Traveling from Bangalore to New Delhi takes around 3 hours by flight; while that from New Delhi to America takes about 15 hours. How long do you think would it take us to reach Saturn? That’s a bizarre question that our scientists have been trying to answer.
In this article about “interplanetary travel”, we shall throw light upon some of the mind-boggling ideas about space and how our future is entwined with it. Before going any further into the discussion let’s first understand the basic definition of interplanetary travel.
Simply put Interplanetary spaceflight or interplanetary travel refers to all the methodologies involved in traveling between celestial bodies within our solar system, specifically between different planets.
It is an umbrella term that involves various associated processes such as sending spacecraft from one planet to another, allowing humans to explore foreign planets, or executing robotic missions to study other worlds.
For now, the prime focus of such travels is on reaching and landing on different planets or moons to find life or other things which humans could benefit from.
At present, this is being conducted by two means:
-Crewed missions: Such missions are intended to send astronauts to different planets for gathering information and carrying out scientific observations.
-Uncrewed missions: Unlike crewed missions, these missions do not require humans to be sent to various planets. Robotic spacecraft with special modifications are used to collect data and perform the task intended.
From Myth to Reality…
History is the mother of all stories. Interplanetary travel has come a long way since its adoption as a scientific area of research. Let’s trace back the origin of an idea that is a topic of great interest and possibilities to date.
Ancient Concepts and Observations
1. Prehistoric Civilizations
Early civilizations, such as the Babylonians, Greeks, and Egyptians, keenly observed the movements of celestial bodies like the moons, stars, and planets. We find numerous mentions of space and its corresponding calculations in the pre-medieval texts. All this is indicative of man’s curiosity regarding the world beyond Earth.
2. Hindu Scriptures
There is a good deal of Hindu scriptures talking about space and time. It is believed that similar marvels were known to our ancient pundits, the Puranakaras, long back. The scripts also reveal that sages of that time were also equipped with advanced knowledge such as the fact that gravity can bend time in space.
Ancient sages freely moved from Earth to far-off worlds like Brahma loka, which had different time speeds than Earth, writes Dr. Asha Goswami.
In the late 16th century, Nicolaus Copernicus a renowned polymath, proposed the heliocentric model. According to the model, the Sun is at the center of the solar system and other planets and stars orbit around it at different speeds. This partially correct but informative model paved the way for a deeper understanding of planetary motion.
Early Space Flybys
For conducting successful interplanetary travel missions; astrophysicists required deep knowledge about the working of the universe, especially the neighboring planets. Various space missions were launched to gather sufficient data about the possibilities of such travels.
1. Mariner Missions (1962-1973)
NASA’s (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) Mariner spacecraft conducted the first successful flybys of Mars, Venus, and Mercury. It provided valuable data about these planets which was later used for guiding more task-specific expeditions.
2. Pioneer and Voyager Missions (1970-1980)
The Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft were sent with the main goal of exploring the outer planets and providing close-up images of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. The information gathered became the base for future space expeditions.
Landers and Rovers Programmes
1. Viking Missions (1975)
NASA’s Viking 1 and Viking 2 landers successfully reached Mars, performing experiments and searching for signs of life. The main motive behind sending the crafts was to return images of the surface. The Viking mission was planned to continue for 90 days after landing.
2. Mars Rovers (1997)
Beginning with the Mars Pathfinder, a series of rovers, including Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity, and Perseverance, have been deployed to explore the Martian surface, study its geological topography and search for evidence of past habitability.
3. Cassini-Huygens Mission (1997)
The Cassini spacecraft reached Saturn in 2004. It orbited the planet, providing detailed images of Saturn, its rings, and its moons. The Huygens probe, carried by Cassini, successfully landed on Saturn’s moon Titan, revealing its complex atmosphere and surface.
Why Bridge the Celestial Gap?
Interplanetary travel represents the peak of human intrigue. The fundamental human desire is to explore the unknown, expand our horizons, and unfold the mysteries of the universe. Moreover, such operations are the beginning of a new era of science and technology.
1. Scientific Exploration
Interplanetary travel not only allows us to study and explore other planets, moons, and celestial bodies, but providing valuable information about their geology, atmosphere, climate, and most importantly- potential for life.
