sabato 11 ottobre 2014

Fingerprints of life on Mars

Getting to Mars will ensure the survival of our species, says Nasa chief - and he claims humanity needs to ‘get a grip’ when it comes to climate change

 

 Speaking at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London this week, Nasa Administrator Charles Bolden (pictured) revealed his views on a number of issues including Mars, climate change, China, Chris Hadfield, Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and the state of the UK space industry

  • Charles Bolden was talking at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London
  • He spoke on many topics including Mars, climate change and the UK 
  • Landing on Mars is imperative for 'the preservation of the species' he said
  • On climate change he declared: 'We have to understand it, it’s real' 
  • He told MailOnline Chris Hadfield had 'set the bar high' for astronauts
  • And he added it is important the UK remains involved in space exploration
  • 'The UK stepped away from human spaceflight once before, and it took a couple of decades to get back,' he admitted

    Landing on Mars is essential to ensure the survival of our species, climate change is a very 'real' threat and international cooperation is key to the future of manned space exploration.
    That’s according to Nasa Administrator Charles Bolden, who revealed his opinion on a wide range of subjects in London this week.
    He also discussed with MailOnline how celebrity astronaut Chris Hadfield had set the bar high for future astronauts, which forced a re-think from Nasa on how they engage with the public from space

    ‘Getting to Mars is important because it is the only planet in the solar system [other than Earth] that we believe might have born life in some form at some time,’ Mr Bolden said.

     Mr Bolden re-iterated Nasa's desire to land humans on Mars in the 2030s (illustration shown), something they are currently working towards with development of the Orion spacecraft and SLS rocket. ‘Getting to Mars is important because it is the only planet in the solar system that we believe might have born life,' he said
    ‘It may be able to sustain life right now, and it definitely can sustain human life if we put humans there.
    ‘That’s important for the preservation of the species, and I want to make sure that my grand-daughters, and great-great-grandaughters, have the opportunity to go there.’
    But he expressed his concern at not committing to a future mission to Mars, and warned against cancelling any of the current plans by Nasa to get there.
    ‘If we step away now, my belief is it will be generations before we get back to where we are now,’ he continued.
    ‘We are way down the road.’
    He admitted, though, that getting to Mars was no easy challenge, and there were plenty of detractors who thought it would never happen - an opinion he does not share.
    ‘It’s important to remember that Nasa sent humans to the moon by setting a goal that seemed beyond our reach,’ he said.
    ‘With Mars as our focus, we are steadily building the capability to enable human missions to the red planet.
    ‘The challenge is huge. Mars is hard, just to put it bluntly. Mars is really, really, really hard.’ 
    However, he added he did not approve of certain proposals that intended to take people on one-way trips to the red planet - including Elon Musk's.
    ‘He wants to die there,’ he said. ‘He doesn’t talk about coming back. But he and I disagree on that.
    ‘If someone wants to come back, I want them to be able to come back.’

    He alludes to how people first colonised America with similar ambitions.
    ‘When we go, that will be a step in humanity’s quest to pioneer.
    ‘It’ll be like moving in the US, when we broke away from England and went west.
    ‘Many people went with no intent of coming back, but they didn’t go with the intent of dying there. 
    'They went to develop it, to expand. That’s where we are today.’
    Mr Bolden also explained how understanding Mars - specifically how it turned from what was thought a once habitable planet to the largely inhospitable place we see now - could reveal the future of our own climate.
    He discussed the very ‘real’ danger of climate change - while not offering a firm opinion on manmade global warming.
    ‘We have got to get a grip on climate change,’ he said.
    ‘We have to understand it, it’s real. I’m not here talking about global warming, I’m just talking about climate change. This is happening, and we need to understand why.’

