International cooperation in space

Gone are the days when there used to be only two major spacefaring countries—United States and the USSR. The 21st century has seen the emergence of new players in the field of space exploration. These include the European Space Agency (ESA), China, Japan, India, South Korea, Iran, Israel and even private space companies. While this has made the field of space exploration ever more exciting, it has also added new challenges. The addition of more players means the increase in likelihood of yet another space race akin to the one between the former two superpowers; the difference this time being more multilateral and with wider repercussions. As such it becomes necessary that there be a healthy competition between the parties and enough transparency between them so as to ensure the peaceful use of outer space.

 

The good news is that there hasn’t been any direct conflict between competing nations in space thus far. This is impressive given that history is filled with wars and battles that have taken place for land territories over oceans and air. However, will the countries be able to maintain peace as more and more players enter the arena? This is a question that needs greater attention before countries become distrustful of each other due to militarization of space.

 

Owing to security concerns and the Chinese ambition to dominate space, the United States congress has banned NASA from any cooperation with the Chinese Space Agency. Though the Chinese space program is still in its infancy and way behind, the United States nevertheless, perceives a formidable opponent. However, as China grows more and more dominating in space, it will become increasingly difficult for the US to sequester itself from a partnership.

Considering the current pace of progress, the Chinese space program outstripping that of ESA and Russia in the coming years is likely. As such, the US space program which has been running short of budget and thus looking for international partners, may not be able avoid China anymore. Moreover, the US government might experience mounting pressure from the private sector to partner with China.

 

One area of a shared challenge that makes it imperative for both the countries to work together is orbital debris control. Orbital debris are objects floating in space that can cause significant damage to satellites and space crafts. While this has become a topic for international concern and one that the US has taken keen interest on, it cannot be solved without the inclusion of China.

Speaking of orbital debris control, this has also been one of the areas where there has been significant progress in international cooperation. United States, Russia, Japan and ESA came to an agreement to the formation of Inter-agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) in 1993. It has called upon states to take necessary steps to keep space clean and safe. IADC eventually coordinated with Committee on Peaceful Use of Outer Space (COPUOS) to craft the space debris mitigation guidelines.

Looking back in history, there have been co-operations in space with political implications. The international space station (ISS) which is a co-operation between five nations or parties—USA, ESA, Russia, Canada and Japan—embodies their willingness to put aside their political differences and work together where humans share a common interest for space exploration. NASA’s ISS project, which initially started with the goals of interplanetary exploration in 1984, later was transformed into an international space co-operation, in order to ‘link’ their allies into the program. However, after the breakup of the former Russian federation, fearing the proliferation of the ballistic missile technology from Russia to rogue nations, the US felt it necessary to cooperate with Russia. Thus a truly international cooperation in space began symbolising an end to the Cold War era.

Similar co-operation had also taken place earlier in mid 1970s when Apollo-18 had coupled with Soyuz. While the technical merits associated with the event was significant, the political ones at the time of the transition period of the cold war was more significant.

The international cooperation in space is most pressing when it comes to the issue of its weaponization. Though there has not been any weaponization of space to date the problem is that virtually anything can be used as a weapon in space. Even the deployed satellites that are deemed to be ‘peaceful,’ are used by military to direct bombing raids or to orchestrate a “prompt global strike” capability. Moreover, if a number of satellites were destroyed during the course of a war, it would create so much debris that it would make impossible for future satellites to be placed in space and limit space access.

Though there have been a number of treaties like Partial Test Ban Treaty, Outer Space Treaty, Launch Registration Convention, the Moon Treaty and the likes, they only ban the placement weapons of mass destruction in space. They do not prohibit countries from placing other kinds of weapons. For this reason, Conference for Disarmament (CD) established an ad hoc committee to identify and examine the issues relevant to Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS). The United States resolutely opposed this due to its large missile defense program and technical advantage in potential space weaponry.

