Science

The next giant leap

A computer-generated artists impression released by the European Space Agency (ESA) depicts an approximation of 12 000 objects in orbit around the Earth. Photo:AFP  

While looking up at the sky, counting the stars, singing odes to the moon and praying to the sun, man has been nurturing a dream – to explore beyond what the eyes can behold.

The Astronomer by Johannes Vermeer. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Astronomer by Johannes Vermeer. Photo: Wikimedia Commons  

With nothing but the naked eye he started making observations and predictions. He thought the Earth was at the centre of the Universe and the Moon and the Sun revolved around the Earth. Years later, the Babylonians discovered the lunar eclipse and the Greeks estimated the size and distance of the Moon and the Sun. Gradually, the seeds of scientific astronomy were sowed, and humans graduated to invent instruments like the astronomical clock.

Man pursued his dream relentlessly. Observations were made from different parts of the world. A Persian astronomer named Azophi described the Andromeda Galaxy as early as 964. Egyptian and Chinese astronomers recorded the observations of supernova in 1006.

The Renaissance (from the 14th century through the 17th century) saw the emergence of great minds. It was a period of science revolution. Nicolaus Copernicus proposed the Sun was at the centre of the Universe, Galileo Galilei started using telescopes to make his observations, Kepler studied the motion of the planets with the Sun at the center and Newton came up with the law of gravitation to explain the motion of the planets.

The 19th century ushered in a period of modern astronomy. Scientists came up with more observations such as black holes, neutron stars and developed more theories. Significant advances in astronomy came about with the introduction of new technology, including the spectroscope and photography.

Physical cosmology made huge advances during the 20th century. Models of the Big Bang were proposed and garnered huge support. With the advent of space telescopes, man was able to accomplish hitherto impossible tasks. Measuring the electromagnetic spectrum became a reality. He discovered more celestial objects. Theoretical astronomy and observational astronomy developed side-by-side. He made leaps and bounds in the field by observing, analysing the celestial world.

With every step he took in space exploration, his desire to push fresh frontiers only got deeper. New dreams led to him setting new goals. Unsatisfied with exploring the space from a distance using telescope, he aspired to get an actual feel of space. With the development of rockets during the early 20th century, this too became a reality.

Russia sent the satellite Sputnik 1 into the space on 4 October 1957 to broadcast radio pulses, thus pioneering the nation-based space programmes. The United States for its part sent Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969, landing humans on the Moon.

An Apollo 11 astronaut's footprint in the lunar soil, photographed by a 70 mm lunar surface camera during the Apollo 11 lunar surface extravehicular activity. Photo by NASA/Newsmakers

An Apollo 11 astronaut's footprint in the lunar soil, photographed by a 70 mm lunar surface camera during the Apollo 11 lunar surface extravehicular activity. Photo by NASA/Newsmakers  

Many countries such as China, Japan and India and member-nations of the European Union joined the space race in the 21st century. The voice for shifting the focus from just Space Shuttle programmes to space stations stronger. The reasons for this too evolved over the years. From going to space just for scientific research and national prestige, the goal veered towards ensuring the future survival of humanity. Private players got into the picture, promoting space tourism and space exploration programmes. They include SpaceX, Virgin galactic and Google’s Lunar Xprize.

An artist's rendition of India's Mars Mission - Mangalyaan. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

An artist's rendition of India's Mars Mission - Mangalyaan. Photo: Wikimedia Commons  

Messing with the space

Making aggressive strides in technology, we have set foot on the Moon, launched probes to study the nearest and farthest habitable zones, built satellites and launched many missions to study the asteroids and moons of other planets. We have even docked space stations.

Not every satellite or probe mission that were sent out has returned. Many defunct ones are still in the orbit of the Earth travelling at a speed of 17,500 mph contributing to the millions of debris pieces in the space.

Called space junk, they include abandoned launch vehicle stages, mission-related debris and fragmentation debris. Natural debris include meteoroid.

