The Future Of

Space Exploration

Episode Summary

Is there life on Mars? Award-winning scientist Phil Bland discusses the mysteries of space and future planning missions to search for clues on the Moon and Mars.

Episode Notes

Space exploration has led to greater understanding of the planet Earth, our Solar System and our place in the universe, but there’s still much to be discovered. To help uncover some of the greatest cosmic mysteries, space agencies around the world are planning missions to explore neighbouring planets to map their history and search for possible signs of past extraterrestrial life. 

In this episode, David Blaney is joined by Professor Phil Bland to discuss mission preparations to the Moon and Mars, the systemic and environmental challenges faced by automated rockets and rovers, and what we are doing at Curtin University in this space.

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Episode Transcription

Introduction:                    00:01 This is The Future Of where experts share their vision of the future and how their work is helping shape it for the better.

David Blaney:                    00:11 I'm David Blaney. Space exploration has led to a greater understanding of planet Earth, our Solar System, and our place in the universe, but there's still much to be discovered. To help uncover some of the greatest cosmic mysteries, space agencies around the world are planning missions to explore neighbouring planets, photograph, our own planet, and even search for extraterrestrial life. To discuss the future of space exploration with me today is Professor Phil Bland who leads Curtin University's Space Science and Technology Centre and is one of the joint winners of the 2019 Scientist of the Year award. Thank you very much for joining me today, Phil.

Professor Bland:              00:49 Great to be here.

David Blaney:                    00:50 Have we gotten any closer to discovering life beyond Earth? Bit of a big question to begin with.

Professor Bland:              00:57 That is a big question to begin with. Yeah, I would say that we are actually kind of the first generation that will find out. You know, we might not discover it, but we'll find out how lonely the universe is We'll be able to, I think within the next 20 years we'll have a pretty decent idea if there's been life on Mars, within the next 30 or 40 whether there's any traces of anything on the icy satellites around Jupiter and Saturn. And what's kind of wacky is that really any day now – we're almost at the point where we have enough resolution in telescopes to be able to image individual Earth-sized planets around other stars. And, when we can do that, we can actually get an idea of what their atmosphere is made of.

Professor Bland:              02:00 Life shifts the composition of an atmosphere of a planet. So an atmosphere of a planet, basically you can tell just by looking at it from 50 light years away whether that planet has a big biosphere or not. So it's kind of wacky, but it's, you know, within, if maybe even not, maybe not now, but within a couple of years, literally a couple of years, there's the potential that that'll be the morning's news, that we've discovered a biosphere on another planet, which will obviously change things quite a lot.

David Blaney:                    02:38 Quite horrifying!

Professor Bland:              02:38 Oh no, it'd be fantastic. What do you mean? That'd be awesome. It would instantly become, you know, the focus of yeah, massive amount of research. But within, you know, a couple of decades after that, we would have done that enough times to planets that look like good candidates for life, that we would be able to say, okay, maybe it's not as common as we thought, maybe it's more lonely than than we thought, which would be interesting.

David Blaney:                    03:10 Which is equally horrifying either way.

Professor Bland:              03:13  I like the idea that there's lots of stuff out there.

David Blaney:                    03:18 And you mentioned telescopes that can look at planets orbiting other stars. Is that within our own galaxy or is that also in other galaxies?

Professor Bland:              03:25 That's within our own galaxy. And and it's fascinating. I mean, it's fascinating for me. You know, when I was an undergraduate, we didn't know whether there were other planets in the, we didn't, you know, maybe the only planets in the universe are the ones orbiting our sun. And now it's, I don't know, 6,000 that have been discovered, so many that we think that, you know, there are certainly more planets in the galaxy than there are stars, and it's just a normal part of star formation.

David Blaney:                    03:53 What can we learn from looking at meteorites?

Professor Bland:              04:00 I've studied meteorites for pretty much my entire professional career. The reason, there are many reasons that make them interesting. We have meteorites from Mars and we've never, you know, recovered. We've never been to Mars with a spacecraft and brought rocks back. So having basically free samples of Mars is awesome. But the ones that I've always found interesting are basically the ones that are the oldest ones. So the we've got meteorites that date from or some of the elements of them from the components of them from even before the sun started to shine. So we've got, we can see all the way back to the processes that built planets and I've always found that fascinating how basically, you know, how we got a Solar System. They record all those processes.

David Blaney:                    04:51 So we'll go back, I guess perhaps to a little bit of astronomy 101. What's the difference between a comet an asteroid, a meteor and a meteorite? Apologies, if the question is a little bit beneath your level of expertise.

Professor Bland:              05:03 No, not at all. This is the kind of thing that people ask a lot. And so a comet is an object that we can see is currently kind of de-gassing volatiles, you know ice, water, whatever, into into space. So the, so it's been you know, the solar wind is hitting it and you get these particles, this volatile material coming off. An asteroid is an object where that's not happening. It doesn't mean it's not got ice in it. It just means we're not observing it doing that at that time. A meteorite is a object that if we knocked it off an asteroid or a comet and it got through the Earth's atmosphere and landed on the Earth, then it's a meteorite, but it's basically the same composition. It's made it through the atmosphere. A fireball is the light that is given off by a big chunk of rock as it's coming through the atmosphere, not technically the rock itself. So there's all these kinds of, you know, finicky little classifications.

David Blaney:                    06:22 It's funny how they always tend to land inside craters!

Professor Bland:              06:28 {Laughter] Not always! Hopefully if they are small enough they don't make a crater and that's good news for us.

David Blaney:                    06:36 What is a CubeSat and what does it do? How is it different to the Optus D1 that we get TV from space from?

