14 October 2011

Mars and the asteroids...

In the bizarrely nonsensical words from my schooldays, "Mary Voraciously Eats Mother's Jam Sandwiches Under No Protest". In case your own childhood did not include that particular mnemonic phrase, it represented the sequence of planets in order of distance outward from the sun.

Pluto has since been demoted, and new mnemonics have emerged, but that needn't trouble us here because the imaginative focus of interplanetary attention is now on Mother's Jam: that is, on Mars and Jupiter. Last year, US president Barack Obama envisaged a human landing on Mars in the mid 2030s and NASA's Ames Research Centre has jointly invested with DARPA in the idea of a one way Mars colonisation project. Russian plans over similar time frames include robotic exploration of Mars' moons. As you read this, NASA's Juno mission will be several weeks into its five year journey to Jupiter.

At a less romantic but perhaps more immediately practical level, there is also interest in the sweep of rocky space between them: the asteroid belt. On one level, it is a valuable scientific repository of "cosmological memory". At another, all exploration has, behind its heroic image, investment in the hope of economic return. The asteroids hold out the tantalising dreams of achieving that return well within a human lifetime; Mars within a century; Jupiter only in the much more distant future. Obama's vision for NASA includes not only the Mars mission but an asteroid ready heavy lift rocket design to be complete "no later than 2015", and the realities of returning from asteroid to earth orbit are trivial compared to Mars.

Mars has, of course, so far been subjected to more extensive examination than any other extraterrestrial target apart from Earth's own moon. A dozen or so programmes have, despite numerous failures, built up a knowledge base upon which projected US, European, Russian and Chinese successors plan to build over the next decade or so. The asteroids have mostly been studied remotely, usually in passing while on the way to somewhere else, but greater direct attention is now being paid to them. From an economic standpoint, they represent a potential resource for materials which would otherwise have to be lifted out of Earth's gravity well (and finite supply) at immense cost.

In all cases, however, before the economic return comes investment in study based upon huge programmes of data analysis. [More...]

Image: Orbital image of the Ma'adam Vallis flow channel, entering the Gusev crater at the top of the frame. [Source: NASA]


Geoff said...

I hear
The cry
Of the hungry
The cry
Of religion
Let us rid ourselves
Of these deceits
Before we desecrate
Yet another space

Dr. C said...

Interesting, as always, Felix. Ironic in a way that I should just now be reading: Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars by KS Robinson. I don't know about putting a man on Mars. But robots, that would be the thing.