While competition has always acted as a catalyst for states to venture into space, the need for international cooperation cannot be overstated. Especially, due to the possibility of the deployment of weapons of mass destruction, treaties such as PAROS have to come to fruition. For this to happen there has to be a trust build-up between the major spacefaring countries. There is a precedent for such an agreement in history when the US and Russian Federation joined hands to sign the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty at the height of the cold war. There is no cold war today and the relationship between China and US though complex, is nowhere as hostile as between US and Russia back then. Cooperation in space exploration needs a leadership today and thus presents a good opportunity for the US. Refraining from such cooperation will only aggravate the situation as those countries will find their own ways to develop technologies and result in a new and a potentially more dangerous arms race. Whereas joining hands will set an example for future generations and serve as a moral guidance in times of crisis.

Arkwright

The Plot:

Nathan Arkwright is a science fiction writer ranked among such classic authors as Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. After the death of his wife, he becomes cantankerous and recluses himself from the public. He rarely comes in contact even with his estranged daughter and granddaughter. At his death, he passes on a will to establish a foundation by the name of Arkwright whose aim is space exploration and ultimately space colonisation. His three old and entrusted friends convince Kate (granddaughter) to take on the project and it is now up to her and future generations to achieve the goal.

Through Arkwright, Steele argues exactly why humans need to explore and why space-colonization is the next logical step for mankind. Beautifully written and explained, the writer is able to maintain suspense until the very end. There are parts in the novel where the reader has no idea and even frustrated about what the heck is going on until the writer clarifies everything. The novel can basically be divided into two parts with each part having its distinctive plot. The first part (as described above) deals with the frustrations of a science fiction writer about the pace at which the exploration of the outer space is taking place and his initiation to establish a foundation responsible to migrate humans to the exoplanets. The second part deals with the unforeseen situation one might have to encounter after having reached the exoplanet. However, apart from one incidence when an eosian (name given to the exoplanet) receives a message from a little girl on Earth which was sent centuries ago, there is no real connection between the two plots. Besides being a science fiction, the novel (specially the second part) can also be seen as a satire to the creationists. A number of conversations and arguments that take place between the inhabitants of the two states of the exoplanet Eos (Providence and Purgatory) are analogous to the crux of the debate that take place between the non-religious and creationists. The fictional characters of Providence, however, turnout to be more prudent than the creationists.

Apart from the big ideas of space colonisation and terraforming, the portrayal of relationship between a father and his estranged daughter, grandfather and his estranged granddaughter, the romantic narratives make the novel interesting to read. Towards the end of the novel, when the inhabitants of Providence discover their kinship with earth and the drama that ensues is moving.

No doubt Steele has got most of the science right, however, has failed to go into details many of the accomplishments. Besides planetary exploration, he has ignored the developments that might take place in other areas of technology. Moreover, the conclusion did not have to be so dry.

All in all, despite some of its shortcomings, a good book to read and I definitely recommend it.

Solomons Arrow–A book review

Two themes form the basis for this novel. One is that the speed of light is the speed limit and the faster one can travel, the slower will the time be for him. The other theme is that the space-time can be folded and thus one can travel from one part of the universe to another part in a fraction of a second.

It is the middle of the twenty-first century and Dr Solomon Chavez, the CEO of CIMRAD and a trillionaire is sending the first humans (along with himself) to a planet in another solar system known as Epsilon Eridani. Despite a terrorist organization known as the CRA, trying to foil the plan, the space shuttle, known as Solomon’s Arrow is successfully launched. Traveling at almost the speed of light for ten years, the crew is finally successful in reaching its destination. However, to their astonishment, they find that the planet (EE-4) they have arrived at is already inhabited by humans. The humans had arrived there thousands of years ago by a space-folding technology known as foldway.

Here is where Einstein’s theory of relativity kicks in. In the ten years that they had travelled at almost the speed of light, thousands of years had already passed on Earth. In this duration, the Earthlings were successful in building the space-folding technology otherwise known as foldway. So forms yet another plan to travel to another planet, this time using the foldway technology. However, blowing the Yellowstone caldera and causing an eruption, the aftermath of which resulted in the annihilation almost all the inhabitants of Earth, this time the CRA is successful not only in thwarting the plan but also replacing themselves in place of the original crew of Burnhams and traversing through the space and thus arriving at this planet. This is where the novel gets interesting.

