We’ve known for a while now that there are things out in space that we should explore. Amongst the awe inspiring beauty and the ethereal mysteries the heavens inspire in the hearts and minds of humans, there is treasure; lots and lots of precious compounds we would kill for on terra firma. There is fresh pure gold to be collected in the aftermath of colliding neutron stars, there are planets like 55 Cancri E, made entirely out of crystallized diamond and there are gigantic supernal gas clouds like Sagittarius B2 filled with billions and billions of litres of alcohol that smell of rum and taste like raspberries.
With so much good stuff on offer out in space, it’s surprising there is anyone left here on Earth. Surely any highly motivated, self-starting, results oriented individual should be investigating ways to get off this planet and get up into the stars for their fair share of the cosmic rewards. It won’t be easy. But we choose to go into deep space and do those other difficult things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
Check out the list below; if you can help out, put up your hand and offer the solution. The journey will be long and hard, and not everyone will make it, but the rewards will be colossal. Imagine having so much money you need your own solar system to store it and your own galaxy to spend it. Now that you’re properly motivated, see if you can solve any of the 5 major issues holding back space exploration. I promise, the people at Google will make it worth your while.
1. Space Elevators:
Getting into space by rocket is expensive and dangerous. By running space elevators up and down long cables between the Earth’s equatorial surface and geostationary satellites 100 000kms above, payload costs can be reduced from $25000/kg to around $250. While the theory is sound, the greatest difficulty is creating a cable that won’t collapse under its own weight. Carbon nanotubes are currently the favoured solution, but if you can come up with a better idea there is up to $5 million in prize money for a solution plus a slice of the payload royalties on offer.
2. Air, Water and Food:
Today, all space missions have to carry their own supplies of fresh air, water and food. For journeys into deep space the challenge is to be able to recycle all air and water on board the craft as well as grow food from scratch without large amounts of soil or water. Scientists are already tackling the air and water issue and aim to have the problem solved by 2020 in time for a manned mission to Mars. Creating edible food by recycling waste along the way is another challenge altogether. Devise a bio-incubator that turns garbage into gourmet and manned missions will be able to explore for years without needing extra supplies.
3. Artificial Gravity and Radiation Shields
Astronauts on extended missions in low earth orbit suffer serious muscle atrophy and loss of bone density after relatively short missions. On longer trips into the depths of space this concern will need to be addressed by creating an artificial gravity on board the craft. While there are several inventive (but untested) methods for creating artificial gravity, protecting crews from cosmic radiation once they move away from Earth’s protective Van Allen belt is another big issue. Before we can get as far as Mars or the mineral rich asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter someone needs to design a force-field or space shield that can repel gamma rays and other harmful cosmic rays.
4. Suspended animation
As we’ve already mentioned, keeping the astronauts alive with the basics of food, water and air is going to be a great challenge once we start exploring deep space. One way to assist with this is to place the crew in a suspended state where their metabolism is artificially lowered. It might sound extreme, but some meditation experts who lower their metabolism on Earth can go for days on minimal air, water and food. Journeys to the far reaches of our solar system could take decades, so to conserve resources it makes sense to put the crew into some sort of stasis. Whether its injectable drugs, metabolic controlled sleep chambers or nutrient immersions, the ability to place the crew into a deep reversible coma will help open up the depths of space to long term human exploration.
5. Non-rocket propulsion
Today all of our space exploration relies on rocket propulsion; heavy, expensive and dangerous. However once we are up in space courtesy of the space elevator, there is no need for such ancient technology when it comes to exploring other words. Giant sails that allow spacecraft to sail on solar winds could move our craft long distances without fuel, and this week it has been revealed that microwave powered motors might not only break the laws of physics, but also push space craft well beyond the speed of rockets. Developments like these will free us from the pokey little space craft designs of today open the way for starships to take their crew and passengers on interstellar journeys to places far, far away.