Tech News: Space – the final frontier?
By Professor Louis C H Fourie
JOHANNESBURG - It was about 500 years ago that Ferdinand Magellan (born Fernão de Magalhães) in 1519 sailed beyond the “edge of the world” to find a western route to the spice-rich East Indies in modern day Indonesia – something his contemporaries regarded as impossible.
After a journey of about 100 000km only 18 people of the original 260 of Magellan’s expedition, arrived back in Spain on the ship Victoria in September 1522 under the leadership of Juan Elcano.
They are the first human beings to prove that the globe could be circumnavigated. Along the way, they had encountered a new ocean, mapped new routes for European trade, and set the stage for modern globalism.
A little more than 400 years later in 1924, as technology improved, six US Army Air Service pilots for the first time successfully circumnavigated the planet by air in Douglas World Cruiser biplanes. It took them 175 days and 74 stops to cover the 44 337km. Since the arrival of commercial aviation in the late 20th century, circumnavigating the globe became easy and takes only a few days instead of years. The only challenge to circumnavigate the Earth today is about human and technological endurance, speed and unconventional methods of travelling.
But technology developed drastically and in April 1961 the first person to fly in space, Yuri Gagarin, completed an orbital spaceflight in the Vostok 1 spaceship within two hours. However, it was Gherman Titov in Vostok 2 that was the first human to circumnavigate the Earth in spaceflight. Eventually, on July, 20,1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first human beings to land on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Nasa launched a series of space probes called Mariner, which studied Venus, Mars and Mercury. Then followed the era of the space stations – the Soviet Salyut 1 (1971), Nasa’s Skylab (1973) and the International Space Station (1998). During the same time two Nasa’s project Viking probes landed on Mars.
Since the Apollo lunar program was terminated in 1972, much of human space exploration focused on low-Earth orbit, with many countries participating and conducting research on the International Space Station.
However, in the past few decades numerous probes have been launched on missions throughout our solar system and more recently also further into our galaxy.
These probes have made a range of significant discoveries, amongst others that a moon of Jupiter, called Europa, and a moon of Saturn, called Enceladus, have oceans under their surface ice that may contain life according to scientists.
At the same time, technological instruments in space, such as the Kepler Space Telescope, and instruments on the ground have discovered thousands of exoplanets (planets orbiting other stars). This era of exoplanet discovery began in 1995, and advanced technology now allows instruments in space that can quite accurately characterize the atmospheres of some of these exoplanets.
The first spacecraft to enter the interstellar medium (ISM) or region of space outside the bubble-shaped boundary produced by wind streaming outward from the sun, was Voyager 1 in 2012.
At the end of 2018 Voyager 1 was joined by Voyager 2 in the realm of the stars when it became only the second human-made object to journey out of the sun’s influence at more than 17.7 billion kilometres from the sun.
It was almost 500 years after the significant mission of Ferdinand Magellan beyond the “edge of the world” that a spacecraft ventured past the edge of our solar system.
Again, we as a human race are in unchartered waters and not sure what we will find. Only now we are not travelling the oceans of the earth, but the vast and endless distances of deep space to discover the universe.
Spacecraft with light sails propelled by light
The very ambitious Breakthrough Starshot project that is the brainchild of Stephen Hawking, Yuri Milner and Mark Zuckerberg, aims to slingshot a spaceship at one fifth of the speed of light, beyond our solar system to the neighbouring Alpha Centauri star system. Even at one fifth the speed of light it is a journey that will take about 20 years – and that is only one way.
Just like Magellan, the sailcraft will use sails to get to its destination, but in this case a light sail and a ground-based directed-energy laser array to accelerate them to the target speed. One of the many challenges that will have to be overcome will be to transmit data back to Earth. In a recent study the director of Starshot systems, Dr Kevin Parkin, described the possibility to use a tight-beam laser transmitter embedded in the sail of the craft to transmit data back to a 30-meter telescope on Earth in the near-infrared and near-ultraviolet spectrum (1.02 to 1.25 micrometres).
Using laser beams have many advantages over radio wave or microwave transmissions. Since lasers have wavelengths that are a thousand times shorter than microwaves, it will have a much tighter beam from Alpha Centauri to Earth.
However, the array will have to point very accurately at Earth for the data to be received. To ensure proper communication through numerous downlinks, Starshot plans to launch a thousand 4-gram light sail “nanocraft” at R100 million each. According to Dr Parkin a distributed algorithm will be used to allow each spacecraft to operate in tandem and with a degree of autonomy while mapping a different part of the Alpha Centauri system.
Living spaceships and bio-inspired design
Another approach to the exploration of deep space is living spaceships and bio-inspired design. Many space agencies and leading research universities are turning to adaptive, biomimetic (the emulation of the models, systems, and elements of nature to solve complex problems) and evolution-inspired designs for space exploration.
According to scientists, bio-inspired design will allow us to design more efficient spacecraft with improved adaptability to unforeseen problems when exploring deep space. Since resources and energy are limited in space, bio-inspired design is becoming increasingly important. It was bio-inspired design that led to the invention of Velcro in the 1940s after researching plant seeds.
Based on the function of human body parts, Raul Polit-Casillas, a Spanish architect and engineer from Nasa’s prestigious Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is researching the manufacturing of multifunctional spacecraft parts. Just like the human skin is a sensing, thermal management and protective instrument, the parts of spacecraft should have more than one function. His work has already found its way into several Nasa projects.
At the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands, Angelo Vermeulen and his colleagues are researching a spacecraft that will feed of an asteroid’s resources and will evolve like an organism to take it beyond our solar system since spaceships on their way to outer space are not able to carry all the fuel they need.
We are in the infancy of interstellar travel and exploration with many obstacles still to overcome. Despite possible innovative data communication at the speed of light, even the data will take 4.364 years to reach us from a spacecraft in the vicinity of Alpha Centauri – and that is only one of the nearest stars.
The spacecraft will also have to function autonomously since it will be extremely difficult to send commands to the spacecraft in real time. Two-way light signals will take at least 8.72 years to Alpha Centauri travelling at 299 792 458 m/s.
In order to build a sailcraft as envisioned by Starshot, may take many decades depending on technological development. Light propulsion requires enormous power of about a gigawatt of Power (the output of one powerplant). Microwave phased arrays have been in use for about 50 years, but optical phased arrays do not yet exist and will be no easy feat to integrate into a ceramic sail as envisioned by Starshot.
But any exploration mission as in the case of Magellan in 1519 present their share of challenges and dangers. Interstellar and deep space exploration will indeed have some daunting challenges, but technology has a way to develop and overcome many challenges over time, especially in the Fourth Industrial Revolution with its confluence of innovative technologies. What may sound like science fiction to us, may be part of the future world of our children.
But is space the final frontier for us as human beings to conquer? What is at the edge of the universe if we can ever reach it? Nobody knows.
Professor Louis C H Fourie is a futurist and technology strategist