However, the author is not able to maintain the same amount of interest throughout the novel. In the jumble of events that Jennings has infused it is easy for oneself to lose the thrust of the plot. Too much effort is placed in describing the details of the events and thus unnecessarily elongating the novel, which make it boring at times. The ending is quite surprising and, I would say, distressing as the first travellers to the Epsilon Eridani decide to return to Earth and never make any journey to the outer space in the future. While the ideas of population control, protection of environment and sustainable development are indisputable, the idea that the human race should never aspire to go beyond Earth and reach for the stars is by no means a logical conclusion. Besides, the author fails to explain the ideals of the terrorist organization CRA. Simply assuming that their goal is to create terror is grossly superficial. Perhaps the CRA had the same objective that Jennings concludes at the ending. If so, it is a manifestation of his confusion. All in all Solomon’s Arrow is a mediocre novel.

Terraforming Venus

 

Have you ever wondered how wonderful would it be to have another earth-like planet. How wonderful would it be to migrate to that planet or at least to go on a vacation to the planet? You may be thinking that I may be talking about some other exoplanet which may be a few light years away from the Earth. No, I am not talking about any exoplanet, neither am I talking about Mars. With almost the same gravitational force as of Earth and given its proximity to Earth, Venus is not a bad place to be (well, at least after it has been terraformed). ‘Terraforming Venus! But its way too hard.’ You may think. And I agree. It is hard; And that’s what makes it so exciting.

Venus has long been neglected as a potential second Earth as opposed to Mars and has failed to capture the imagination of scientists and visionaries alike. While it’s true that Mars is a much easier place for humans to consider a settlement and should therefore be given the first priority, it turns out that the idea of terraforming Venus is not that farfetched as well.

Terraforming Venus requires the overcoming of four major obstacles. Decrease the temperature, decrease the atmospheric pressure, create a breathable air and create liquid water. However, these problems are interconnected and scientists do have solutions for these, at least, theoretically.

 

Putting aside all the challenges of Venus for a while and assuming that mankind is able to terraform both Mars and Venus, which planets would the humans prefer to settle in? I guess the answer would be Venus. The one advantage that stands out in favour of Venus is its similarity of gravitational force (90% of Earth’s gravity) with Earth. Having the same gravitational force as Earth, its not required to have any artificial gravity, which is created by spinning wheels, to maintain weight. Moreover, unlike Mars, it is more likely to hold on to its atmosphere. Gravity is really important as evolutionary scientists have found out it’s role in the formation of physical structure of every living being. The height, the muscular structure, the agility and the lightness of body of all the plants and animals owe to the gravity of Earth. Living in Venus for generations has less chances of altering any living being in any significant way and thus will maintain its affinity with Earthlings.

With visionaries like Elon Musks and the likes set to colonize Mars, it is only a question of time that the mission is accomplished. After having human settlement on Mars, the next inevitable question that is bound to be asked is where next? Well, with no solid surface to land on and with a distance of almost five times that of the sun from earth, Jupiter does not offer the best option given our current technological advancement. The same goes to the other gas giants like Saturn, Neptune and Uranus; neither are the moons of these planets which are too small in size. So the only realistic option that remains is Venus.

Over the decades, concerns have been expressed over the human space exploration and with such ambitious projects as terraforming Mars or Venus there will be a few eyebrows raised. While the ethical concerns over the suffering of a vast majority of people cannot be downplayed and need to be resolved, it is also equally important that humans do not confine themselves until these problems have been resolved. I mean, consider the Columbus discovery of America. Spain did have problems back then and it still has problems. On the contrary I think those voices should be sympathetic as becoming multi planetary also means the insurance of human survival over a longer period of time. The Earth’s history is filled with a number of asteroid impacts which have wiped out almost all life forms.

