2015 A Banner Year
2015 was quite the year for space exploration with the New Horizons Flyby of Pluto to the December 21st successful launch, reentry and landing of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 ORBCOMM-2. Congratulations to Elon Musk and SpaceX! It was a banner year not so much for the number of missions launched, but for the quality, return on investment both in sweat and treasure and, most importantly, for the data, scientific value and contribution to our body of knowledge, insight and understanding. In the words of the mission’s Principal Investigator, Alan Stern, 2015 was their ‘Annus Mirabilis’ making reference to Albert Einstein‘s Miracle Year of 1905 in which he published papers that set the stage for modern physics. Currently New Horizons is downloading its entire store of data to earth via the DSN scheduled to be completed November 2016, 16 months after the flyby. With the successful flyby of Pluto by New Horizons, humanity has explored every known planet in the solar system, some more than once! That is quite an accomplishment! For a great synopsis of humanity’s Grand Tour, watch this short film commissioned by the National Space Society in honor of New Horizons arrival at Pluto. Then, another short film narrated by the late, great Carl Sagan entitled: Wanderers: A Stunning Vision Of Humanity’s Future In Space Narrated By Carl Sagan.
Perils and Pitfalls of the Profit Motive
The profit motive is an essential ingredient of most sensible economies and systems. A profit, within reason, has a firm moral basis and is an accepted aspect of a modern economy. There may be certain downsides to earning a profit such as higher prices or cutting corners or corporate “downsizing” (layoffs) to maintain an organization’s profitability, vitality and viability, especially when the organization is a public company where the organization’s Board of Directors is answerable to the shareholders and the general public. This aspect of a for-profit organization is quite painfully understood now, more than ever; since the 2008 crash, the news is filled with horror stories. However, all of this happens on the earth, quite literally where, for example, if you were to lose your job and, ultimately, your home, you could stay with other family members or friends or appeal to the local or regional Social Services agency. You would still be on the surface of the earth and alive. Clearly, when excessive greed enters the equation resulting in more than reasonable price increases for a particular service or product, the consumer is on the losing end but, in most instances, the consumer is still alive and on the surface of the earth. This point is at the heart of why a national or public agency (NASA or ESA) should always be at the forefront of manned space exploration; the phrase “commercial space interests” is, at the very least, an oxymoron or even a contradiction in terms. The profit motive can never be in an equation where you (your crew or many others) are already at risk, involved in an enterprise inherently fraught with danger. The mission, your life and the lives of all the others on board could quite easily be comprised if corners were cut or quality control sacrificed in the interests of protecting the profit margin; you and everyone else could, quite literally, die and not be on the surface of the earth!
Hence, Elon Musk was quite correct in deliberately not considering an IPO for SpaceX now or in the near term until the Mars Colonial Transporter is up and running.
Continued Public Exploration of Space
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, in an October 5th, 2015 interview with Larry King, provided quite a compelling argument for the continued public exploration of space and for the expansion of private sector interests in space exploration, both within specific contexts. The upshot of Neil’s argument was that the public sector, a national agency such as NASA, for example, assumes the risks of “going where no one has gone before” (the first mission to Mars or the first manned-landings on the moon, for example). Neil’s point is consistent with my argument discussed in the previous paragraph. Once the dangers and obstacles have been identified and overcome within limits, then the private sector can assume lower-scale risks.
Commercialization of Space
Enter the US Congress and the passage of the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (couldn’t they come up with a better name, but one must consider the bill’s sponsor in the US Senate, sponsors in the US House of Representatives, their political party affiliation and their commercial backers). This bill blocks regulation of the private sector‘s space adventures for eight years, giving them time to “work out their innovations” and provides Property Rights to those intrepid entrepreneurs who manage to get to an asteroid (for example) or elsewhere!
