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|I Am Skooter|
So here's us, on the raggedy edge.
When I was a kid - a teenager I guess - space exploration was exciting; the stuff of legends and heroes. Men (and, later, women) probing the vast unknown in an attempt to further man’s knowledge.
When Challenger exploded, my science teacher wheeled a television into the classroom and we watched it. For me, this was a defining moment. I remember the sinking feeling, and can’t think about it without digging into an emotional well. When Columbia disintegrated on re-entry, I’d been living on Bowen Island for a couple of weeks, and turned the TV on for the first time to see images that I needed to see to believe, after first hearing it on the radio.
The post Challenger (and post-Perestroika) era has seen a stagnation of exploration. Shuttle missions have seemed conservative, and the insistence on manned missions at all has been questioned. These men may be heroes, but even heroes are men: men need to breathe and eat, and in the hostile environment of space these activities alone consume a lot of energy. There have been a few succesful robotic missions that, despite the fact they have returned tremendous scientific value, have done little to boost NASA in the eyes of America’s politicians and public. European, Russian and Chinese space agencies continue to move forward, but still follow in NASA’s large shadow.
Escaping our atmosphere consumes energy too, and it’s long been the dream of both scientists and science fiction writers to eliminate this .
Today, in Wired, this article offered a glimpse of a new world: Wired News: Cosmos 1 Set to Test Solar Sail
The solar wind is both like and unlike our terrestrial wind: the great differentiator is the notion of resistance. A terrestrial boat needs to overcome the tremendous drag produced by a hull in the water - a solar sail experiences no such resistance at all.
So when compared to winds blowing on Earth, they operate in reverse: getting a solar sail moving is easy, stopping it takes energy. Once moving, the almost imperceptible energy striking the sail continues to grow and grow producing, in essence, a constant gentle acceleration curve. At least that’s my understanding of the science.
It’s not a a wind, per se. Or it is, depending on how you define it. The Solar Wind consists of photons - light particles. Essentially the argument is that as the sun’s rays stretch out into the galaxy, they are continuously pushing objects on some level. For an object like a planet - enourmous in size and mass - these photons do little; but build something small and light enough, with a large enough collector and these photons can be harnessed into propulsion (albeit in an outward direction from the sun only.)
What does this potentially limitless and free source of propulsion hold in store for our future? Perhaps a renewed enthusiam for unmanned missions, which will be able to operate even more cost effectively as they reach out to the ends of our known universe. These unmanned missions have been amongst the most scientificly triumphant missions of our times - think of what has been revealed by the Hubble Telescope as compared to, for example, what was actually discovered by Neil Armstrong’s “one small step” for mankind. Make no mistake, that single step was motivated by the Cold War, not pure science - while this doesn’t diminish from what was an amazing technical achievement, science presents us with a much nobler cause.
Perhaps, also, farther reaching manned missions. By launching from space - eliminating the tremendous amounts of energy required simply to overcome the Earth’s gravitational pull - missions may be able to travel farther in less time than ever before. The orbital mission of Jupiter that Arthur C. Clarke envisioned in his great masterpiece 2001 may yet come to pass, albeit slightly later than expected.
For this to be successful, spacecraft will need to be constructed in space, assuming that it’s more efficient to transport raw materials than assembled products (this may not be the case, but it will certainly be more space efficient to do so.) We are, it seems, years away from this. Nontechnology and self replicating machines are being developed today, and these tools will be an important and integral part of it.
But imagine the possibilities. The last 100 years have seen the world change in tremendous ways; the next 100 hold so much potential.
The new age of discovery may be just begining, and I suspect it will be as revolutionary as previous ones. The day this Solar Sail sets flight may go down in history as the dawn of this age; an age where new heroes will be born.
I’ll have my fingers crossed, and my eyes firmly fixed on the stars. Here there be dragons the maps once said, but maybe for not much longer.