Monday, May 12, 2014

The race to colonize space

There is a renewed focus on manned space missions, including by India, as efforts towards space exploration intensify..

New Delhi: Forty-four Indians were shortlisted last week by Mars One, a Netherlands-based private organization which aims to send four people on a one-way trip to Mars in batches beginning in 2024.

The non-governmental organization aims to establish a permanent human settlement on the red planet as crews of four will depart every two years. They will start with an unmanned mission in 2018 after which Mars One will send a demonstration mission, communication satellites, two rovers and several cargo missions to establish living conditions before the astronauts leave earth.

This is just one of the developments taking place this year showing a renewed focus on manned space missions. US space agency National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recently released a roadmap of how it intends to put a man on Mars by the 2030s. As astronauts at the International Space Station (ISS) in the low earth orbit develop technologies and master the fundamentals required by scientists for space exploration, NASA is preparing for a heat shield test at the end of the year for its Orion spacecraft which will eventually carry astronauts for exploration trips to an asteroid and Mars. NASA’s plans to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s are in accordance with goals outlined in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 and in the National Space Policy of the US.

The first step on its road to Mars, according to NASA administrator Charles Bolden, will come with astronauts aboard the ISS helping the agency learn how to safely execute extended missions deeper into space. “That means an expanded market for private space companies; more groundbreaking research and science discovery in micro-gravity; and opportunities to live, work and learn in space over longer periods of time,” said Bolden in his editorial on NASA astronauts are helping engineers figure out what kinds of techniques and tools astronauts will need in order to get samples from the small asteroid when they reach it.

India’s human exploration plans

India too is taking steps towards human space exploration, even if they are small ones. In July, Indian Space Research Organization (Isro) will carry out an experimental launch of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mark III with the capability to launch 4.5 to 5 tonnes weight. The GSLV will also be testing the crew module which could eventually carry astronauts to space. But the crew module testing is still at a very nascent stage.

“Upper stage cryogenic engine will not be there in the experimental launch. The crew module will be there, with the correct model and dimensions, and it will be eventually used for manned mission, but at that time all electronics and acoustics will be set. This time, only the aerodynamic aspects of the crew module are being checked,” said a senior Isro official. Pre-project studies were undertaken in 2009 on the critical technologies related to human spaceflight aimed at carrying two or three crew members to a low earth orbit and their safe return. That year a project proposal on “Development of critical technologies for Human Spaceflight Project” had been submitted to the government. Isro’s human spaceflight programme foresees the development of a fully autonomous orbital vehicle carrying two or three crew members to about 300 km low earth orbit and their safe return. The first phase of the programme will concentrate on design, development and performance demonstration of critical technologies leading to human spaceflight.

In 2010, the Crew Escape System (CES) aerodynamic configuration was finalized after detailed studies, and documents were prepared for astronaut selection and astronaut training. The time-frame to execute the programme was 2015-16, but after several failed attempts at GSLV launches after 2010, Isro decided instead to focus on capability building. The Crew Module (CM) structural assembly was finally handed over to Isro’s Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd in February.

The focus of Isro’s human exploration programme is currently the development of critical technologies for subsystems such as Crew Module, Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS), and Crew Escape System. The department has begun pre-project activities to study technical and managerial issues related to undertaking a manned mission with the aim of building and demonstrating the country’s capabilities.

Manned mission conundrum

Many experts have said that when it comes to space exploration, robotic missions may be more feasible in terms of costs and the safety of astronauts, but scientists have been increasingly stressing the need to send humans to space. In his book, India’s Rise as a Space Power, former Isro chief U.R. Rao says that there are select areas of space exploration where manned missions can play a significant role, such as remote sensing of the earth’s surface and material processing. The author goes on to explain that biological and biomedical experiments have a special significance for manned missions as they demonstrate the possibility of manufacturing “pure medicines” (radically novel therapies) which are difficult to make on earth.

“The issue is survival of humanity. With the resources we have left on earth, we certainly do not have more than a 100 years left and making new materials is very tough. We need to find new resources for which space and inter-planetary exploration is extremely important,” says Rao in a telephone interview. “The gap between robotic and human capabilities has been narrowed, but there are still things that robots cannot do. If we’re looking at colonization and bringing back new resources, we have to send human explorers. There’s only so much that robots can do,” he added.

But the cost of manned missions has been prohibitive, especially in India where the government is yet to approve a manned mission.

“The manned space mission has not been approved by the government and for a country like India, we have to see the cost effectiveness of such missions. Hence the crew module being tested and human space missions cannot be linked right now. Our job is to validate technologies for which money has been sanctioned,” the official said.

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