The future of space exploration

By Gordon Osinski
November 16, 2012

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Editor's Note: On Nov. 15, 2012, Western News celebrated its 40th anniversary with a special edition asking 40 Western researchers to share the 40 THINGS WE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE NEXT 40 YEARS. This is one of those entries. To view the entire anniversary issue, visit the Western News archives.

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If one looks back at the last 40 years, there have been incredible accomplishments and technological advancements and amazing scientific discoveries. But it is also worth noting it has been exactly 40 years since any human stood on another planetary body. (In December 1972, U.S. astronauts Harrison ‘Jack’ Schmitt and Eugene Cernan spent three days exploring the Moon during the Apollo 17 mission.)

During the next 40 years, we will see humans venturing forth once again into the solar system. This time, however, it will be to stay.

If we could fast-forward a thousand years and pick up a history book, I am sure we would see the next 40 years portrayed as the second space revolution.


Why such a bold statement?

Regardless of what is going on with the world’s national space agencies, we have entered a period where space travel is no longer the remit of government agencies. Indeed, 2012 has seen the first launch of a private rocket to the International Space Station (SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket). Other companies are in hot pursuit.

In 2013, we will witness Virgin Galactic launch its first commercial space tourism flight. There are already more than 500 people signed up for the $200,000-per-person ride into space.

Flights into low Earth orbit will become routine and space travel will be within reach of a large part of the world’s population. Within the next 40 years, costs will fall and, whereas today a trip of a lifetime may be a cruise to Antarctica or climbing Mount Everest, it may be a trip in to space. How cool would that be?

Another important development is the extraction of resources from asteroids and other planetary bodies in the solar system. This has largely been in the realm of science fiction until recently. But with new private companies, such as Planetary Resources Inc. (backed by multiple billionaires and the likes of director James Cameron), we will see an economically viable market for mining in space by 2052.

This commercialization of space travel will also have major implications for government space agencies. In essence, as noted by John Holdren, U.S. President Barack Obama’s chief science adviser, “This expanded role for the private sector will free up more of NASA’s resources to do what NASA does best – tackle the most demanding technological challenges in space, including those of human space flight beyond low Earth orbit.”

So, what are the frontiers for space exploration beyond?

Sample return missions to the Moon and Mars are some of the highest priorities for the international scientific communities. A Mars sample return has been in the planning stages for decades, but always seems to be 20 years in the future.

In the next 40 years, this will become reality. It has to.

The motivation for the return of samples from Mars is simple. We will never be able to send instruments to Mars as capable of those in laboratories on Earth. And the questions we’re asking, such as “Is there life on Mars?,” are so complex they can likely only be answered by extensive analysis of rocks in multiple laboratories on Earth.

But why return to the Moon? We’ve been there, done it, haven’t we?

Well, actually, we haven’t. We landed at six locations on the nearside of the Moon. We’ve never landed on the farside of the Moon or the polar regions. And, as seen in recent orbital missions, these are some of the most interesting locations.

Indeed, there have been major discoveries on the Moon in the past couple of years. We’ve discovered water ice, regions of eternal sunlight, and weird rock types we never thought possible. Together, these results have shattered our view of the Moon as a geologically simple and ‘dead’ planetary body. We must return.

These future sample return missions to Mars and the Moon will likely be with robots. But what about humans?

Within the next 40 years, I am certain we will return to the Moon, step foot on Mars and may land on an asteroid, too. Just as it did 40 years ago, this will inspire a new generation of scientists and engineers capable of tackling some of the most challenging questions.

If we look beyond our closest planetary neighbours, there are many exciting places to visit. Some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn – such as Europa and Enceladus – may harbor life at the present-day under thick icy shells. Titan, with its lakes of liquid methane and other carbon compounds also possesses the building blocks of life.

Some of the most exciting discoveries may come from outside of our solar system. The next generation of space telescopes will have the capability to detect Earth-like planets around stars literally millions of light years away.

The next 40 years will be the most exciting ever in the history of space exploration – a time where the gap between science fiction and reality are finally narrowed. The number of people who have ventured into space will no longer be counted in the hundreds, but in the thousands. And we will finally answer the age-old question, “Are we alone in the Universe?

Gordon Osinski is the NSERC/MDA/CSA Industrial Research Chair in Planetary Geology in the Faculty of Science.


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