Friday April 24th was China’s “Space Day,” celebrated on the 50 year anniversary of their first satellite launch. This past Friday, China marked the occasion with the announcement of the name for their first Mars Lander: Tianwen.
According to China’s National Space Administration (CNSA), Tianwen translates to “Quest for Heavenly Truth.”
Happen to have clear skies tomorrow morning and live in the western part of North America? Then you may have a chance to spy a unique event, as the waning crescent Moon occults (passes in front of) the planet Mars.
This week’s special guest is Dr. Jason Schneiderman, a neuroscientist focused on the effects of spaceflight including microgravity, isolation, confinement, and stress on the brain and behavior. He’s currently working on HERA Mission with simulated asteroid retrieval. https://www.nasa.gov/analogs/hera
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Do you get the feeling that Elon Musk likes making bold announcements?
Every space enthusiast’s favorite billionaire-turned-space-entrepreneur has just announced that he hopes his company, SpaceX, will send humans to Mars in 2024. If this sounds outrageous, you’re not keeping up with developments in commercial space. If this sounds a little bit ambitious, you’re probably right. But ambition is what Musk is all about.
“I think, if things go according to plan, we should be able to launch people probably in 2024, with arrival in 2025,” Musk said.
Musk, of course, is the Paypal co-founder who went on to start the Tesla electric car company, and SpaceX, the private space company. SpaceX has achieved a lot in its short time, including developing the Falcon re-usable rocket and the Dragon delivery and re-supply craft. With an even more powerful rocket in development, the Falcon Heavy, it’s fair to say that Musk has a track record of delivering on ambitious projects.
Musk’s announcement, at the Code Conference 2016 in Los Angeles, is definitely exciting news. It comes on the heels of an announcement earlier this spring stating that SpaceX will send a Dragon capsule to Mars in 2018, albeit one with no personnel on board. Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with the goal of advancing the technologies required to establish a human colony on Mars, so everything seems to be going according to plan.
But a colony needs supplies, and with that in mind Musk also announced the intention of sending a craft to Mars every two years, in order to establish a supply line.
“The basic game plan is we’re going to send a mission to Mars with every Mars opportunity from 2018 onwards,” Musk said Wednesday night. “They occur approximately every 26 months. We’re establishing cargo flights to Mars that people can count on for cargo.”
“That’s what’s necessary to create a self-sustaining, or a growing, city on Mars,” he added.
Of course, there’s lots of work to be done yet. Currently, there is no rocket powerful enough for a mission like this. The most powerful rocket ever built was the Saturn V, used to get the Apollo mission to the Moon. That was 50 years ago.
NASA’s Space Launch System will have the power for a Mars mission, but that’s a ways away, and they probably won’t be giving SpaceX one. SpaceX has developed the Falcon rocket, and are working on the Falcon Heavy, but it won’t be enough to establish and maintain a presence on Mars. Still, this obstacle is anything but insurmountable, even though there has been no announcement on the building of this required rocket.
This whole endeavour will be enormously expensive, of course. But with a growing customer base for SpaceX, including the US military, NASA, and commercial communications customers, it seems like the money will be there.
As for the timeline, Musk acknowledges that it is a fairly aggressive one. “When I cite a schedule, it’s actually a schedule I think is true,” Musk said. “It’s not some fake schedule I don’t think is true. I may be delusional. That is entirely possible, and maybe it’s happened from time to time, but it’s never some knowingly fake deadline ever.”
The announcement itself sounds so simple. But Musk knows, as does everyone else involved in planning these kinds of missions, that there is an enormous amount of complex detail behind it all. The food required, the energy needed, and all of the other things that a sustained human presence on Mars will require in order to succeed, are all waiting to be addressed. Musk plans to address some of these details in September at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Musk generates a lot of headlines when he makes these announcements. That’s as it should be. But there are other plans to reach Mars, too.
NASA is planning to get to Mars, but they’re going about it differently. They plan on using their SLS and the Orion to explore what’s called cis-lunar space, near the Moon, to test deep space operations, life support systems, solar-electric thrusters, and habitats. All of this activity could start as soon as 2021, and would support an eventual round-trip mission to Mars in the 2030s.
For a long time, it seemed that a mission to Mars was out of reach, off the table, and nobody was really talking about it. Now, we have two separate programs aiming toward an eventual mission to Mars.
