The Beav according to Beav

Still crazy after all these years.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

A Vital Endeavor

    Space: it has baffled and inspired mankind for millennia. It is fascinating and enticing, but at the same time, cold and unfeeling. It’s the epitome of everything we don’t know about our universe. So we investigate, and we explore. But should we? Why should we spend billions of dollars hurtling complicated equipment and some of our finest people into the harsh void just to learn about it? Technological gains, understanding of our own planet, and scouting for an escape plan make space exploration a vital endeavor.

    It takes great expenditure to explore the universe. Lots of complicated systems and mechanisms had to be developed to keep people and equipment safe in an inherently unsafe environment. If all those developments stayed floating in orbit, they would still be worthwhile just for the security it lends those few who go there. But they don’t stay in space. The gadgets and gizmos and technological marvels often find use among the Earthbound masses. Scratch-resistant lenses used for glasses, memory foam used for mattresses, global positioning systems used to navigate everything from naval ships and army tanks to cars and smartphones were all developed by NASA for use in the space program. Paul Vernon, a broker who works with the European Space Agency, noticed that when tiny cantilevers designed to adjust the positions of mirrors on satellites were dropped in liquid, the rate at which they bent depended on the viscosity of that liquid. He soon realized that this could literally be a life-saver for patients at risk of strokes or heart attacks. These patients need to test their blood viscosity regularly: too thin and they risk bleeding profusely, too thick and they risk clots. He founded Microvisk, which now makes handheld blood viscosity sensors.

    Beyond pushing engineers to think up new doohickeys to make our lives easier or more comfortable, space exploration also helps scientists learn more about our own planet. Just having people and systems in orbit has enabled governments all over the globe to direct efforts to combat wildfires and relief to those stricken by natural disasters. Many of those systems also help scientists understand our climate with better accuracy and in more detail. NASA designed a mission, Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE), to study Earth’s gravity field. Through its sensors, it was able to “see” changes in water distribution throughout the planet. Not only did GRACE show water tables dropping and drought conditions spreading, but also the loss of hundreds of billions of tons of ice in Greenland and Antarctica. Currently, Earth stands alone as the one hospitable speck in the known universe — one tiny oasis in the infinite desert of space. The more scientists learn about the delicate balance in the biosphere, the better equipped the human race is to keep it functioning.

    However, regardless of everything done to ensure that the Earth stays habitable for as long as possible, it is inevitably doomed. According to scientists, in roughly four or five billion years, the sun will have fused all its hydrogen into helium and begin fusing the helium into carbon. That switch-over will cause it to abruptly expand and engulf the first few planets, including the Earth. But no one need wait quite that long. Astrophysicists calculate that the sun brightens about ten percent every billion years, so all of the water will boil off the planet more than a billion years before it is consumed. Those unavoidable scenarios are a long way off, surely, but those are only the scenarios that are certain. If the Earth survives for 3.5 billion years, it will be a barren husk of a planet. If it survives another billion, it will become so much fuel for the expanding sun’s growth. However, there are plenty of other scenarios which, though less certain, are certainly more imminent on the timeline. Phil Plait lists some of them in his book Death From the Skies! These Are the Ways the World Will End. There is a one-in-ten million chance, for example, of a star exploding into a supernova within twenty-five light years of Earth, which would kill all of Earth’s life. He states that the odds of an asteroid large enough to end all life impacting the planet within a human lifetime as one in 700,000. This sounds very unlikely, but it’s still more likely than a person being killed in a terrorist attack. Besides, how many lifetimes does it take before this unlikely event is likely or even certain? Neil deGrasse Tyson, renowned astrophysicist and science communicator, said of space exploration: “It's vital to our prosperity and security.” If the human race is to survive in perpetuity, it must have a way to escape the planet.

    Critics argue that even traveling at a million miles an hour, it would take four thousand years to reach the nearest star system that might be hospitable. While that’s true, it’s a problem that cannot be solved without experimentation. There are several avenues currently being pursued to solve it. New drive systems are theorized and investigated, including fantastical ideas like bending space-time to get around the physical limitations of relativity. Experiments in long-term isolation run constantly, both on Earth and in space, to test and improve people’s abilities to survive extended voyages. Sailing a ship all the way around the globe was impossible until Ferdinand Magellan did it in the sixteenth century. Powered flight was a pipe dream until it wasn’t, thanks to Orville and Wilbur Wright. The current state of technology would be hard pressed to get a viable population to a distant world, but the only way to make progress is to progress. In order to complete the journey, one must first step forward.

    Of course, there are challenges associated with space exploration. Space is as dangerous as it is enticing. But there are rewards for those who dare to face those challenges. We gain technologies to improve our lives. We gain understanding of the planet that gives us life. Though it seems impossible, we find a new home and a means to reach it, hopefully before the clock runs out and this home dies. For the sake of humanity, the living and the yet to be born, we must continue stepping forward on our journey of exploration. It’s a vital endeavor.