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The exploration of space has become one of the most promising and challenging fields of science. The reasons are myriad for why mankind should further explore the Universe. The first is that understanding more about the universe helps us to understand more about ourselves. It is helping us to find answers to questions such as, “Is Earth the only world able to support life?” to “How was the Earth formed?” Much of the information we know have to answer these question comes from the active exploration of space. The other big reason is to further technology. Mankind has seen no bigger technological leap than when it focused its efforts on getting to space. Thanks to the Space Race major developments occurred in communications, computing, material sciences, and chemistry.
Exploration of space has followed three major tracks. The first is astronomy. Using increasingly sophisticated tools scientists have been able to look further and further into the universe. Tools such as radio telescopes and spectrometers are now helping us to find objects that were only theories such as black holes, antimatter, dark matter, and even earthlike planets. The second area of exploration has been with artificial satellites and probes. This has been used to great effect to explore the solar system. However this method has been limited by the current technology in space propulsion. The final area of space exploration is human space exploration. This is the one with the least progress so far. As of this article the furthest mankind has been from Earth is the moon and the last mission to the moon was around 40 years ago.
The new challenge for human space exploration is the race to Mars. While not driven by strong political dynamics countries are still clandestinely working on space craft that can take Astronauts safe to Mars and back. The biggest challenges so far have been radiation over the conventional 3 month trip to Mars and the side effects of microgravity over such a long period. It is known that bones lose mass and muscles atrophy when in this environment for long periods of time. One possible solution is a more powerful propulsion system. The rocket now being tested for this purpose is the VASMR rocket. It is an ion rocket that is powered by a nuclear reaction. This rocket in its planned configuration is expected to cut the trip to Mars from 3 months one way to 39 days.
We’ve recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about the space shuttle. Listen here, Episode 127: The US Space Shuttle.