    Recently Nasa’s Maven spacecraft arrived at Mars, and Mr Bolden explained how this would be key in understanding what became of the red planet, and whether it is similar to what will become of Earth.
    ‘Mars used to have, we think, a climate and atmosphere, everything like we have on Earth, and at some point in its life the middle of the planet got turned off, and it lost its magnetic field and everything else,' he said.
    ‘It lost the magnetic field that protected it like our magnetosphere protects us, and then solar winds and other radiation scraped off Mars’ atmosphere.’
    ‘That’s what Maven will help us understand. What’s left, what’s bubbling off the planet, is oxygen still on the soil, or are there the kinds of atmospheric gases we see on Earth?
    ‘Maven will answer lots of science questions relevant to Earth about our sister planet.’
    And he also spoke of the numerous missions Nasa was launching into Earth orbit that would help study our own planet in more detail.
    He later said: ‘I call this the “Year of Earth”. We’re launching five Earth science missions over the course of one year, most of them in collaboration with international partners.’
    Last week at a conference in Ottawa, Canada Mr Bolden was jokingly quoted as saying that Chris Hadfield had ‘put pressure’ on modern astronauts and was ‘infamous’ because of the standard the former Canadian astronaut had set.
    But in a question posed by MailOnline to Mr Bolden, he said that he had ‘no qualms whatsoever with Hadfield' and said the comments were meant only in jest.
    ‘I was sort of kidding when I said that about Chris. He did set the bar high when it came to utilisation of social media [in space],' he said.
    However he explained that Mr Hadfield’s prolific tweeting from space forced Nasa to take another look at how they engaged the public from the ISS.
    ‘We learned from him, and now we have a network of people back on Earth who do a lot of the preparation for tweeting and other things,’ he said.
    ‘There was an image released recently of [astronaut Reid] Wiseman getting ready to go out [of the airlock on the ISS].
    ‘He was in his suit, they were at vacuum, and he’s getting ready to go out of the airlock.
    ‘And there was a picture of him taken by his spacewalk crew member. We wouldn’t have done that two years ago. We just didn’t realise we could do that.
    ‘Chris kind of made us go “man, we forget we had this capability. Now let’s use it.” ‘So that’s why I say he set the bar high.’

    In response to a question posed by British astronaut Helen Sharman, Mr Bolden also revealed his desire for more cooperation in efforts to explore space, particularly with China.
    ‘I think many of us recognise the fact that Nasa is prohibited, by law, from bilateral activity with China in human spaceflight,’ he said.
    But, he somewhat cryptically opened his arms to allowing China to take part in international space exploration, outlining that international standards existed that allowed them to dock with the ISS.
    ‘If you look at the ISS and the collaboration that we have fostered along with all of the partners, we now have an international docking standard that we have authored for all nations to consider when designing their spacecraft,’ he said.
    ‘It doesn’t make any difference who they are. Anyone who accepts the international docking standard will have the capability of docking at the ISS.’
    He added: ‘I wish I could tell you more. The next Nasa Administrator might.’
    And he welcomed commercial space initiatives to do the same, such as upcoming spacecraft from SpaceX and Boeing that were recently funded by Nasa.
    Mr Bolden also offered a view on Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which is scheduled to begin taking people into space early next year, and said he was ‘very excited’ about Nasa’s possibilities to use their suborbital planes for experiments.
    Similarly, he said how it was important that the UK regain a foothold in space exploration after decades of being absent.
    ‘The UK stepped away from human spaceflight once before, and it took a couple of decades to get back,' he explained.
    ‘You are now back in the race, back on the team, and you need to stay there, because you can’t take a break and come back in.’

    The theme throughout Mr Bolden’s answers was his desire for continued international cooperation in space exploration.
    ‘I think we should all be focusing on better ways to collaborate and ensure we maintain partnerships that exist today,’ he said.
    ‘We should use the ISS as a model and throw that into other areas.’
    Looking ahead into the future, post-ISS - which he hopes will remain in operation until at least 2024 - Mr Bolden says we can expect to see astronauts at an asteroid and lunar orbit.
    And even further into the future he told MailOnline that other worlds like Europa will ultimately be a goal.
    ‘We have missions in formulation right now. It would be hard to say when we would fly it, but we intend to propose it and then you go from there,’ he said.
    But, for now, he is heavily committed to ensuring Nasa fulfills the goals it is aiming to achieve in the next few decades - including, most importantly, landing humans on the red planet for the first time.


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