Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Catching up with Ceres

Artist’s impression of DAWN spacecraft close to asteroids. Courtesy: NASA/JPL

NASA's space probe Dawn has reached Ceres, the largest object in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter.  Furthermore,  the New Horizons spacecraft, after a voyage of nearly nine years and three billion miles came out of hibernation for its July 14,  2015, encounter with the dwarf planet Pluto and its moons on the edge of the planetary system.  The Voyager spacecraft became humanity's first interstellar spacecraft last year. It was launched 36 years ago and is still sending back pictures to its creators.  

This is an appropriate time to reinterpret humanity's role in the conquest of space. 

Gone are the Apollo years when astronauts bounced on the surface of the moon like giddy school boys. Gone are the Space Shuttle successes; when it roared into space and gracefully glided down onto a runway landing like an ordinary passenger plane; ready to be refueled and sent back to the Space Station. 

Apollo is in the Smithsonian Air and Space museum. The Shuttle has retired and private companies are competing for the orbital ferry business.

Now, we must dream bigger. The solar system we inhabit is much larger and more complex than what we formerly believed. The definition of where life could exist has drastically changed. Life, as we know it, evolved in Earth's seas.  But Earth may not possess the largest  ocean in the solar system.  Therefore, life could exist on several  moons and dwarf planets that orbit our sun (not in the Goldilocks Zone believed by scientists). 

If you want to build a space colony, which planet would you choose? Mars has very little air and is extremely cold. Venus has a surface temperature that could melt lead, but it may have a comfortable climate high in the Venusian sky where humans could survive without bulky space suits. Cloud Cities could be built floating high over the landscape. And even though it is closest to the Sun, the planet Mercury may have abundant pockets of water ice that could sustain a human colony where miners could extract rare metals and other resources critical to maintain an interplanetary society.

So, we should not cling to the immediate area around our planet. We need to push out. And, that is exactly what is happening.

Our robots on Mars have been happily wandering the Red Planet for several years, sending back tons of data. New space telescopes will have the ability to peer to the very edge of reality and reveal more secrets of creation. For instance, what exactly is Dark Energy and Dark Matter, the forces that make-up more than two third of the universe. We could be swimming in dark matter at this moment and not know how it affects our existence.

Therefore, a fancy rocket-powered, winged craft blasting off into space a few miles above the desert may no longer be news. Any billionaire with a few extra bucks can build a spaceplane, fly into low orbit and glide back down after taking a few snapshots of the horizon. 

Once again, we have to adjust our sights and look deeper. Dawn is NASA's first purely exploratory mission to use ion propulsion engines; advanced technology that may power all our new spacecraft. A trip to Jupiter could take a few weeks instead of years. Catching up with  the fast moving Ceres is just another small step for greater things to come.