The last frontier | Sunday Observer

The last frontier

A space colony
A space colony

Space is often known as the last frontier, because we are yet to explore it in-depth. Two of our robotic probes have left the Solar System and entered deep space, but that is the extent of our “hands-on” knowledge about the universe we live in. The past week was a very important one in the annals of space exploration, for it was on April 12, 1961 that Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth, opening a new chapter of human endeavour in outer space. Fifty seven years on, we have made remarkable progress but some goals are yet to be realized.

On April 12, the world celebrated the International Day of Human Space Flight. Human spaceflight is defined as space travel with a crew or passengers aboard the spacecraft. Spacecraft carrying people may be operated directly, by human crew, or it may be remotely operated from ground stations on Earth.

The UN Declaration for this day recalls “the amazing history of human presence in outer space and the remarkable achievements since the first human spaceflight, in particular, Valentina Tereshkova becoming the first woman to orbit the Earth on June 16, 1963, Neil Armstrong becoming the first human to set foot upon the surface of the Moon on July 20, 1969, and the docking of the Apollo and Soyuz spacecrafts on July 17, 1975, being the first international human mission in space, and recall that for the past decade humanity has maintained a multinational permanent human presence in outer space aboard the International Space Station.” The day marks the beginning of the space era for mankind.

The space race heated up with President John F Kennedy’s address to the Congress just one month later: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

This mission was accomplished in July 1969 and moon missions continued till 1972. Sadly, we have not been able to send another man or woman (they did not send a woman to the moon during this period) to the moon for nearly 50 years. This is a blight on the collective space efforts of all countries.

However, instead of the Moon, the next goal seems to be Mars. Several proposals are underway to send people to Mars and at least some of them will get a one-way ticket. They will colonize the Red Planet, with the hope of eventually terraforming it (making it more like the Earth). Some of the efforts will be privately funded – SpaceX’s Elon Musk is a passionate advocate for the human exploration of Mars.

This brings us to an emerging trend in space exploration – space missions are increasingly being funded and achieved by private entities, rather than Government space agencies. SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic are just three examples. They have different approaches to achieving the same result – sending more people into space. In fact, they want to make it cheaper, by using reusable rockets for example. There is even a word for it – space tourism. And tourism cannot literally take off without a hotel, so why not build one in space ? They are already working on it.

The latest private company to get into the space tourism game is Orion Span, which recently revealed its Aurora Station space hotel, promising an extremely ambitious 2022 opening date – just four years away.

Orion Span says, it plans to launch the initial Aurora Station module into a low-Earth orbit, at an altitude of 322 km. This orbital altitude is slightly lower than the current positioning of the International Space Station, which is about 408 km above the Earth. The company says, the module will boast the most windows of any spacecraft put into orbit, with people staying in private two-person suites on a 12-day round trip, with a three-month training program to get them astronaut-ready before the adventure commences. The hotel will be able to host four travellers at a time, plus two crew members guiding the journey. At a cost of US$9.5 million per person this is certainly not a budget holiday, despite the company’s suggestion that, “Our goal is to make space accessible to all, by continuing to drive greater value at lower cost.”

But, the costs will eventually get there as economies of scale kick in. Air travel used to be a luxury when the first services started in the 1920s. Today, as some airlines say, “everyone can fly” especially, with the advent of Ultra Low Cost Carriers. Moreover, early adapters anyway have to pay more for any product or service – for example, the first mobile phones cost more than Rs.150,000. Today, you can buy one for less than Rs.2,000.

We might need to take flight into space sooner than we think. The great Stephen Hawking warned mankind a few months before his death that our time on Earth could be limited. War, pestilence, an alien attack, asteroid impact and indeed, climate change, could make our world inhospitable in the near future. We should thus be ready with a Plan B – colonization of alien worlds.

Mars is the nearest and most promising candidate, though a Moon base should not be ruled out. But, our best hope for survival as a species is to look for worlds beyond the Solar System where Earth-like planets may already exist. Scientists have already identified several Earth-like planets that orbit their suns in the just right zone for liquid water to exist.

The biggest obstacle for such an inter-galactic journey is speed, or rather the lack of it. The highest speed achieved by a man-made object (NASA’s Jupiter probe Juno) is 40 km per second. Given that light travels at approximately 300,000 Km a second, this is nowhere near the warp speeds needed for space exploration. At Juno’s speed, a journey even to Alpha Centauri (just four light years away) will take around 78,000 years. However, the same journey can be accomplished in just 100 years if a spacecraft can travel at 13,500 Km per second, which is 5 percent of the speed of light. So the search must go on for a faster ‘Star Trek’ like system of propulsion and there is in fact a scramble for designs that can achieve interstellar speeds. That will enable us to “go boldly where no Man has gone before.”