Saturday, January 22, 2005

Off Topic: A Rant on space exploration's lack of reuse...

Those of you that know me will already appreciate that I am somewhat of a space nut. I've been fascinated by it for as long as I can remember. One of my greatest Christmas presents was from my Uncle, it was a copy of "The Illustrated Encyclopedia Of Space Technology (2nd edition)" by Kenneth Gatland. This book amazed me, I memorised almost everything in it, from the complete set of manned launches through to all the details about each of the world's launch sites. I eagerly awaited the, then named, US Space Station Alpha. I looked forward to man's return to the moon. The pictures of other planets of our solar system provided by the Pioneer, Voyager and Viking craft transfixed me. I was 12.

As I've grown up I've had to live through an almost complete lack of solar system exploration, the fact that human exploration has been limited to within low earth orbit. The slow recovery of the Shuttle program after the Challenger disaster. Finally in the late nineties and early 21st century space exploration began to take off again.

Space Station Alpha finally began to take shape, renamed the International Space Station due to the co-operation between US, Russian, European, Japanese, Italian and Canadian space agencies. NASA's Mars program took off in ernest, and despite some spectacular failures has returned amazing results. Our outer solar system understanding has leapt up thanks to the Galileo probe's exploration of Jupiter and its moons, and the Cassini/Huygens mission to Saturn and its moons.

The Columbia disaster has set back both the space station program and human space exploration as a whole. The Russian space agency has managed to keep ISS supplied with materials and people and there is the hope that the remaining Shuttle fleet (Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour) will return to service this year. There have been other surprises such as the Chinese becoming only the third nation to self-launch humans into space, and the move towards commercial space capabilities with the amazing X-Prize success.

I have written the above to show not only how much of a complete space nut I am but to give you a context about where we are in space exploration. I think we are entering what could be an amazing period. President Bush put forward his vision of where NASA should be heading, with a focus on getting humans back to the Moon and then on to Mars. The European Space Agency has a fantastic schedule of robotic planetary missions for the next decade, and NASA will continue its exploration of Mars and beyond. I believe that the public are genuinely entranced by some of the pictures being returned from craft like the Mars rovers and the Huygens probe, and do understand the importance of these programs.

Both these programs are examples of truly great space exploration craft. The Mars rovers are now celebrating their first complete year on Mars. These were craft that were intended to only last for 90 days. When close to the end of that original mission deadline Steve Squyres (principal investigator for the Mars Rovers) said that they would use any extra lifetime they could get out of the Spirit rover to head towards some hills in the distance, and that although they would never get there they might find something interesting along the way. The Spirit rover spent Christmas exploring midway up those hills and is now getting some amazing views from near the top.

The Huygens probe was designed to drop through the atmosphere of Titan (one of Saturn's moons) take photos of the descent and hopefully survive an impact on the surface and return some photos from there, with an expected, top end, life span on the surface of 30mins before battery failure. Reports from ground based radio telescopes have so far pegged the surface life span of the probe at over one hour, and we may still find out that it lasted longer.

These projects have not only more than fulfilled their science goals but they have told us much about the application of technology to space exploration. NASA managed to debug the Spirit rover from a million miles away and get it working again, and then use the knowledge gained to prevent something similar from happening to its twin on the other side of Mars.

ESA found out that their use of redundant communications channels prevented a complete loss of data to a human error, a missing command on the Cassini probe telling it to listen on one of those channels.

Due to the massive extension in the lifespan of the Mars Rovers JPL have had to distribute the management of the probe, with the scientists on the project all returning to their home institutions and working by remote.

During the rest of this decade NASA will be sending one more lander to Mars and a new generation of Rover (in 2009). This rover will be about the size of an SUV. The ESA will be sending a rover of its own. In the decade after this, NASA intends to launch (about 2014) the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter (JIMO) probe. This probe will use a new design of nuclear propulsion (from the Prometheus project) and will orbit four of Jupiter's moons in succession.

What all of this screams out to me is why is the space exploration community always risking expensive projects with untested hardware/software. I understand the need to do this a lot of the time, but not exclusively. The next Mars rover will not take off till 2009, there are two more launch windows to Mars before then. Okay so they would not be able to do anything now for the August 2005 window. But in 2007 why not send 2 (or possible more) MER class rovers to Mars.

Launching probes is an expensive business, but that would be the main cost in this mission. NASA would have no need to design any hardware, thanless they really wanted to send something new, but even then you are probably changing little of the overall design. There are other improvements to be made, perhaps remove the direct to earth communications gear, as most of the MER program communications now go through one of the Mars Orbiters. This would reduce the weight of the probe and therefore the launch costs.

By the 2007 launch window the burgeoning commercial launch industry may well have managed to bring down these costs to a more manageable level. NASA could also gain sponsorship for these missions, easier when they are based on proven hardware. The complete mission could be run out of Universities around the world, which would also aid in NASA's out reach program.

You must ask yourselves why ESA are considering sending their own probe design to Mars. People suggest that they wish to gain experience in managing such missions, which is a good thing if you plan to participate more fully in man's exploration of the solar system. But why take the risk on new hardware, why doesn't NASA give them the designs to the MER rovers, take the hardware risk out of the equation.

Looking at the success of the Huygens mission to Titan, and the massive JIMO probe that NASA plans to send on a jaunt around the Jupiter system, why not strap 4 or more Huygen's class probes to the bottom of it. Let us get a look at the surface of these moons as well.

The technology of space exploration must move forward, this is true, but when you have technology that you know works, and has worked beyond all expectations, I see no good reason not to send it out again. The Mars rover team did an amazing job of hitting the middle of the expected landing site, I think they would relish the challenge of attempting something a little harder, perhaps trying to land in the caldera of Olympus Mons! That would be a hard and risky mission, but the possible results if successful would be massive, so it would be a perfect mission for sending reused hardware. Minimise the outlay to match the risk.

My desires for all of this to happen are totally selfish, because when I look at the images returned from Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and Titan I become that 12 year old again, I am absorbed and transfixed. I want to see what the surface of Europa looks like, I want to know all about Olympus Mons and how the largest volcano in the solar system came to be that way. The technology exists and the engineer in me says reuse it.

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