More than 500,000 pieces of debris are orbiting the Earth. But why should we be concerned? Because they increases the potential danger to all space vehicles, space stations, space shuttles and other spacecraft with humans aboard. The numbers do not include the million of tiny pieces of debris that cannot be tracked. Even a screw, a spanner or a paint fleck can damage a spacecraft when travelling at high velocity.

The damages can be as small as a dent on a shuttle window to a destruction of an entire satellite. In 1996, a French satellite was hit and damaged by debris from a French rocket that exploded a decade earlier.

Should people on earth be worried? Can debris fall on earth?

Australian farmer James Stirton stands next to a ball of twisted metal, purported to be fallen space junk, on his farm in southwestern Queensland in this undated handout photograph received March 28, 2008. Photo: REUTERS

Australian farmer James Stirton stands next to a ball of twisted metal, purported to be fallen space junk, on his farm in southwestern Queensland in this undated handout photograph received March 28, 2008. Photo: REUTERS  

Most debris burn up in the atmosphere due to the compression of atmospheric gases, but larger objects can reach the ground intact. According to NASA website, an average of one catalogued piece of debris has fallen back to Earth each day for the past 50 years. But there have not been significant damages. In 1969 five sailors on a Japanese ship were injured by space debris.

What is the solution?

There are systems in place to not only track the debris but also avert a disaster. Sometimes these encounters are known well in advance and there is time to move the station slightly.

Technologies to remove space junk are also being developed. The European Space Agency has designed a mission to remove large space debris from orbit. Called e.Deorbit, it can remove debris as big as 4,000 kilograms from Low Earth Orbit.

Alient hunt

Radio telescope antennas of the ALMA ( Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) project, in the Chajnantor plateau, Atacama desert, some 1500 km north of Santiago, on October 1, 2011. The ALMA, an international partnership project of Europe, North America and East Asia with the cooperation of Chile, is presently the largest astronomical project in the world. When finished, it will consistof 66 high precision antennas that will work as a single telescope, located at 5000 of altitude in the extremely arid Atacama desert. Photo: AFP

Radio telescope antennas of the ALMA ( Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) project, in the Chajnantor plateau, Atacama desert, some 1500 km north of Santiago, on October 1, 2011. The ALMA, an international partnership project of Europe, North America and East Asia with the cooperation of Chile, is presently the largest astronomical project in the world. When finished, it will consistof 66 high precision antennas that will work as a single telescope, located at 5000 of altitude in the extremely arid Atacama desert. Photo: AFP  

Since the mid-20th century, man’s hunt for extraterrestrial life has intensified. Scientists have been open to encounter a bacteria or a beast or even a creature more advanced thatn humans. Though we have not come across any signs that could support life (except for traces of water in Mars), scientists like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking argue that it is impossible for life not to exist anywhere else in the universe other than Earth. Experts believe that life could be possible in the habitable zones and probably their chemical make-up is different.

Forget alien life, how about humans settling in a different planet?

“Mars has been flown by, orbited, smacked into, radar examined, and rocketed onto, as well as bounced upon, rolled over, shoveled, drilled into, baked and even blasted. Still to come: Mars being stepped on.”

-----Buzz Aldrin, said in his book Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration in 2013.

This is a futuristic concept but not unconquerable, atleast according to Elon Musk, founder, SpaceX. The concept of human becoming a multi-planetary species has been supported by scientists like Stephen Hawking, who feel that within a century, Earth will become incapable to meet the demands of the growing population. It is time, we started colonising other planets to ensure the future survival of humanity, they say.

Putting the theory into action, SpaceX intends to develop the technology to send 100 to 200 people to Mars as early as 2024. Musk unveiled the concept last month.

Points to ponder!

Is the world not enough for the humans? Do you think humans should start exploring other planets to make a settlement? Or is it against Nature? Is it ethically right to conquer another planet? Should this be considered an advancement or decline? Are we inviting trouble? Think about it, discuss in class and you can even pen your thoughts to school@thehindu.co.in with the subject: SPACE DREAM


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Printable version | Sep 22, 2021 3:51:38 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/in-school/sh-science/The-next-giant-leap/article16075647.ece

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