We’ve come a long way in our quest to explore the universe since the bad old days of launching unsuspecting dogs, monkeys and cats into space. What with Elon Musk sending his Tesla sportscar into orbit (complete with Starman mannequin behind the wheel) on SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, and the recent discovery of alien bacteria on the International Space Station, even the moon landing is old news.
So what spacecapades will the next century bring?
Make no mistake: most of the current interplanetary buzz centres on Mars. And speaking of buzz, second man on the moon Buzz Aldrin reckons humans will be living on the red planet by 2039. (“Get your ass to Mars!” he exhorts, poaching Arnie’s line from Total Recall.) Meanwhile, NASA is planning its own Mars mission, and the aforementioned Musk is planning to retire there.
The Planetary Society’s Emily Lakwadalla is cautiously optimistic. Assuming we can overcome the mind-boggling challenges involved with actually landing a spacecraft in Mars’s thin atmosphere – and provided the astronauts’ DNA doesn’t disintegrate during the long flight – then maybe “we could see humans on Mars in 20 years,” she says.
For the risk-averse among us, there’s a safer (and sooner) alternative: robotics. LunarCubes – miniature, low-cost satellites – will likely be scuttling across the moon’s surface in the very near future – giving Earthlings a virtual glimpse into lunar life. Lakwadalla sees no reason why the same technology couldn’t be used to act as “our distant eyes” on Mars.
Further down the track, the distinction between human and robotic space exploration looks set to blur – once we figure out how to insert human consciousness into a robot body, that is (rest assured, it’s being worked on). Wandering the wilds of Mars will be a cakewalk for the future’s robo-astronauts.
But even they’ll have to wait awhile before venturing further afield. Reaching Jupiter and Saturn, not to mention distant “ice giants” Uranus and Neptune, takes decades. Voyagers 1 and 2 are already out there, with a new robotic mission to Jupiter scheduled to launch in the 2020s and arrive in the 2030s. Furthermore, Lakwadalla touts 2049 as an optimal time for an orbiter to approach Uranus (it’s all in the planet’s extreme tilt, apparently).
Warp-speed your way here to learn more about our interplanetary future.
Top image: 1967 stamp from Vintageprintable
Second image: From Soviet Space Dogs by Olesya Turkina/Fuel Publishing