In a Cavern…in a Lunar Canyon

Recently I expect that many of you may have seen some of the stunning new images coming from the Cassini spacecraft, which, being the largest deep space probe ever launched to the outer solar system, is still delivering, 12 years on, incredible science from its traverse around Saturn and its moons.

Titan seen here in a composite image from Cassini (c) NASA
Titan seen here in a composite image from Cassini (c) NASA

The latest batch of images, collated from the past decade and more show deep liquid filled canyons. NASA and others including the team behind the European Space Agency’s “Huygens” probe have long wanted to return to Titan with options ranging from submarines to aircraft and boats to delve ever deeper into this mysterious, shrouded world.

Currently, with the technology we have, robotic exploration rules. We simply cannot send humans out to these distances, or even half way. Throughout this next century, any notion of human exploration of Jupiter and beyond will likely as not be in the realms of science fiction, given the current rate of our “progress”. By which I mean since 1972 we’ve barely been out of low Earth orbit.

On a recent visit to the Science Museum in London, I was able to see the model/mock-up of the Huygens lander, sitting in the space hall, alongside other remnants of the space era. From works by Oberth, Von Braun, Tsiolkovsky and Goddard… all legends of rocketry, who pushed the boundaries of what was possible, and imagined what they may be thinking of “where we are now”.

Von Braun had a vision for post Apollo exploration. One that would have a space station in orbit, but one that could help build other spacecraft for our journey onward to Mars. Here was a man with vision.

Apollo legends
Werner Von Braun and other architects of rocketry and the Apollo program

With SLS looking more and more likely to have cutbacks and delays, and no real vision of what the plan is (mainly due to costs we suspect), is it now time for the like of SpaceX and others to take the baton (to cite the Olympics) and run with it?

Titan, it is said, gives us some analogies with our own planet’s early history, but then so does Mars. We live on a world in the so called “Goldilocks Zone”, and with the Kepler and other space telescopes growing more and more capable of detecting exoplanets, and probing their atmospheres and secrets, how long will it be until we find a true analogue to our planet, one that we can conclusively state could support life, or even show, via inferred readings that it has life?

With the James Webb telescope, the Square Kilometre Array, the ELT and more, our capabilities of detecting remote and distant worlds grows ever stronger. But our exploration plans are still stagnating.

I always ask myself the question “Great, so we find a distant planet with life on it… then what?” Current technology means an 11,000+ year journey to the nearest star system outside of our own. Even with planned sub light speed nano -satellites, if they ever get built, which still means we are looking at 30-40 year journey times just to get to Proxima Centauri (and then a 4+ year wait to see any results).

Yet sitting in our own “front porch” as Gene Cernan once said is a Moon that still needs vastly more human exploration, and Mars, a possible home itself to microbial-subsurface life forms. At the very least a return to lunar exploration would give human beings the skill-sets needed to progress further.

Astronomy is an exploration by proxy, and has huge value in everything we do, not least of all to our understanding of the Universe. But true exploration, in to the canyons and valleys of the Moon, Mars and maybe even one day beyond, is what we should be aiming for.

Anyone care to disagree?




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