Apart from understanding our solar system, such advancements would also help us to gain knowledge about planetary evolution. By examining other planets, we can better comprehend the processes that shaped and continue to affect our planet, Earth, and gain awareness about the formation and evolutionary patterns of planetary systems.
2. Search for Life
Do aliens exist? This is one question that almost every science enthusiast must have come across at least once in their lifetime. At present the best means to answer this question is by making interplanetary travel a reality. Exploring other planets, especially Mars and moons such as Europa and Enceladus (moons of Jupiter), offers the possibility of finding evidence of past or present life beyond Earth.
Habitability studies and understanding the conditions necessary for life to thrive can help us assess the potential habitability of other planets and guide future human exploration and colonization efforts. To know more about extraterrestrial life, check out this article.
3. Technological Advancement
Interplanetary travel challenges the conventional way of perceiving science. It pushes the present technological boundaries and propels us to develop new technologies, propulsion systems, life support systems, and navigation methods that can be applied to other domains.
Research in this field will not only enhance our scope in the space niche but also develop other associated fields such as sustainable energy, communication, and transportation. With such advanced missions underway, we will see a great leap in the robotics and automation sector.
Robotic missions to other planets require progress in robotics, artificial intelligence, and autonomous systems, leading to innovations that can be applied in various industries on Earth as well.
4. Planetary Defense
Interplanetary travel would allow us to study and monitor asteroids and comets that cross Earth’s orbit, providing crucial data for potential planetary defense strategies against impact events. Studying Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) would prove beneficial in preventing collisions in the solar system or even controlling them according to our needs.
5. Future Human Settlement
The accelerated growth rate of human civilization has raised several grave issues in a short period. The science community is facing problems concerning the long-term survival and expansion of our species.
Interplanetary travel opens up the possibility of establishing human settlements on other planets, ensuring the solution to almost 80% of the issues. If we can make interplanetary travel successful for normal people, we might be able to provide access to valuable resources, such as water, minerals, and energy, that can sustain future space-based industries and support human endeavors.
Navigating the Cosmic Roadblocks
Almost all the space innovations we know today were initially addressed as a madman’s daydream. every life-changing discovery carries with itself countless challenges. Interplanetary travel is no exception; we have listed below a few of the major challenges posed today.
Distance and Time
Vast Distances: The distances between planets can be huge. For instance, the distance between Earth and Neptune is estimated to be around 4.4917 billion Km (0.000475 lightyears).
Because these two planets are part of the same solar system and we know almost nothing about what lies ahead of it; We are lagging in terms of scientific evolvement. bui8ldingsuch futuristic spacecraft that are capable of traveling millions or even billions of kilometers pose significant logistical and navigational challenges.
Travel Time: Interplanetary journeys can take months or years as estimated by the current mechanisms of travel available, necessitating careful planning for life support systems, crew health, and resource management during extended missions.
Developing propulsion systems capable of providing enough thrust over long durations while conserving fuel is crucial for interplanetary travel. Constructing such efficient and sustainable devices requires a great understanding of various sectors of technology and their practical application.
Sustaining power supply during long missions in space, especially in the outer solar system, where sunlight is limited and human help is distant, requires advanced and efficient power generation systems.
Planetary Entry, Exit, and Landing
Atmospheric Entry: Safely entering a planet’s atmosphere at high speeds without burning up or experiencing excessive heat is a critical challenge. The severity of the issue increases since we don’t have adequate knowledge about how different planets’ gravitational field function.
Safe Landing: Achieving precise landings on planets or moons with different terrains, limited visibility, and potential hazards requires advanced guidance, navigation, and landing systems. Several other factors play a key role during the process; such as the rocket’s modifications and resilience against pressure.
Long-duration Missions: Ensuring the physical and psychological well-being of astronauts during such extended interplanetary missions is a tough task. Complete well-being involves addressing issues like radiation exposure, microgravity effects, and mental health as well.
Closed-loop Life Support: Developing sustainable life support systems that can provide food, water, and breathable air (rich in oxygen) for crews without relying on resupply from Earth is a significant challenge. We are still way behind in developing such alternatives to the daily needs and body requirements of man.