My enticement with Venus is due to the prospect of being able to stand on a solid ground without any protective suit and walk without the fear of being hit by a deadly cosmic radiation. Shining brightly over the western sky just after dusk Venus has always fascinated dreamers like me. Described as the goddess of love and beauty in the ancient Roman mythology, Venus however, has turned out to be a hellish land with sweltering temperature. Though its present condition does not resemble the title, I believe Venus is destined to justify this title one day in the future.

stargazing

 

Happy is the person who has acquired the habit of sitting in a place for hours and enjoying the night sky. One of the coolest things one can do at night is to go to a dark place and turn his/her eyes on to the heavens (given that the sky is cloudless). The terrace of a tall building, a city park or suburbs would be some of the ideally suited places for this purpose. Anyone who has done this will know how amazing it feels to set his/her eyes into the full glory of the night sky and wonder how far those stars may be or how big they may be or whether they may be a star or a galaxy.

Actually gazing at the night sky makes us wonder our relationship with the sky. It turns out that we are actually related with the stars. The very elements that we are made of were once created in the stars. These elements are created when certain types of stars that are at least 15 to 20 times the mass of the sun, die out in a violent explosion called a supernova. These elements later combine to form the planetary bodies like the Earth. So we are all stardust. It is very much possible that the elements that make up our right hand might have come from a different stardust than those that make up our left hand.

The one thing that always occupies the mind while stargazing is that if there is life out there. There must be life somewhere out there. I mean, there are billions of galaxies and these galaxies contain trillions of stars. These stars have their own planets and the planets have their moons. So we are talking about trillions and trillions of planetary bodies out there. There must be life somewhere—even intelligent life. And those intelligent lives may be staring at us and wondering the same thing. How long would it take us to travel to the stars? Would mankind ever be able to travel to these places? And even if we were able to travel and meet these intelligent lives, would we be able to communicate with them? What would they think of us?

One of the most intriguing things that can be seen is a small light body darting across the sky at night. These may be a comet, an asteroid or a meteor. There are billions of these objects in the sky. The comets have travelled billions and even trillions of miles from the Kuiper belt (which lies close to Neptune and are outer edges of the solar system) and the Oort cloud (which are farther away from the Kuiper belt). The asteroids and meteors come from the asteroid belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter. Actually, these asteroids have turned out to be a good source of rare elements on Earth like the platinum-group elements. Recently, new companies have come into existence in order to harness the resources from these asteroids. So in the near future, these elements which once were so rare on Earth will be in abundance and who knows what new possibilities this will create.

The Milky way galaxy can be seen in a dark clear sky stretching across the sky. There are actually more than a hundred billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy. Our solar system lies about 26000 light years away from the centre. We are almost at the midway between the outer edges of the Milky Way galaxy and its centre. Our solar system is revolving around our galaxy and it takes around 225 to 250 million earth years to do so. And the galaxy itself is expanding at an accelerating rate. Its amazing if we think about it: The moon is revolving around the Earth, the Earth is revolving around the Sun, the Sun is revolving around the galaxy and the galaxy itself is expanding with the space. If we think about it, just how many kinds of motions are we in at any given time? And we feel as if we are stationary! At the centre of the galaxy lies a huge super massive black hole. Anything that approaches the black hole will be engulfed by it.

When we look up in the sky we are, though not directly, being witness to all these events. These stars have always been and will always be looking down upon us and perhaps calling us. And yet so many of us don’t even care to look up and marvel at its magnificence. We owe our existence not only to our planet Earth but to the galaxies and the universe. For if there had been no universe, there would not have been galaxies; if there had been no galaxies, there would not have been stars; and if there had been no stars, there would not be planets and life. The vastness of the universe might make some of us feel insignificant but on the contrary, it is the insignificant being like us along with every other plants and animals, planetary bodies and the stars that constitute the universe. Hence the feeling that we are not separate from it but just a part of it is one of the most profound spiritual experiences that one might have in order to have a fulfilling life.