Because of recently announced budget targets and a potentially exciting new look at old data, NASA is looking for low cost ways to continue exploring Mars and other parts of the solar system. It’s a shame for our nation and species they have to think this way, but that’s the real world in all its raw glory:
(MSNBC) — Earlier this year, NASA pulled out of a partnership with the Europeans due to budget cuts. NASA and the European Space Agency had been working on missions targeted for 2016 and 2018 that woud have marked the first steps toward bringing Martian soil and rocks back to Earth.The Europeans say they will continue moving ahead with the multibillion-dollar ExoMars program, thanks to a newly forged arrangement with Russia.
NASA officials say returning samples is still a priority, but a reboot is necessary to get closer to fulfilling the country’s goal of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s. Future missions will be aimed at preparing the way for human missions as well as looking for traces of past or present life on Mars.
BTW, I’m all for trying to put people on Mars. The general public may not appreciate the difference between a manned lunar mission and a Martian one — using souped up Apollo methods to go to Mars is a bit like floating across the Chesapeake Bay on a crude raft and hoping a slightly larger raft would get you to Australia. Mars is still a worthy goal, as long as we’re not suicidal. It’s just that right now the best bang for the taxpayer spacebuck is to continue pushing our unmanned capabilities, and those unmanned acivities greatly aid manned mission design and planning to boot.
Unmanned technology is enjoying the full benefit of Moore’s Law, and there’s more to it than just processing power and software. It’s also about robotics, it’s about good old-fashioned mechanical engineering in the 21st century. These engineers have developed a new class of machines, six sigma devices that move and work reliably in extreme environments while maintaining delicate network connections with orbiters and a homeworld many light minutes away. We can increase the number of unmanned missions ten-fold for less than what we’re going to spend over the next ten years on one traditional rocket, a rocket I worry will never be completed, much less do anything notable.
And it doesn’t have to stop there.
Thanks in part to advances in materials and cybernetics, if companies like SpaceX can cut launch costs in half in or thirds, we could begin to deploy a scalable, exploratory infrastructure for the solar system. Instead of one shot probes, imagine multitasking network imaging centers in orbit around planets, moons, and asteroids, overseeing a swarm of diminutive landers and floaters checking out objects below bristling with cameras and instruments. A line of semi-permanent Spanish forts, in the form of unmanned scouts and sentinels, reaching into the new-world wilderness of space is waiting to be built.