New Glenn and the Importance of Planetary Science

December 22, 2016
Sarah Cruddas
December 22, 2016
Sarah Cruddas
Image credit: NASA

The passing of John Glenn marks a closure on our first chapter in the history of space exploration. Glenn was not only an American hero, but a global hero. The last surviving member of the Mercury 7, Glenn along with Shepard, Grissom, Cooper, Slayton, Carpenter and Schirra, were the public faces of the first time humanity left the cradle of our home planet to explore space.

There will never, in the history of human exploration, be a time like that again. Nothing will ever compare to the pioneers who took the human race beyond Earth. It is thanks to the scientists, engineers and explorers of that era, that humanity entered the Space Age. They laid the foundations for every space dream that any young boy or girl has had since. Among those space dreamers, Jeff Bezos, who has fittingly named two of his rockets after Shepard and Glenn.

In little more than five decades since Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, 12 humans have set foot on the Moon, more than 500 have been to space, humans live and work in orbit around the Earth, hundreds of satellites looking back at Earth have transformed the way we live our lives, we have discovered planets orbiting other stars, photographed as far into the universe as current technology allows and visited all nine of the classical planets in our Solar System.

And it is in planetary science, combined with the knowledge of the government space sector and ambition of the new commercial space industry, that the next exciting chapter in space lies. “Planetary science is a driver for humans to explore and build a multi-planetary species” says Alan Stern, principle investigator of the NASA New Horizons mission to Pluto and a founding partner of World View Enterprises. “Planetary science helps stretch our technology and not only teaches us about other planets, but about our own planet. It teaches us about our species and our place in the universe.”

Image Credit: Blue Origin

The biggest prize now in terms of human exploration of space is Mars. Just like Glenn and the Space Race helped define the last century, humans walking on Mars and the race to get there will define this century. It is a place according to Moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, that had we have continued with the momentum of Apollo, we could have sent humans to Mars by the 1980s or 1990s at the latest. And it is planetary science which is helping to drive forward and determine when and how we explore Mars in the future.

“We need to know the best locations to send future missions. Besides resources and practical matters like knowing how stable the surface is for heavy landers, we need to understand things like Mars weather.” Explains Jack Holt from the Institute of Geophysics at the University of Texas, Austin, who has been studying ice over Mars using NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Most significantly, of course is the presence of water ice on Mars, particular in terms of future missions, including human landings. “The availability of water ice for sustaining humans, growing food, and making rocket fuel is, in my view, the most critical.” Says Holt.

Today, most of the water ice we know of is at the poles, a place where you would not want to send humans to land because of extreme temperatures and low levels of sunlight needed for solar power. But it is the detecting water ice in areas where people could potentially land, which presents some of the most exciting possibilities. “We can make predictions about where it may have been stable in the past at lower latitudes based on changes in Mars’ orbital parameters, but knowing that it exists in the subsurface is a different matter altogether. Merging this theory of where the ice could have been with the observational aspect, which enables us to find it and quantify it, is where planetary science comes in.” Adds Holt.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Recently Holt was part of a team which uncovered frozen beneath Mars’ plains as much water Lake Superior, the largest of America’s Great Lakes. The findings represent less than 1% of all of the water on Mars, but is more than double the volume of thick buried ice sheets already known of in the Northern Plains which is an exciting prospect for planetary scientists, such as Holt. "This deposit is probably more accessible than most water ice on Mars, because it is at a relatively low latitude and it lies in a flat, smooth area where landing a spacecraft would be easier than at some of the other areas with buried ice."

It is research such as this would could prove crucial in determining where the first manned missions to Mars would land. But with this also comes another possibility, more evidence towards the potential of life on Mars. “With so much underground water – some of which might even be liquid – there’s an enhanced possibility that the Red Planet is not a dead planet!” Says Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute.

Holt and others are continuing to probe Mars with radar, while simultaneously conducting studies on Earth, to develop better techniques to understand other planets. “This involves flying radars over ice in Alaska, Antarctica, and Greenland, but at the moment I am focusing on Alaska where we find glaciers with a great deal of rocky debris on top of the ice in places.”

The ultimate goal is of course human boots on Mars. Achieving this will likely combine both government and private industry. And the planetary science being developed will help drive forward this new private space era. “It is critical to commercial space exploration. You need to have an idea of what is out there and what resources could be utilized before sending missions. Given the costs involved to send anything into space, you want as much prior information about your target as possible.” Adds Holt.

But the legacy of our first footsteps into space, and those who paved the way, will remain with those future explorers of Mars. From the passionate speeches of ‘cycling orbits’ and ‘getting your ass to Mars’ made by Buzz Aldrin. To the fact that among those private companies looking to Mars is Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, with its New Glenn rocket, something which has the potential to take humans beyond Earth once again and onwards to Mars. Meaning New Glenn, just like its namesake, could help not just America, but the world, in a new era of exploration.

There’s never been a better time to get involved in commercial space. If you’re ready to start investing in private space companies, we invite you to apply for membership to Space Angels.

 Sarah Cruddas is a Space Journalist, Broadcaster and Author with a background in astrophysics. She is the voice of space on British TV for channels including Sky News, Channel 5 and ITV. Specializing in space exploration she has reported on the industry from across the

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