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The Cosmos: A Beginner's Guide - Space exploration

Updated Friday 6th July 2007

What is happening at the cutting edge of space exploration now?

Adam Hart-Davis at ESTEC Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University

The human race has harboured a deep fascination for the Cosmos for thousands of years. But the technology to escape the confines of our planet and explore the Solar System has only been with us for fifty years. In this great adventure we’ve sent probes to other worlds, inhabited space stations in Earth orbit and put men on the Moon. But what is happening at the cutting edge of space exploration now?

In this programme Adam Hart-Davis reports from the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in the Netherlands. It’s a hive of activity, with engineers working on all sorts of space hardware.

But current missions are limited to Earth orbit and to the International Space Station. Adam meets the European Space Agency’s Director of Science, Professor David Southwood, who shares his frustration that space exploration is so near to the Earth and who reveals exciting plans to return to the Moon and to go to Mars.

It could be thirty years before a person walks on the Red Planet but there’s already a serious commitment to the mission. Deep in the heart of the Utah desert in America we join up with volunteer astronauts at the Mars Desert Research Station. Utah is the best place on Earth to simulate conditions on Mars and volunteers take their fieldwork extremely seriously, from living in a secluded habitat to conducting extra-vehicular activities in space suits. While the work is physically tough, it’s mentally demanding too. The University of California's  Professor Nick Kanas  has analysed stress levels of astronauts for over twenty years. He explains “the Earth out of view phenomenon” that will be experienced for the first time on a mission to Mars.

Even if the astronauts survived the demands of the journey, they would need to survive on Mars for up to two years. Given the extreme conditions on Mars, how could they do this? One radical NASA study involves the terraforming of Mars to help astronauts survive. Margarita Marinova  from CALTECH explains how the complete transformation of Mars would happen, releasing greenhouse gases on Mars, causing intentional climate change on a massive scale.

Terraforming Mars is up to two hundred years away and a manned mission to the Red Planet wouldn’t happen until the year 2030. Until this time the workhorse of space exploration will remain unmanned probes. The Open University's own Doctor David Rothery is the UK lead scientist for a key instrument on the Bepi Columbo mission to Mercury. Dave explains the importance of unmanned exploration.

And, to boldy go where humans can’t, we catch up with Voyager 1 as it enters interstellar space. Project Scientist, Doctor Ed Stone, has worked on this mission since 1972. He shares his wonder at a mission that has visited Jupiter, Saturn and is now the most distant human-made object in space! We even see Voyager’s data arriving back at NASA’s Deep Space Network in Pasadena, California.

Voyager started its journey into space using rocket propulsion. But will future space exploration be as dependent on rocket technology? There is now a revolutionary type of space vehicle that can get into space without the need for rockets or high speed.   The latest technology is being tested in New Mexico for the first time.

The Space Elevator Games is one of the main events at the X Prize Cup. We join the competitors as they prepare their machines for action. NASA has put up a prize of $150,000 for the team with the quickest climber, so there’s a lot at stake. The devices may look crude but they are the first steps to getting humans and hardware into space without the need for rocket power. The ultimate goal is futuristic by anyone’s standards: a tether made of carbon nanotubes is attached to a platform at sea and the other end is connected to a space station in orbit 35,000 kilometres above the Earth. Vehicles will escape Earth’s gravity without the need for rocket propulsion. The invention has the potential to revolutionise our access to earth orbit and beyond.

And there’s another radical transport idea. We meet Rob Landis at the NASA Johnson Space Centre. Rob is a key scientist developing plans to use asteroids as mobile refuelling depots for the human exploration of our solar system. It’s an exciting plan and could be operational by the year 2020.

So should we be pleased with the progress made in space exploration over the last 50 years? Best selling science fiction author Alastair Reynolds doesn’t think so. He used to be a scientist at ESTEC but he traded his lab coat for a laptop. From habitats on the Moon and Mars to plasma drives and interstellar travel, Alastair lets his imagination run wild!

In the world of space exploration, we live in incredibly exciting times.  Voyager is about to enter interstellar space, other spacecraft are making amazing discoveries in our solar system and there’s the promise of further human missions to the Moon.
But, for Adam, the most exciting possibility is a manned mission to Mars.

It may not happen in Adam’s lifetime but it’s quite possible that one of you watching will be the first person to set foot on the Red Planet.

Another great journey has begun!

First broadcast: Tuesday 7 Aug 2007 on BBC TWO


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