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Cambridge University Science Magazine
November 2011 saw the quest to send humans to Mars take a step forward with the launch of Russia’s Phobos-Grunt probe. The intention was not only to return soil samples from the surface of the planet, but to test whether living organisms could survive the journey in a biomodule on board.  Together with the success of Mars500, in which six men were isolated in a mock spacecraft for seventeen months and Barack Obama announcing his ambitions to send humans into deep space, touchdown on Mars’ rust-coloured surface could be celebrated by mankind as soon as 2030.  The inspiration of a new generation of scientists could be captured, and a greater understanding of the environment and evolution of Mars attained.

The many problems associated with space travel and survival will need solutions before this can become a reality, but the research is already under way. 2014 will see the testing of NASA’s Orion spaceship, designed to carry humans beyond low-earth orbits. It is this craft that could get humans over the moon and out to asteroids, Phobos (Mars’ largest moon), and Mars itself—all potential destinations for space crews. Its first test—where Orion will be flung into an elliptical orbit taking it to an altitude higher than any human has previously reached—will be unmanned. Yet it will provide crucial knowledge on how to safely return humans home from a voyage. How Orion performs on re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere will guide us in designing a spacecraft to survive re-entry at greater speeds from further afield. All being well, the first manned attempt will occur within the next two decades. However, such a test relies on the outcome of debates currently occurring in the United States Congress about financing NASA.

It is possible that any financial limitations to our exploratory power can be resolved by uniting globally. The European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA may be joining with Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, to launch their ExoMars satellite to learn more about the atmosphere of Mars. This international effort to increase our knowledge of Mars using rovers and satellites gives hope that a similar effort will succeed in seeing the first people to the planet. This summer is a case in point, as representatives from the United States, South Korea, Europe, Japan and Canada gathered as part of the International Space Exploration Coordination Group. In their recently published Global Exploration Roadmap, the group laid out two technological routes that would advance plans to set foot on and eventually set up home on Mars, or elsewhere in the solar system. Either another moon-landing or grappling with an asteroid would sufficiently hone technologies for missions further afield.

Their vision is one of exploring the richness beyond our horizon, but also that of ensuring mankind’s survival. Intercepting and redirecting a misguided asteroid would not only require advanced space-faring technologies but is one way that we could avoid a repeat of the mass extinction events that have previously devastated the Earth. It would be too late to gain this know-how when a crisis is imminent; reaffirming Obama’s words that manned space exploration is not a dispensable luxury. Robotic precursors are already being used to solve the complexities of orbiting and landing on such a low-gravity body as an asteroid. In 2005, Japan’s Hayabusa sample return spacecraft orchestrated a soft landing on the 25143 Itokawa asteroid, the first of its kind. Soon to be refined by Hayabusa 2, progress in these types of landings improves the chances of humans accompanying robots in the near future.

Similarly, landing on Phobos has been proposed as a precursor to landing on Mars. A manned lander headed for Mars needs to be capable of atmospheric entry and return to orbit; Phobos, however, is a low gravity body with no atmosphere, making landing less costly and already within our technological grasp. One pivotal advantage to this scenario is that stopping off on Phobos, so tantalisingly close to Mars, would make the prospect of humans finally reaching our neighbouring planet significantly more tangible. Not only that, but astrobiological research could be conducted on Mars, using rovers conveniently remote-operated from Phobos, without contaminating its surface with life from Earth.

The question of life surviving the long journey to Mars was the subject of the Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE) module aboard Phobos-Grunt. Hardy organisms such as water bears and yeast, selected as missionaries to our neighbour, would have experienced life outside Earth’s magnetosphere, which protects our planet from the harmful solar wind. This would test the possibility of transpermia, the idea that life on Earth may have been propagated from the nearby universe via micro-organisms lodged snugly in asteroids. If microorganisms could be shown to withstand the duration of such a challenging mission, the hypothesis that life on Earth could have had an extraterrestrial origin will rise in stature.

Moreover, if they can do it, so can we—learning how to protect humans from solar and cosmic radiation in space is one of the aims of a mission to an asteroid prior to Mars.

In this spirit, the China National Space Administration will bring about the completion of its Kuafu satellites in 2012, facilitating space weather forecasting. Being able to forecast changes in conditions in the space dividing Earth and Mars, and thus protect crews accordingly, will make a manned mission more viable.

Making these prospects yet more likely, the effects of living in space for extended periods of time are being analysed at the International Space Station. Whilst Mars500 tested what psychological effect long term isolation has, the impact of weightlessness and radiation exposure on astronauts inhabiting the space station will provide a basis on which to plan missions capable of returning a healthy crew. Another vital aspect of research at the ISS is into how spacecraft systems can be maintained in orbit, so that not only human but spacecraft health can be sustained for long-duration missions.

The moon may be an important stepping stone to deep space travel and Russia aims to found humanity’s first outpost there by the 2030s.  Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced the plan upon this year’s 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin becoming the first man into space. Such a move would coincide with the United States’ proposed Mars landing, if both ambitions prove to be on realistic timescales. Establishing a base on the moon would not only enable helium-3 mining as a potential energy source for continued life on Earth, but would also enhance our ability to live beyond our home planet.

Interstellar travel and colonisation is an aspect of our imagination that may take a few centuries to turn into reality, but for now, the reach and focus of our robotic orbiters is extending to greater distances across the Solar System. As a joint venture between the United States and Europe, the Jupiter Europa Orbiter, intended for launch in 2020, will be seeking to uncover whether Europa, one of Jupiter’s largest moons, possesses a habitable sub-surface ocean. Supposing the results return positive, this will boost confidence in the belief that environments hospitable to life exist elsewhere in the Universe. However, developing interstellar space travel will rely on first executing manned interplanetary trips.

For the approaching surface of Mars to finally fill the vision of human eyes, a range of manned and unmanned missions must succeed in discovering the essentials for a triumphant Mars landing. With a global effort we could expand our understanding of what it will take to achieve manned missions and determine how plausible it is to make the harsh environment of space accommodating to life. Travelling into the future, we may find ourselves turning to the horizon of the solar system as we once turned to the horizon of Earth.

Unfortunately, Phobos-Grunt’s engines failed to fire after separating from the launch rocket, and at the time of production the spacecraft is stranded in Earth’s orbit. Recovery is being attempted.

Beth Venus is a 1st year undergraduate studying Natural Sciences