The bill makes no distinction between an asteroid, a comet, a moon or another planet, such as Mars! In the words of Henry Hertzfeld, space policy researcher at George Washington University, “This bill gives a company working under a US license the ability to own resources that they might obtain from celestial bodies”! Martians or Europans be warned, the commercial colonization of space has begun! As described in a Wired article published back in April of 2012, wealthy proponents of this new bill that include Google CEO Larry Page, executive chairman Eric Schmidt, former Microsoft chief architect Charles Simonyi, and Ross Perot Jr. have been hard at work, looking for pliant dupes in congress to continue doing what we’ve been doing since the 17th century, when this continent was violently appropriated by wealthy aristocrats from Europe ostensibly seeking New Worlds and then by wealthy Englishmen looking to escape the tyranny of their king, taking what doesn’t belong to us! As was clearly stated in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” The United States Congress, the US President, nor any other government or government agency or body, from any country, has not the legal standing to issue property rights for asteroids or anything else beyond the surface of the earth! Why? Because they never owned it in the first place! So my words to Planetary Resources, that the US government said it was OK to mine asteroids means absolutely nothing! This new law is as null and void as you can get (Senator Ted Cruz, R-TX and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-CA-23 take note)! You don’t have title to those asteroids, comets, meteors or artifacts or pieces of same or whatever else you manage to appropriate, nor could you ever.
Looking to the Future
So, what’s to come; what’s on the horizon?
- September 2017 will be the end of mission for the NASA/ESA Cassini Mission to Saturn and Titan. Launched in 1997 and arriving at Saturn in June 2004, the mission has been an unprecedented mission of discovery, exploration and success that has exceeded the expectations of everyone from the mission planners and NASA engineers to the young, fertile minds of primary school children. The rich treasure trove of images, data and science from Cassini will be the fuel for research and discovery for decades. Currently Cassini is in the later phases of it’s “Solstice” Mission. The spacecraft completed its initial four-year mission to explore the Saturn System in June 2008 and the first extended mission, called the Cassini Equinox Mission, in September 2010. Now, the healthy spacecraft is making exciting new discoveries in its second extended mission called the Cassini Solstice Mission. A full Solstice Mission timeline can be found here: http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/saturntourdates/saturntourdates2010. Currently, the Cassini vehicle is in excellent health and operating normally. Lets hope it remains that way through the end of mission. Public access to the rich content Cassini has provided since its arrival at Saturn in 2004 can be found at CICLOPS (Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations). The site is managed by the world renowned Planetary Astronomer Carolyn Porco.
- Juno Mission to Jupiter; launch 5 August 2011, Jupiter arrival July 2016 (7 months). The Juno spacecraft will, for the first time, peer below Jupiter’s dense cover of clouds to answer questions about the gas giant and the origins of our solar system.
- The JWST (James Webb Space Telescope), launch date 2018. Space borne telescope with 6.5 meter primary aperture telescope designed to observe the Infrared universe. Hopefully, there will be an overlap of HST and JWST.
- End of mission for the Hubble Space Telescope yet to be determined but probably not past year end, 2018. End of mission will be achieved through a controlled reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, a rather ignominious end for a paradigm setting telescope. The telescope will be operated as long as the on-board guidance, pointing and navigation gyros continue to function. Launched in 1990, the telescope has far exceeded all expectations, pushing back the frontiers of knowledge and discovery, revolutionizing astronomy and beginning a new era of space-borne telescopic astronomy. Hubble has provided the world with a rich treasure trove of images, data and science that will be the fuel for research and discovery for decades to come.
- End of Mission for the Kepler Space Telescope, as yet unknown. Kepler suffered a crippling anomaly when the second of its four reaction wheels failed in 2013. The mission was recast as Kepler K2 and uses the sun’s radiation pressure for guidance and/or to compensate for the loss of the reaction wheels. The mission will end when those guidance and stabilization systems ultimately fail.
- Ongoing Mars Rover and Mars Science Laboratory activities
- New Horizons rendezvous with KBO 2014 MU69. Final trajectory and arrival date TBD. Powerful HST brought to bear in determining a suitable KBO target.
- Mission to Europa, one of Jupiter’s 4 Galilean moons exhibiting strong evidence for an ocean of liquid water beneath an icy crust. Launch date yet to be determined but most likely in the early 2020 – 2023 time frame.
- Manned mission to Mars, 2035 time frame.
Much of what’s presented here for the future are end of mission dates with a few notable exceptions such as the Juno mission to Jupiter and JWST. With New Horizons just having completed its flyby of Pluto with dazzling success, the docket looks rather empty for deep space missions, perhaps a sign of the times. We need a new generation of visionaries and a new intellectual renaissance to spur new ideas and turn them into new discoveries, to “boldly go where no one has gone before”! Without imagination we have nothing; lets dream, lets imagine! Where do we go next?
My very best for a healthy and prosperous New Year!
Imagination is more important than knowledge
An index of all articles in this blog can be found here.