Monday, October 1, 2007

The Space Age: The Next Giant Leap

Today marks the golden anniversary of the Space Age. And, like all anniversaries it will be a time to commemorate past achievements, a time to honour the great pioneers of the past, and mourn the brave men and women who lost their lives during our initial forays into a vast new ocean. It will also be a time to map out future paths and dream of voyages to distant worlds and new exotic ports of call. This golden anniversary also coincides with the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the birth of the Russian space visionary Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and the one hundred and twenty–fifth anniversary of the birth of American space pioneer Robert H. Goddard.

In the early morning hours of October 4th, 1957 the world awoke to the birth cry of a new historic age. The Soviet Union had launched the world’s first artificial satellite Sputnik one. Its chirping electronic signal heralded in the beginning of a whole new historical epoch: The Age of Space. That cry was the harbinger of a new age of adventure, exploration and discovery. In this new age humanity has garnered much insight regarding its place in the Universe. We have much to celebrate.

In this last half century we have travelled far and wide. A dozen men have left their footprints on the surface of the Moon. Our robotic explorers have explored the five planets known to the ancients and while at the same time rediscovering and finding scores of others. We have also found hundreds of distant worlds orbiting distant suns. We have sifted the sands of Mars in search of life. We have sieved the very sands of time and brought back a few grains of dust from very the dawn of the creation of our own solar system to learn about our origins, heard the very cry of cosmic birth and seen our world from afar dancing like a pale blue dust mote in a sunbeam. Four of our spacecraft have even left our solar system and are bound for the stars.

The next half century promises even greater and more exciting voyages of discovery.

So on this day October 4th, 2007 we have every reason to make merry, much to remember, many to honour, and now must take time to pause and reflect on what lies ahead over the next fifty years. The past is prologue and we must know where we were in order to know where we are and only then can we hope to gain some insight into where our voyages of discovery may lead us.

The Cosmos beckons and we must answer its call and truly become a spacefaring civilization.

In space lies humankind’s legacy and destiny. We must claim our birthright. Only by embracing our inheritance can we hope to survive and grow.

Past lessons yet to be truly learned

We must explore and colonize space. Our long term survival as a species depends on this. Humankind faces an Extraterrestrial Imperative which is just as much a survival imperative – Colonize space or die. And, with our passing the light of human reason and thought will have been extinguished from the Cosmos forever. We can argue about cost and engineering until we are all blue in the face. We may be as cynical about the goals and motivations behind our current plans to return to the Moon and forge ahead to Mars all we wish. But, the fact remains that space exploration- both robotic and manned is vital to our long term survival as a species.

This is not a religious conviction but, a fact of nature revealed by the science of our age. Our entire solar system bears testament to its violent legacy. All the planets and moons bare the scars of a tumultuous history. None of them have gone through their lengthy existence unscathed by the violent impact of asteroids and comets.

Uranus was toppled off its axis by a giant planetoid the size of our own world and its moon Miranda was torn apart and reassembled in the process. Mars is a world that was murdered in its early infancy before it had any chance of completely fulfilling its promise of becoming an abode of life. Most of its crust and atmosphere were flayed and ejected into space by impacts with giant asteroids and comets.

Towards the late nineteenth and throughout the twentieth centuries some one hundred and fifty impact craters have been discovered on our own planetary abode. In the twentieth century two impacts occurred in Eastern Russia. On June 30th, 1908, Moscow escaped destruction by three hours and four thousand kilometres—when an object some 70 meters in diameter impacted the Siberian region of Tunguska with the explosive yield of 1000 Hiroshima bombs. On February 12th, 1947, another Russian city had a still narrower escape, when the second great meteorite of the last century detonated less than four hundred kilometres from Vladivostok in a rain of rock and iron. On August 10th, 1972 the Earth survived a near direct hit and escaped with a mere flesh wound when a meteorite zoomed over the state of Wyoming and grazed the upper atmosphere and bounced back into space before thousands of eyewitnesses. Its blazing trail was even captured on film.

In the early 1980s evidence slowly accumulated that sixty-five million years ago the reign of the dinosaurs ended with a huge bang and ensuing fire storm. Before that violent mass extinctions occurred like clockwork throughout the evolutionary history of life on Earth.

The Moon, a world of on our very doorstep, provides a clear warning for all to see that our world is living on borrowed time. In the chronicle of Gervase an eyewitness account was given of a massive impact on the eastern limb of the Moon that occurred on June 25th, 1178. Evidence is also coming to light that June, despite our fondness for this month because of weddings and the promise of summer holidays to come, holds potential dangers for humanity. The Taurid beta meteor shower is one we must study in detail. It is the progenitor of both the Tunguska fireball and the object that created the blast recorded by Gervase, and lurking in its wake are more potential disasters to come.

In the late 20th century archaeological evidence has come to light that many late Bronze Age civilizations may have met their demise in a rain of fire from the sky. Back in July, 1994 during the week of the 25th anniversary marking man's first steps on the Moon the heavens provided a massive fireworks display of their own to mark the occasion. The planet Jupiter sustained twenty individual impacts from the fragments left over from the disintegration of the comet Shoemaker–Levy 9. Any one of these impacts would have been sufficient in themselves to wipe life off the face of our globe in a real Extinction Level Event (E.L.E).

Yet despite all this accumulated evidence we continue to go about our humdrum worldly concerns, abandoning any attention to the heavens and the dangers that lurk in the local celestial neighbourhood. We face the celestial equivalent of a 9/11. Humanity can no longer ignore the objective reality that its long term existence is imperilled. We either become a spacefaring civilization or face the fate of the dinosaurs.

Neither are the existential threats we face as a species limited to the perils from outer space. We also face the hazards of Super-volcanism, catastrophic climate change (both natural and anthropogenic), resource depletion and the products of our own technological folly: total nuclear warfare, biological terrorism and nanotechnology gone amok.

Plotting Our Future Course

Our ventures into space are not just the mere dare devil stunts of military test pilots nor are they a flags and footprints exercise in nationalistic chauvinism. And, neither are they the exclusive province of arcane scientific interest “just to bring back some rocks.”

Exploration has always been vital to the survival of human species and an integral component of our evolutional heritage and survival imperative. The lure and call of distant lands and new horizons is rooted in our very genes.

In 1978, paleontogist Mary Leaky and her team discovered the earliest hominid footprints (dated to be Three and a half Million years old) preserved in volcanic ash at Laetoli, forty-five kilometres south of Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. They belong to one of our proto human ancestors - Australopithecus afarensis. From Olduvai Gorge to the Sea of Tranquility, we humans have travelled very far. The picture below shows one of the fossil footprints preserved at Laetoli, next to the boot print left by an Apollo astronaut on the Moon.

It is very symbolic of the giant leap forward we have taken as a species. The time has now come to venture further out on this vast new ocean of space. We must return to the Moon, this time to stay, and become a multi-planetary species. We must learn to utilize the vast untapped energy and mineral resources of the Moon and the Near Earth Asteroids and take the next giant leap forward to transform our species, Homo Sapiens, into Homo Stellaris. October 4th, 1957 marks our first baby step towards that goal.

1 comment:

qraal said...

Hi Alex

Impactor protection won't really get us out into the void, unless someone realizes we need to be spread across a hundred worlds before the species (and biosphere) has a decent chance of survival.

Or we start a Crusade to convert the Universe into God - aka Frank Tipler's Omega Point scenario. Have you read his recent papers? He has them all online at his web-page. Interesting stuff from a SETI perspective as he now thinks ETIs exist out near our Hubble horizon, destined to bring about the Omega Point just like us.