Russian space scientists are currently locked in a race against time. The Fobos-Grunt space probe was launched successfully on Tuesday, but then failed to fire its own rocket engine to leave Earth orbit. The unmanned spacecraft is currently stranded just above our heads, and the rocket scientists have only a fortnight to successfully contact the stricken probe and fire its propulsion system before the batteries fail and it reenters the Earth's atmosphere as an expensive shooting star.
The Fobos-Grunt mission is of great personal interest to me as it was heading for the larger moon of Mars. Not only was this mission promising to bring back scoops of Phobos' surface material ('grunt' is Russian for soil) - an important precursor to returning samples of the martian surface itself, potentially holding signs of martian microbial life - but it is also carrying a remarkable biology experiment. The LIFE capsule has passengers onboard: small samples of carefully-selected bacteria and other microorganisms, including some that I work on. The idea is to see whether microbes can survive the unprotected journey to Mars and back, testing the feasibility of the hypothesis that life on Earth may itself have been seeded from Mars, hitchhiking within a meteorite.
The Russian space agency has suffered a string of such set-backs in its Mars exploration programme - 16 consecutive failures since the 1960s. This underlines just how difficult space travel is. Any number of thousands of components or lines of software code can be faulty, and space is an exceedingly unforgiving place.
Yet it's something that we keep trying. There is something deep within the human psyche that compels us to strive towards the horizon, exploring the unknown. And as JFK so eloquently put it, whilst announcing the Apollo programme, "we chose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard'.
More recently, there's been a shift in the driving force behind human space exploration: not so much the assertion of national prestige, but private corporations chasing a profit. Space has become a bankable commodity. First, it will serve as an adventure activity and holiday destination - short suborbital flights and stays in space hotels - but before too long I'm confident we'll begin exploiting extraterrestrial natural resources. These might include particles of the solar wind soaked into the lunar surface, which would provide fuel for fusion reactors (once we crack that technology), or the huge lumps of metal offered by many asteroids; we'll begin mining the skies.
For me, though, there is a clear fundamental reason for humanity to ensure a long-term future in space. Because it will ensure a long-term future for humanity. Any number of potential global catastrophes, including comet or asteroid impacts, threaten our species' existence on the planet. We can't afford to risk all our eggs in one planetary basket. Independent, off-world colonies would serve as an insurance policy against the unthinkable happening and allow recolonisation of our homeworld after the apocalypse.
Humanity inevitably has a future in space; we just need to keep our eyes on the horizon and stride forwards.
Dr. Lewis Dartnell is an astrobiology research scientist at the Centre for Planetary Sciences, University College London. He is talking at the iq2 If conference on Saturday 26th November on 'Humanity's Future in Space', and how we'll get from here to there.
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The recent story of human-digital interactions is one of steadily increasing closeness: we are moving from merely 'personal' computing to something that you might call 'intimate' computing. Modern smartphones and tablets, with their touchscreens and their constant presence in our lives, are extensions of our selves in a way that no digital device was even a decade ago. They are the channels through which we interact with even the most important people in our lives. They are where we work and play; where we hang out with friends. They are the first thing many of us touch when we wake in the morning and the last when we go to bed at night.
Our relationship with technology is, it seems to me, one that's increasingly governed by the dynamics of leisure and play. We have an incredibly satisfying sense of control when we are plugged into the best digital tools - and, increasingly, a gnawing sense of anxiety when we are unplugged. There is the pleasure of the most serious kind of play: the agency that comes from transforming the world into a kind of game, full of achievements, progress and certainties.
When you consider the power the devices in our pockets are going to have in even a decade's time, it's also clear that this integration of digital tools into the texture of daily living has barely begun. The layers of digital information and interaction that we bring with us, wherever we are, are only going to increase in both complexity and ease. We're looking at a future not of immersive virtual worlds, but of a virtualised version of this one: everything around us augmented by the power of personalised devices and services.
Some of the trends this points to are wonderful, some troubling. Everything in our lives, from clothing, to food, to our own health, is already starting to have its digital shadow. Who safeguards and owns this data, and what they do with it, is a big question. A bigger question still, however, is how the coming decades will affect what it feels like to be us. As we distribute more and more of our selves across technological services and devices, what feels most "real" in many lives is migrating from where we are to something intangible: what we bring with us, everywhere and anywhere; and what we wish others to bring in return.
Tom Chatfield will be giving a talk at the iq2 If Conference November 25-26 at the Royal Geographical Society, London.
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