Could this be the new space race? But instead of capitalism versus communism, as in the original space race, it’s government versus private?
In the end, it won’t really matter. We just want someone to get there. And we want an established presence. A colony.
A manned mission to Mars is a hot topic in space, and has been for a long time. Most of the talk around it has centred on the required technology, astronaut durability, and the overall feasibility of the mission. But now, some of the talk is focussing on the legal framework behind such a mission.
In April 2016, SpaceX announced their plans for a 2018 mission to Mars. Though astronauts will not be part of the mission, several key technologies will be demonstrated. SpaceX’s Dragon capsule will make the trip to Mars, and will conduct a powered, soft landing on the surface of the red planet. The capsule itself will be launched by another new piece of technology, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket.
It’s a fascinating development in space exploration; a private space company, in cooperation with NASA, making the trip to Mars with all of its own in-house technology. But above and beyond all of the technological challenges, there is the challenge of making the whole endeavour legal.
Though it’s not widely known or talked about, there are legal implications to launching things into space. In the US, each and every launch by a private company has to have clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
That’s because the US signed the Outer Space Treaty in 1969, a treaty that sets out the obligations and limitations to activities in space. The FAA has routinely given their ascent to commercial launches, but things may be starting to get a little tricky in space.
The most recent Humans To Mars Summit, a conference focussed on Mars missions and explorations, just wrapped up on May 19th. At that conference, George Nield, associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the FAA, addressed the issue. “That’ll be an FAA licensed launch as well,” said Nield of the SpaceX mission to Mars. “We’re already working with SpaceX on that mission,” he added. “There are some interesting policy questions that have to do with the Outer Space Treaty,” said Nield.
The Outer Space Treaty was signed in 1967, and has some sway over space exploration and colonization. Though it gives wide latitude to governments that are exploring space, how it will affect commercial activity like resource exploitation, and installations like settlements in other planets, is not so clear.
According to Nield, the FAA is interested in Article VI of the treaty and how it might impact SpaceX’s planned mission to Mars. Article VI states that all signees to the treaty “shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities.”
Article VI also says, “the activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty.”
What this language means is that the US government itself will bear responsibility for the SpaceX Mars mission. Obviously, this kind of treaty obligation is important. There isn’t exactly a huge list of private companies exploring space, but that will change as the years pass. It seems likely that the bulk of commercial space exploration and resource utilization will be centred in the US, so how the US deals with their treaty obligations will be of immense interest now and in the future.
The treaty itself is mostly focused on avoiding military activity in space. It prohibits things like weapons of mass destruction in space, and weapons testing or military bases on the Moon or other celestial bodies. The treaty also states that the Moon and other planets and bodies cannot be claimed by any nation, and that these and other bodies “are the common heritage of mankind.” Good to know.
Taken as a whole, it’s easy to see why the Treaty is important. Space can’t become a free-for-all like Earth has been in the past. There has to be some kind of framework. “A government needs to oversee these non-governmental activities,” according to Nield.
There’s another aspect to all of this. Governments routinely sign treaties, and then try to figure out ways around them, while hoping their rivals won’t do the same. It’s a sneaky, tactical business, because governments can’t grossly ignore treaties, else the other co-signatories abandon said treaty completely. A case in point is last year’s law, signed by the US Congress, which makes it legal for companies to mine asteroids. This law could be interpreted as violating the Treaty.
Governments can claim, for instance, that their activities are scientific rather than military. Geo-political influence depends greatly on projecting power. If one nation can project power into space, while claiming their activities are scientific rather than military, they will gain an edge over their rivals. Countries also seek to bend the rules of a treaty to satisfy their own interests, while preventing other countries from doing the same. Just look at history.
We’re not in that type of territory yet. So far, no nation has had an opportunity to really violate the treaty, though the asteroid mining law passed by the US Congress comes close.
The SpaceX mission to Mars is a very important one, in terms of how the Outer Space Treaty will be tested and adhered to. More and more countries, and private companies, are becoming space-farers. The legality of increasingly complex missions in space, and the eventual human presence on the Moon and Mars, is a fascinating one not usually addressed by the space science community.
We in the space science community are primarily interested in technological advances, and in the frontiers of human knowledge. It might be time for us to start paying attention to the legal side of things. Space exploration could turn out to have an element of courtroom drama to it.