AN ALL DIGITAL, DEEP-SPACE VOYAGE.
Visiting an Exoplanet That Isn’t? Yes because we are not sure it isn’t there. If it is there, as originally presented, then it is important because it is the first suspected rocky, Earth-like planet orbiting within .its parent star’s habitable zone. This, as we have all come to know, means the strong possibility of life existing on Gliese581g.
Should we determine that Gliese 581g really does not exist, then we do not cancel the mission we simply select another likely candidate that is in a star system within the 25 light year or less distance profile.
So we propose to launch a human space flight to a maybe exoplanet 20+ light years distance? Yes and no. Yes we should launch a mission to the Gliese family, but NO it should not be a human spaceflight mission. Read on to follow our plan.
The power of IF: In the case of Gliese 581g some scientist maintain it is actually there while other competent astrophysicists express doubts. The overlying question is: If it is there, and if it is in a habitable zone, is there life on the planet? This is exciting science and the only way we can be certain is to test the validity of our earlier theories and observations. That is exactly what we will be doing with the Gliese Explorer program. Please read further for more detailed justifications for this expedition.
Mission Overview: The Gliese Mission is essentially a digital exploration. This means that the entire program is focused on the use of extensive electronic and robotic systems that will help detect, evaluate and describe the entire celestial environment of the Gliese family. Additionally the mission will conduct ongoing evaluations of the deep space environment while enroute to Gliese 581g. If it is determined that Glieses 581g physically exists and that it has an environment that could be life supporting, then one of the two Robonauts on board the spacecraft will physically visit Gliese 581g. It is anticipated that the reports back from that robonaut will be all of a breakthrough quality and importance. To review a more detailed presentation of the mission objectives go here.
Why an all robotic mission? The exoplanet count grows almost daily, and although we are improving our deep space detection capabilities, the final analyses will require a close encounter with a selected, Earth-like exoplanet that promises to be life supporting. Preparations for and the costs of human spaceflight (HSF) missions are time consuming and incredibly expensive. To launch an HSF mission to investigate only a marginally defined life supporting exoplanet could be wasteful in both time and resources. This is particularly the case where the travel distances are in multiple light years. We should only send in human astronauts after we have completed a detailed up-close visit by robotic systems. For a more detailed discussion of those robotic systems, please visit here.
The Abort, Redirect or Return Option: The Gliese Explorer craft is equipped with a infrared telescope that is continuously pointed and focused upon the Gliese environment and specifically searches for Gliese581g. Now this telescope is not of a Kepler size or quality by fully capable of detecting and assessing exoplanets in the Gliese family. Should this detection and tracking system confirm that there is no Gliese 581g or another Earth-like exoplanet in the Gliese family, then the system initiates an abort query sequence and awaits instructions from Mission Control on Earth. Depending upon the distance already traveled, the communication cycle time could be lengthy. In the interim, the spacecraft continues on toward the Gliese system. Once there is a complete data exchange between the Gliese Explorer and Mission Control, a decision is made to either redirect the spacecraft to an alternate destination or to return home. To learn more about this function as well as the overall functions of the spacecraft, please visit here.
Discovery and Confirmation: The odds are that with the onboard telescope system, it is doubtful that the Gliese Explorer will go the full distance if there is not new evidence (at closer distances) of GL581g. In that case the system would initiate the Abort regimen as described above.
Should the ideal happen in that as the explorer gets closer to the Gliese family and confirms the existence of GL581g; including its orbit within a habitable zone, then the mission is on course and begins the preparations for an eventual rendezvous with the exoplanet. For the details of the rendezvous program and the investigations it includes, please visit here.
Summary and Conclusions: The long term advantages of this mission are derived from all of the development work that leads up to its launch. Some of the key advances include:
- Although the Kepler mission profile is continued, there is an additional effort to find and confirm Earth-like exoplanets that are in star systems that are 25 light years distance or less from Earth. This is in support of the Gliese Explorer concept of all digital deep space explorations.
- Development of a propulsion system that supports sustained speeds of 20% the speed of light, and is either nuclear or a combination nuclear and a fuel regeneration system.
- Development of complete neural network artificial intelligence that equips the Robonauts with extensive data analysis and decision capabilities.
- Development of Robonauts that are fully articulated and can perform EVAs both in space and on the surface of a planetary body.
- Design and development of a radiation shielding technology that protects all electronics as well as the Robonauts from damaging radiation.
- Production of a modified Orion spacecraft to facilitate a totally robotisized mission. Excludes unnecessary life support required only for Astronauts.
- Design and development of a communication system that anticipates and supports the long, long delays in transmission and reception due to light year distances. Actually enhancements to the Deep Space Network (DSN) are the most likely advancement.
The above is not a complete or exclusive list. What the items do emphasize is that the design and development for this mission is directly supportive of future human spaceflights into deep space. The data feedback that will come from Gliese Explorer will serve to advance overall spaceflight technology toward a safe and productive HSF goal. All of which will enhance NASA’s stated goal of 100 year intrastar travel.
Some may view the all digital space exploration concept as an unnecessary preliminary to HSF deep space explorations. A combination of sound technology and cost controls will allow a consortium of space faring nations to jointly pursue the first steps in deep space exploration. All of these efforts can serve to refine and improve the success of future HSF missions.These would be to fully identified and defined planetary targets. Most importantly, nothing has changed in the long history of the human drive to explore. We are now simply maximizing our efforts by increasing the effectiveness of new technologies and the vital science they can perform.
Hand in hand with our Robonauts, we will go into the unknown of deepest space where no Earthling has ever ventured before.
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Image of the Orion capsule courtesy of NASA and Lockheed Martin.
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