Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Some Thoughts on Modern Spaceflight...

The last year, in particular the last few months, has produced some exciting developments in space flight. Is it all leading to a manned mission to Mars? I think so, but no time soon!

The media coverage of Tim Peake, Britain's first 'official' astronaut (the second British national to fly in space after Helen Sharman) has sparked an interest in space, or at least greater awareness, and I must confess it has made me keep more up to date with space advancements. For example, I now know that anyone can listen in to ISS radio communications with amateur radio equipment (145.800 MHz!), and that thunderbirds has come true 50 years later. No, really - we now have a space station, and this:

SpaceX have successfully built a reusable rocket, the Falcon 9. In fact, a Falcon 9 was used to deliver 11 satellites into orbit last week - and then return to the launch site. A large chunk of the cost of spaceflight is in designing and building rockets, so making them reusable in this way could reduce the cost of the next flight by a factor of up to 100! 

SpaceX are also developing a manned version of the Dragon spacecraft, which has been previously used to take supplies to the ISS. A crewed Dragon will provide an alternative to the Soyuz for getting people into space, and should be ready by 2018. It will also be capable, theoretically, of taking people to Mars. NASA have a similar project underway, Orion.

The problems with a Mars mission are not entirely technological. The rockets and spacecraft required to get people there either already exist or are in development. The main barrier is that, unless fuel is taken with them (not a viable option), the rocket will need refueling using materials found on Mars in order to return. Either that, or the mission is one way. There is a pool of volunteers for a one way mission, although it clearly isn't ideal! The other major issues are biological. What is the effect of spending years in space? Astronauts are now spending up to one year on the ISS to investigate how best to prevent muscle and bone loss, and the psychological impact of being confined for that long. Perhaps a settlement on the moon would be a first stepping stone?

So do I think that humans will visit Mars? Yes, absolutely. But not for a few years yet!

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