travel. The Lag is hard to bear and the intelligence of our AI just hasn’t broken into sentience the way Sci-Fi imagined. You still need people and until some nefarious new technology appears the real research will be done by human minds.

The problem is that so far robotic  missions have never received the kind of funding proportionate to the task, which is no less the Exploration of our solar system. Travel time and communications are the shortcomings. It literally takes years for our probes to reach their destinations by current technology. And communicating with them is restricted to the speed of light. There is no reason to assume that that will change in the future. This lag time is a good reason for putting humans closer to our subjects of study however we are already investigating the notion of an Interplanetary Internet that will increase the (reliability) of remote communication. However no matter how much we advance, the speed of light will likely remain the same. The Lag is not unbearable, the travel time to Saturn is some 84 minutes one way. Hardly spontaneous by human standards but still workable.

That of course is peanuts in comparison to the time it takes for probes to get to their destinations.  However this is an issue of energy exchange, and the formula is not technologically insurmountable, the holdup is the initial energy injection which is Terran cash. 😕   If Nasa funding now goes towards the development of  Ion thrusters and other systems that allow faster travel in SPACE not just lift capability from Earth then our solar system can really open up. Isn’t Exploring it what we really want to do? To map every planet and moon in our solar system is an ambitious proposal. Its an ideom that I hope is taken up by our culture.  Its also a course that we have already embarked upon. New Horizons, Dawn and Messenger will soon be sending us data from new points in the solar system, great mysteries still await. More importantly, what we are finding is the information is changing our perception of our solar system, leading us to new understanding and goals in our exploration of space.

More probes, with quicker travel time and in system maneuverability are needed.  Our rockets dont just need to get us to these destinations, we need to create permanent or at least long lasting presence at each destination to enact study. The Cassini–Huygens probes are a good example of possible future designs. Piggyback probes on fast outbound craft that can separate and slow down to their intended destinations would be an achievement.  No easy feat as energy has to be spent to achieve both tasks. Energy equals mass in terms of fuel, so we still hit the limitations of cost in escaping our gravity well. The simple truth is we need to find raw materials and fuel beyond earths orbit in the form of an asteroid and the developing the means to mine it. Indeed going to asteroids is a popular concept, one I think we should pursue. However I also believe there are alternatives to the heavy launch vehicle such as the ARES 5 and Space Shuttle.  Placing Hydrogen and Oxygen in low earth orbit could with a bit of imagination be delivered by balloons from earth.  There is an upper limit on the altitude Hydrogen or helium balloons can travel before the (membrane) enclosing the gas collapses. This is not an insurmountable problem. Indeed as the gas expands with heat and altitude it provides a source of propellant. The trick will be to lift enough gas to both lift it into a stable orbit and have enough left to use for further missions. Such technologies are not beyond solving. Our current chemical rockets were not chosen for their value as lift vehicles solely but for their dual value in weapons research. This technological mindset has led our space industry locked into an expensive and impractical solution. We have simply never funded any other kinds of ideas.

Now is as good a time as any. There are two goals to aim for beyond the Technology advances, one is to gain international co-operation on space exploration and the other is to merge military and civilian space budgets.

In the meantime La Luna is not going anywhere.:) It will be on the moon that we will seek resources for future exploration. In doing so perhaps we will finally uncover her secrets.Im certain that many are still left to be discovered.

Damian