Mars mis­sion suc­ceeds as Trump threat­ens to bring Nasa down to Earth

The Irish Times - Business - - BUSINESS INNOVATION - Dick Ahlstrom

The lat­est au­to­mated lan­der to reach the sur­face of Mars set up camp last week on the sur­face of the planet and is al­ready at work. In­Sight has sent back pic­tures and sta­tus re­ports on its var­i­ous ex­per­i­ments and in the com­ing weeks will take the planet’s “vi­tal signs” as re­vealed by its in­te­rior.

We have very lit­tle in­for­ma­tion about what goes on un­der the rocky soil of Mars and In­Sight will rec­tify that, mea­sur­ing its in­te­rior tem­per­a­ture, an­swer­ing ques­tions about whether the planet has a liq­uid or solid core and mea­sur­ing the thick­ness of the planet’s crust. In­Sight car­ries sen­si­tive seis­mome­ters that will re­veal whether the planet is ever rocked by “Marsquake” events and also show how fre­quently Mars is smacked by in­com­ing me­te­orites.

The mis­sion will start to get very ex­cit­ing for the sci­en­tists analysing in­com­ing data back on Earth, but the cost of get­ting In­Sight on to the Mar­tian sur­face will as usual be crit­i­cised for its ex­pense, which is cur­rently at least $825 mil­lion (€726 mil­lion). And the fund­ing for that came out of the Na­tional Aero­nau­tics and Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s (Nasa) Dis­cov­ery Pro­gramme that sup­ports the low-cost ex­plo­ration of the so­lar sys­tem. Non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions and char­i­ta­ble groups will imag­ine what they could have done if pro­vided with only a frac­tion of that money.

Knowl­edge for knowl­edge’s sake

Nearly every scrap of data re­turned by In­Sight as it be­gins its work will be fresh and new, adding sig­nif­i­cantly to our grow­ing pool of knowl­edge about Mars. Know­ing more about it tells us about Mars but also in­forms us about what the early Earth might have been like based on the evo­lu­tion of the red planet. This is knowl­edge for knowl­edge’s sake as it may help us bet­ter un­der­stand how the pre­sum­ably liv­ing sur­face of a planet with plenty of wa­ter can fail to sur­vive and even­tu­ally re­vert to a desert. There may be lessons to learn.

The long-term goal for Nasa un­til re­cently had been for a manned flight to Mars and back by 2030. This is what prompted the cur­rent clus­ter of satel­lite mis­sions to Mars to get more in­for­ma­tion about con­di­tions on the ground. Fur­ther

Nasa is a bit of a hostage in this sit­u­a­tion. Pres­i­dents are in a po­si­tion to in­flu­ence pro­foundly the di­rec­tion of the ad­min­is­tra­tion as pres­i­dent John F Kennedy did when chal­leng­ing it to reach the moon be­fore the end of the 1960s

down the road, what we learn on the sur­face will be ap­plied in the fu­ture if earth­lings seek to colonise the planet, set­ting up habi­ta­tion units, or­gan­is­ing wa­ter and power pro­duc­tion, and find­ing new ways to feed our­selves.

All the com­po­nents of get­ting a hu­man there and back again carry tech­no­log­i­cal chal­lenges which in turn will add to our sci­en­tific un­der­stand­ing in ar­eas such as bi­ol­ogy (eg: how to de­rive nutri­tion from easy-to-grow sources such as al­gae), elec­tron­ics and en­gi­neer­ing. All space pro­grammes from the past have left elec­tronic, en­gi­neer­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions dis­cov­er­ies in their wake, skills then picked up and con­verted into con­sumer prod­ucts.

Apollo 11 mis­sion

You need light­weight, re­li­able, com­pact com­mu­ni­ca­tions de­vices to main­tain a link be­tween Earth and Mars. The same kinds of tech­nolo­gies work pretty well in a mod­ern smart­phone. Com­pare a mod­ern smart­phone to the elec­tron­ics that car­ried the Apollo 11 mis­sion to the moon. It was wired into a com­puter that was about as smart as a cheap, low-cost cal­cu­la­tor used to­day by pri­mary school chil­dren.

A mis­sion to Mars rep­re­sents a huge sci­en­tific chal­lenge in be­ing able to get there in one piece, man­ag­ing to land softly on the sur­face, and then safely re­turn­ing. The fo­cus on Mars was a part of pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s vi­sion of the fu­ture for the US space pro­gramme, but sci­en­tists had bet­ter get their Mars-di­rected mis­sions un­der way quickly.

Cur­rent pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, in keep­ing with ef­forts to dis­man­tle the Obama legacy, has now redi­rected the em­pha­sis to­wards the moon. It is much eas­ier to bridge the 363,100km gap from us to the moon than the hugely daunt­ing 77.8 mil­lion km dis­tance to Mars.

His in­ter­est in reach­ing the moon and set­ting up colonies there have also taken a sur­real twist in that he wants to see the devel­op­ment of a mil­i­tary “space force” that will join the cur­rent tri­umvi­rate US air force, army and navy. No doubt ad­vanced new tech­nolo­gies would emerge that could prove of ben­e­fit to hu­man kind but the no­tion sounds too much like a trailer for the next Star Wars film than any­thing ap­proach­ing re­al­ity.

Nasa is a bit of a hostage in this sit­u­a­tion. Pres­i­dents are in a po­si­tion to in­flu­ence pro­foundly the di­rec­tion of the ad­min­is­tra­tion as pres­i­dent John F Kennedy did when chal­leng­ing it to reach the moon be­fore the end of the 1960s. The ques­tion now wor­ry­ing Nasa is what the bal­ance will be be­tween suc­cess­ful, low-cost pro­grammes such as In­Sight, and in­vest­ments di­rected to­wards a space force and ef­forts to land hu­mans on the moon again. There isn’t money to sup­port both in any cred­i­ble way, with Nasa car­ry­ing the can for hav­ing “failed” if it can­not de­liver space craft that can fly about with ap­par­ently lim­it­less en­ergy sup­ply or de­vel­op­ing the tech­nol­ogy needed to sur­vive the harsh sur­face of the moon. Sci­ence can de­liver the an­swers, break­ing new ground as it does so, but can the US Congress stump up the fi­nances needed to de­liver some­one’s pipe dream?

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