There is talk in the press of the Chinese space program and recently they put their first woman into space. The suggestion is that they are catching up and surpassing the work of the United States. Don’t you believe it. Sure the Chinese are putting people in space and good luck to them. They have learned from the the U.S, the Soviets and the rest of the world and will be using modern technology to shortcut their path into space.
Within the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) there has long been a debate over whether the U.S. should pursue manned or robotic space flight. There are arguments on both sides. Manned space flight is far more thrilling and, some say, more flexible leading to greater discoveries. But robots are cheap and the technology is getting better every day.
You can throw up a lot of robots for the price of a manned flight. Consider that it is now possible for ordinary men and women to build contraptions which approach the boundaries of space using consumer technology such as iPhones, Video cameras and helium balloons. Then consider that the British attempted a mars landing which very nearly succeeded in 2003 for just £44 million!
Next Monday, the 6th August 2012 at 5:31am GMT another Mars landing is scheduled to occur. The NASA Mars Science Laboratory will deposit a rover named Curiosity with objectives including determining Mars’ habitability.
But this will be a landing like no other. The spacecraft will drop through the thin Martian atmosphere in much the same way as the old Apollo capsules returned to Earth. It will trail a parachute to slow it down but after that, the fun begins. Once the spacecraft has slowed sufficiently, the lander will drop from the outer shell and fire rocket engines enabling it to fly across the surface of mars to locate a suitable landing site. Once this is located the machine will hover and lower a rover vehicle via cables onto the surface. The cables will then detach and the “flyer” will zoom off and crash leaving the rover pristine on the surface of mars. Fan-bloody-tastic!
As radio waves take around 20 minutes to travel from Earth to Mars it is not possible for all this to be accomplished via remote control and so onboard computers will handle all decision making. Site selection, time to release the flyer, time to drop the lander. The lot. As if all this were not enough Curiosity has a laser to vaporise small quantities of rock enabling fast analysis and selection of sites where it will deploy it’s drill.
Good luck to the Chinese with their space program but, though the yanks may not be pursuing manned spaceflight, they clearly are pushing the technology for robotic exploration.