Communication and Navigation
Establishing reliable and high-bandwidth communication links with spacecraft at large distances from Earth is crucial for real-time monitoring, control, and data transmission. But our technology does not permit us to do such hefty missions at present.
Navigating spacecraft accurately over long distances, accounting for gravitational forces, orbital dynamics, and positional accuracy is essential not only for successful interplanetary travel but also to ensure the safety of the passengers. Without appropriate navigation and communication; sending astronauts to space would be like attempting murder.
Planetary Environment and Resource Utilization
Though we are way ahead of where we had started, yet, we are unaware of about 95% of the planetary environments. Such inadequacies pose serious challenges. Extremities such as thin atmospheres, extreme temperatures, and radiation exposure become challenges for spacecraft, habitats, and human exploration.
Identifying and utilizing local resources, such as water ice on moons or asteroids, for life support, fuel production, and material extraction can enable long-term sustainability and reduce reliance on Earth. But the problem faced by scientists is in finding apt methods for their extraction. We are still working towards building techniques for the feasible extraction of resources from distant worlds.
Cost and Funding
Interplanetary missions are still in the process of development. The journey of this idea becoming a reality will involve significant financial investments in spacecraft development, launch vehicles, mission operations, and scientific research. All these would make funding a continuous challenge.
One of the ways to tackle this issue is through collaboration between space agencies, private companies, and international partners. It is essential to share costs, expertise, and resources for ambitious interplanetary endeavors. It will not only lessen the burden from any one organization; rather build a team with the brightest of minds bringing their views to the table.
What does the future look like?
50 years from now- Will we be living the same way? Will we have plots on Mars? Will we book spacecraft instead of airplanes? Will we be visiting different planets for our vacation trip? well, that’s a question that our scientists have not yet answered. Listed below are some of the imminent speculations that we can expect shortly.
Ultra-modern Missions to Mars
Sending humans to Mars is a long-term goal for space agencies and private companies since time immemorial. Establishing sustainable habitats, conducting scientific research, and preparing for potential colonization are key objectives for future crewed or uncrewed missions.
Advancements in Propulsion Systems
Developing advanced propulsion technologies such as ion propulsion, nuclear propulsion, or breakthrough concepts like warp drives, could significantly reduce travel time and make interplanetary journeys more feasible and less energy-consuming.
Private companies, such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, are actively driving the development of space tourism. In the future, interplanetary travel could become a commercial venture, allowing individuals to explore other planets and experience space firsthand.
Our bucket lists might soon have places like Uranus and Jupiter on them.
Asteroid Mining and Resource Utilization
Providing for the human population has always been the primary goal of any scientific operation undertaken. Mining asteroids for valuable resources, such as water, minerals, and precious metals, could provide a sustainable source of raw materials for space-based industries and support future interplanetary missions as well.
Advanced Robotics and Automation
Robots will continue to play a vital role in interplanetary exploration, conducting scientific research, and preparing the way for human missions. Advancements in robotics and artificial intelligence will enable more sophisticated and autonomous spacecraft and rovers.
In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU)
Developing technologies to extract and utilize resources from other planets, such as extracting water from lunar or Martian ice, will enable the production of propellant, breathable air, and construction materials, reducing reliance on Earth for supplies.
Deep Space Communication Network
Establishing a more robust and extensive deep space communication network will improve real-time communication with spacecraft, enabling more efficient data transmission, remote operations, and enhanced mission capabilities. We will be able to overcome the problems related to poor long-distance telecommunication.
International cooperation will play a crucial role in interplanetary travel. Collaborative efforts among space agencies and nations as a whole will combine resources, expertise, and funding.
Space Settlement and Colonization
Developing sustainable habitats and life support systems for long-duration missions and potential colonization efforts on other planets or moons will be a key focus for future interplanetary travel. This will also be the first step towards setting human colonies on planets other than Earth.
As technology advances, interstellar travel could become a reality. Apart from traveling to other planets in our solar system; we might be traveling to other systems in our galaxy or even other galaxies as well.
All in all…
Interplanetary travel is a partial reality at present; with an immensely prosperous and promising future. scientists are dogged over solving this space puzzle; a puzzle that can change the shape of human evolution. For now, we are focusing mainly on achieving interplanetary travel as a means of scientific expansion, but, it can very well be considered as a peek into the future.