I don’t know why I have become obsessively curious about space travel. You ought to be happy that the nuclear arms race “ended” a long time ago and attention has been diverted to Mars race. This is what has been occupying my mind lately – Mars exploration. Does NASA know something that you and I don’t know? Come on, I am not talking about aliens and UFOs here. I think aliens probably have better things to occupy their time now. It’s possible they have their version of mobile devices like playbook to play with. On a more serious note, could there be something more precious than oil and diamonds hidden somewhere in Mars? Why are these countries spending huge sums of money to get probes and rovers to the red planet? As far as I know, it’s only Hollywood that has succeeded in sending a man to Mars – John Carter. Does Mars hold the promise of providing us with better semiconductors than silicon and germanium? The red planet may have some treasure awaiting our discovery. However, the problem is the time it will take to find it; assuming there is any treasure at all. Imagine how the invention of the transistor revolutionized the electronic consumer industry. Thanks to the scientists at Bell Labs. Integrated circuits from semiconductors are the reason you own gadgets that are portable. What will happen if we find something far better for making our microchips? I hope the $2.5 billion Curiosity would be able to answer that sooner or later.
Einstein would have been more than happy to witness the landing of Curiosity on Mars. I remember very well, it was him that imagined traveling on a ray of light to outer space. Fortunately, man has stopped imagining and is now exploring space. One thing I like about NASA is that she never runs out of wonderful names for her rovers. I know so many parents who got their babies’ names by querying Google. But NASA doesn’t seem to have a problem with names. Shortly before the ‘birth’ of Curiosity, they had two rovers – Spirit and Opportunity, which they sent to Mars shortly before I joined the space geeks. Aren’t those names lovely? Spirit personified determination of the human spirit while Opportunity to me, bore witness to the fact that opportunities exist everywhere, including Mars. When I heard NASA had named her ‘new-born’ rover Curiosity, I was excited as well as curios to know why.
The other day, I was reading an article on how microorganisms are being kitted with genes that would enable them to live on Mars. Do you think that’s crazy? A group of US students at Universities of Brown and Stanford hope to develop a series of “Biobricks” that would enable a bacterium to survive on the red planet. Biobricks are sequences of DNA that perform a particular function and can be added to a cell. “If we wanted to establish a base on Mars or on the moon, sending up all the machinery needed to survive in space would take a huge chunk of change,” says Ben Geilich, a student at Brown and head of the “Hell Cell” project.
If you are one of those who think that space exploration is a waste of time and resources, many people thought like you during the Apollo lunar landing. Roger D Launius, senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington believes that “we have learned a great deal by flying in space for the last 50 plus years – and I’m not just speaking about Apollo [the moon landing in 1969]. This includes robotic probes, satellites and the Hubble space telescope which have changed our perspective of the universe.” He boasts that “there have been numerous spin off technologies that came from the space efforts. Micro-electronics, miniaturisation of all kinds of technologies, computing power – just talking to you over the internet is using satellite technology.” These things were in part, albeit not entirely, the result of man’s investment in space technologies. There are medical technologies – for example kidney dialysis machines and MRI scanning equipment – that were advanced, in part, by investment in space activities undertaken to understand what was happening to our astronauts in space. Ask yourself the question, how would our lives be different if we did not fly in space? We can start with the elimination of global instantaneous telecommunications – satellites that relay data and voice transmissions. Without this there would be no internet. Have you ever imagined life in twenty first century without the internet?
In spite of all these developments, I still don’t know what happened to Beagle 2. Professor Colin Pillinger, principal investigator for the British Mars Lander, might be in a better position to know what happened to Beagle 2 on the ill- fated journey to Mars. The Mars Express spacecraft, carrying the Beagle 2 Lander, was launched on 2 June 2003, arriving in the vicinity of Mars in December. The separation of Beagle 2 from Mars Express occurred on 19 December. The satellite continued its mission with its successful insertion into a Mars orbit on 25 December, the day on which Beagle 2 was due to land. The first radio contact with Beagle 2 was expected shortly after the scheduled landing time but no signal was received. Many radio contacts were attempted over the following days and weeks, but without result. By early February it became clear that there was no prospect of communicating with Beagle 2 and a joint ESA/UK inquiry was set up to investigate the circumstances and possible reasons that prevented completion of the Beagle 2 mission.
According to the Hindustan Times, the Indian government is expected to approve a proposal for the country to send its first ever probe to Mars. Assuming all government approvals are obtained for the launch, India would be set to begin its mission in November of 2013, with an expected arrival time in September of 2014. The probe would be launched by India’s own Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre. But even an orbiting probe presents a difficult challenge. Missions to Mars have large failure rate – out of 38 attempts, only 19 have succeeded. If India is successful, however, it would be the third country to conduct a successful Mars mission. The Soviet Union had the first success, followed by the United States. After the Soviet Union fell, all of Russia’s planned missions to Mars failed. And although the Chinese space program has generally been a success, its first Martian orbiter failed as a result of the failure of the Russian Phobos-Grunt mission.
Here are my final thoughts. Curiosity may have killed the cat but it has kept man alive for generations–helping us advance the pace of science and technology. What can we achieve without it? It may not be far into the future again before we send a man to Mars. It was curiosity that led Newton to question why apples fall. In Albert Einstein words “Curiosity is more important than knowledge”. Being passionately curious about the mysteries of the universe, he became the most influential physicist of the 20th century for his work in theoretical physics. Given the renowned achievements of such a man that imagined traveling on a ray of light to outer space, NASA may not have not erred in naming her $2.5 billion rover Curiosity.
- “Bacteria being created to live on Mars”. Focus: Science and Technology, Issue 247, p.24, October. 2012.
- “Lessons learnt from Beagle 2 and Plans to Implement Recommendations from the Commission of Inquiry”. ESA News, Internet: http://www.esa.int/esaCP/SEMLKAHHZTD_index_0.html, [Oct. 24, 2012].
- “Q&A: Was the moon landing worth it?” Aljazeera, Internet : http://www.aljazeera.com/focus/2009/07/2009720134216543719.html, [Oct. 24, 2012]