These are exciting times for space exploration. For the first time in a generation, human missions beyond Earth orbit are being seriously considered by space agencies on both sides of the Atlantic. Europe has initiated the Aurora programme, with the ultimate aim of landing people on Mars by 2033, while the US has recently redirected its human space activities towards a return to the Moon.
On Friday 2 April, Dr. Ian Crawford, a planetary scientist based at Birkbeck College, London, will be explaining to the RAS National Astronomy Meeting, held at the Open University in Milton Keynes, that there are indeed strong scientific reasons for sending people back to the Moon and on to Mars.
These arguments are further developed in an article published in the April issue of the Royal Astronomical Society's journal Astronomy & Geophysics, which is timed to coincide with the meeting.
"The reasons for exploring the Moon and Mars are both very strong, but rather different," said Dr. Crawford. "The importance of the Moon results from its extremely ancient surface, which preserves a record of early Solar System history that is not preserved anywhere else. On the other hand, the main reason for wanting to explore Mars is to search for past or present life on the planet, which is probably one of the most important scientific questions of our time."
Given that strong scientific cases exist for a human return to the Moon and for sending people on to Mars, Dr. Crawford argues that the two should be combined in a self-consistent, international strategy for Solar System exploration.
Europe's Aurora programme could be a major part of such a strategy. The UK will shortly have to decide whether or not to participate in the human spaceflight aspects of Aurora, and Dr. Crawford believes that we should seize this unique opportunity to play a leading role in these exciting endeavours.
Given the difficulties of sending people to Mars, Dr. Crawford argues that it would be wiser, initially, to concentrate human spaceflight activities on the Moon. This would not only teach us much about the Moon and its history, but also help pave the way for later human missions to Mars by developing the necessary technology and expertise. However, the robotic exploration of Mars could, and should, continue in parallel with a manned lunar programme.
"By pursuing parallel programmes to build up a human spaceflight capability on the Moon and to advance robotic Mars exploration, there is a realistic chance that we will have developed both the human spaceflight expertise and the detailed knowledge of the Martian environment to make human missions to the Red Planet both scientifically worthwhile and technically feasible before the middle of this century," said Dr. Crawford.
ESA's Aurora Programme
Dr. Crawford's article in Astronomy & Geophysics
Ian Crawford Page
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