No one would have believed that in the first decade of the 21st century we would be close to completing a fully functional space station let alone seriously talking about the first manned missions into deep space.
NASA may have launched their last manned space shuttle, but even as Atlantis performs its last mission in orbit, scientists at the world’s most iconic space agency are already setting their sites further out into the solar system – to Mars.
…Mars has perhaps been the subject of the most speculation…
Set to arrive at Mars in August 2012, the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity is designed with a radioisotope power system which allows it to operate even during the night. Previous rovers have had to rely on solar energy to power there systems but Curiosity will draw power and heat from the decay of plutonium allowing the rover to explore further and for longer than any previous mission.
…to demonstrate NASA’s ability to land and operate such a large craft…
Curiosity is far larger than earlier models, being 10 feet long, 9 feet wide and weighing 900kg, (the previous rover Opportunity weighed just 180kg) and part of its mission is to demonstrate NASA’s ability to land and operate such a large craft as a basis for future missions.
In 2013 NASA will launch the probe MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) which will scrutinise and study Mars’s thin atmosphere and ability to support life; a key issue in future exploration of not only Mars but the rest of the solar system.
…with several eminent British scientists working on the project…
The European Space Agency also has a mission planned, as part of the ExoMars project, with several eminent British scientists working on the project. The joint mission with NASA will launch an orbiter to study Mars’s atmosphere in 2016 which will precede landing a rover on the surface in 2018.
Including MAVEN and the ExoMars projects there are currently six Mars bound missions being planned by various space agencies and last year US President, Barack Obama, signed the NASA Authorization Act 2010 which requires NASA to direct its efforts and research into deep space exploration. The long term goal of this shift of focus, President Obama hopes, will see the first manned mission to Mars by the early 2030s.
So with heaps of luck and the devotion of some of the finest minds in the world humanity may step on Mars within our lifetime, that astronaut may be alive today, you may have met them, it may actually be you. What would your first words on another planet be?
Images courtesy of ExoMars and Nasa