"Robotic missions are much cheaper and may provide more scientific information, but they don't catch the public imagination in the same way, and they don't spread the human race into space, which I'm arguing should be our long-term strategy. If the human race is to continue for another million years, we will have to boldly go where no one has gone before."
Stephen Hawking, Cambridge University
Will unmanned robotic missions be able to detect weird microscopic life-forms they are not programmed to recognize that
might be lurking below the surface of Mars, or beneath the murky seas of Jupiter's jumbo moon, Europa?
The answer to this question is at the core of one of the greatest of the ongoing debates in space exploration: the question of man vs. unmanned robotic missions.
NASA currently operates more than 50 robotic spacecraft that are studying Earth and reaching throughout the solar system, from Mercury to Pluto and beyond. Another 40 unmanned NASA missions are in development, and space agencies in Europe, Russia, Japan, India and China are running or building their own robotic craft.
What is not commonly known however is that many of NASA's leading scientists also champion human exploration as a worthy goal in its own right and as a critically important part of space science in the 21st century.
In a past issue of Scientific American Jim Bell, an astronomer and planetary scientist at Cornell University, and author of “Postcards from Mars,” notes that “…you might think that researchers like me who are involved in robotic space exploration would dismiss astronaut missions as costly and unnecessary.”
But he then he goes on, “Although astronaut missions are much more expensive and risky than robotic craft, they are absolutely critical to the success of our exploration program."
The heart of the debate is this: robotic machines will only do what they are programmed to do; they are not programmed to detect weirdness: the unimaginable, the unknown, the strange non-carbon life that we may have encountered on Mars, for example with the two Viking vehicles, in 1976. Each carried equipment for sampling the Martian soil and miniature chemistry laboratories to test the samples for signs of life.The results these automated labs radioed back to Earth were enigmatic: the chemical reactions from the Martian soil were strange, unlike anything seen on Earth. But they were also unlike any reactions that living organisms would produce.
Ben Bova, the science-fiction author of Titan and The Aftermath, his most recent novels in is his ongoing series about the expansion of the human race throughout the Solar System, points out in an interview that most scientists examining the Viking results, reluctantly concluded that was lifeless: "But the fact is that the landers were equipped only to detect signs of Earth-type life. The chemical reactions observed could have been the results of Martian life. They certainly were not ordinary inorganic chemistry."
The debate over the meaning of the Viking results, Bova concludes, is still unsettled, more than 30 years later. But a human biologist or biochemist could have learned a lot more and settled the matter, one way or the other, within a few hours.
What are we looking for, exactly, when we search for alien life? That's the cosmic question pondered in the report from the National Research Council, The Limits of Organic Life in Planetary Systems. For more than five years, a committee of scientists tried to imagine what life-as-we-don't-know-it might be like. Their conclusion: Life may exist in non-carbon forms completely unlike anything we see on Earth.
The human vs.machine debate is a false construct: robotic unmanned spacecraft are directed by human beings on Earth. Unless disabled by fierce sandstorms, our rovers are in constant realtime communication with their masters at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as will the New Horizons spacecraft now heading for Pluto with human monitors watching over it.
Stephen Hawking, world-celebrated expert on the cosmological theories of gravity and black holes who holds Issac Newton's Lucasian Chair at Cambridge University, has strong views on the future of the human species and space trael. At last year's 50th anniversary for NASA. Hawking proposed that the world should devote about 10 times as much as NASA's current budget – or 0.25% of the world's financial resources – to space exploration. Hawking backed the space agency's goals of returning astronauts to the Moon by 2020 and sending humans to Mars shortly after that.
The Moon is a good place to start because it is "close by and relatively easy to reach", Hawking said. "The Moon could be a base for travel to the rest of the solar system," he added. would be "the obvious next target", with its abundant supplies of frozen water, and the intriguing possibility that life may have been present there in the past.
"A goal of a base on the Moon by 2020 and of a manned landing on Mars by 2025 would reignite the space program and give it a sense of purpose in the same way that President Kennedy's Moon target did in the 1960s," he said.
Hawking said that any long-term site for a human base should have a significant gravity field, because long missions in microgravity lead to health issues such as bone loss.
Hawking favors human space exploration, rather than just sending robots to explore space, a position taken by Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, among others.
Eventually, Hawking said, humanity should try to expand to Earth-like planets around other stars. If only 1% of the 1000 or so stars within 30 light years of Earth has an Earth-size planet at the right distance from its star for liquid water to exist, that would make for 10 such planets in our solar system's neighbourhood, he said.
"We cannot envision visiting them with current technology, but we should make interstellar travel a long-term aim," he said. "By long term, I mean over the next 200 to 500 years." Humanity can afford to battle earthly problems like climate change and still have plenty of resources left over for colonizing space, he said.
"Even if we were to increase the international [space exploration] budget 20 times to make a serious effort to go into space, it would only be a small fraction of world GDP," he said. GDP, or Gross Domestic Product, is a measure of a country's economic activity.
Hawking believes that traveling into space is the only way humans will be able to survive in the long-term. "Life
on Earth," Hawking has said, "is at the ever-increasing risk of being
wiped out by a disaster such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a
genetically engineered virus or other dangers ... I think the human
race has no future if it doesn't go into space."
Another of his famous quotes reiterates his position that we need to get off the planet relatively soon. "I don't think the human race will survive the next 1,000 years unless we spread into space."
The problems with Hawking’s solution is that while it may save a “seed” of human life- a few lucky specimens- it won’t save Earth’s inhabitants. The majority of Earthlings would surely be left behind on a planet increasingly unfit for life.
Hawking argued that the world can afford 0.25% of its collective GDP to devote to space colonization. "Isn't our future worth a quarter of a percent?" he asked. The physicist also speculated on the reasons that SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) projects have not yet detected any alien civilizations, offering three possibilities: that life of any kind is very rare in the universe; that simple life forms are common, but intelligent life rare; or that intelligent life tends to quickly destroy itself.
"Personally, I favour the second possibility – that primitive life is relatively common, but that intelligent life is very rare," he said. "Some would say it has yet to occur on Earth."
Posted by Casey Kazan with Rebecca Sato, adapted from NASA materials.
Posted by Casey Kazan.
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