Professor Bland:              06:45 Right, so CubeSats, so basically to get why this is a useful why these small satellites came into being, it's important to realise kind of how you launch your satellite and how it gets into orbit around the Earth. So basically, if it's a larger spacecraft then you know, that gets packed into the, what we call the faring on top of a rocket, which is kind of the shield that protects it as it's coming out in the atmosphere. And there's a special kind of system purpose-built to kind of blip that unique spacecraft, that bespoke spacecraft often a space away from the rest of the rocket. And that's how that whole structure around the spacecraft it's kind of finicky and expensive to build that brand new every single time.

Professor Bland:              07:46 So, the idea was that if we have essentially the same form factor for spacecraft and this is where, you know, these CubeSats came in, and which is really just a 10 by 10 by 10 centimetre basic unit, and then you can have a one 'U' – one 10 by 10 by 10 and multiply that up, that'd be, that'd be standard sized racks that could fit on top of spacecraft on top of the launch vehicle and blip those out into space. So it's simply saves that cash that you would have to spend that building a unique one.

David Blaney:                    08:24 And what can we use them for?

Professor Bland:              08:25 Well, I mean, people have tried to use them for a whole bunch of the same sorts of jobs as larger spacecraft, whereas on the larger spacecraft you might have a lot of different payloads doing a lot of different jobs. Cubesats are kind of good for doing one thing reasonably well. They're much cheaper to build and much cheaper to launch. So then if you're clever you try and get as much possible payload space in that thing as you can, so you can have a payload, whether it's a camera, or some of the sensors, you can get almost as good as what would go on a bigger satellite, which is much more expensive to launch.

David Blaney:                    09:10 And what are we using them for today?

Professor Bland:              09:12 Yeah, so you've got CubeSats for instance, you've got constellation CubeSats now that's job is to image the entire Earth on a very regular basis. So anyone who wants to know it, so it's, it's not like, you know, Google Earth, it's basically if Google Earth was updated every single day so you had basically, you know, it kind of an image of the Earth every day. It's not quite there yet, but that's the concept. So you can build like much larger constellations than you would ordinarily with larger satellites and, you know, kind of global wireless and things like that. Wifi, sorry, wireless dates me a little bit, but a global wifi. You can do – you know– people use them for radar.

David Blaney:                    10:05 So compared to say a sort of an Iridium satellite, but much more capable for things like the internet, that sort of thing?

Professor Bland:              10:12 Yeah, exactly. So, so really, you know, there's kind of niches that they're really good in and that kind of constellation is a really nice niche. That's one area that they're good for. Yeah.

David Blaney:                    10:26 What are the challenges? What are some of the challenges that we face when it comes to space exploration? Other than of course the, well, actually, including, of course, the prohibitively high costs.

Professor Bland:              10:38 Yeah. I mean that it's, it's a harsh environment and, and so, you know, any spacecraft that kind of leaves that, that gets out of the Earth's magnetic fields. So, so our magnetic field protects us from from solar radiation, cosmic radiation. You're in a, you know, that's a hard radiation environment and astronauts have to think about that if they go to the moon or Mars. But all spacecraft have to deal with that.

David Blaney:                    11:10 Aeroplanes have to deal with it as well, maybe to a lesser extent, we can't fly too often.

Professor Bland:              11:16 It's at a much less, yeah, if you go in up even in, you know, low Earth orbit, it's a much more benign environment than if you're going than if you go into the moon. So you're going to the moon. You need really seriously hardened electronics to to cope with being bombarded by high radiation.

Professor Bland:              11:34 So it's one thing. Then the other thing is really having systems that can operate intelligently without you having to kind of, you know, check them all the time. So great example of that was NASA landing the Curiosity Rover, right? Which was this incredibly complicated engineering series of steps to get that big rover on the ground. And it was a really complex series of steps. The spacecraft came through the atmosphere and had to steer itself. It had to drop off part of its shell to release the lander. And then this is what they call the sky hook, that could kind of lower it down while it was firing retro rockets. And then because it couldn't drop onto the lander, it had to detach and kind of steer itself away. It was an incredibly complicated series of steps that basically all had to happen automatically. That's really hard.

David Blaney:                    12:44 So it could mean that in the future we'll be having well I guess fewer unsuccessful landings?

Professor Bland:              12:50 Well actually, I mean really the opposite.

David Blaney:                    12:55 So more things could go wrong?

Professor Bland:              12:59 No, sorry. You said we'll have, we'll have fewer unsuccessful. [both Talk at once] That was a bit of a double negative. Sorry, I've not had enough coffee. So yes, absolutely. So they used to be, you know, NASA had a number of unsuccessful Mars missions. I think, you know, that now they're on a run of, I don't know, the last six or eight have been successful. So Mars is really hard and but it's, you know, they know enough now and I like to say we know enough, but you know, they've had enough experience now that you can kind of anticipate that they can hit most of the sort of critical issues, yeah.

David Blaney:                    13:42 Why is Mars so much harder than the moon other than of course, I mean it's further away., obviously?

Professor Bland:              13:47 Yeah. So Mars is harder because it's got a, so for the moon, the moon, it's not got much gravity. So you can if you've got a lander, then you can, you can kind of pack in enough in the retro rockets to decelerate something land on the surface and you're not struggling to kind of keep it, you know, the moon's gravity isn't like dragging you down to crash it. The problem with Mars is that it's got an atmosphere, but it's so thin that actually it doesn't, unless you're a really small, unless you quite a small lander it doesn't help you an awful lot.

David Blaney:                    14:29 Like a parachute for example?

Professor Bland:              14:32 Right, so you can, if it's small, but if you're, if you're bigger then you need something more complicated and and, and it's just Mars is this kind of annoying little combination of stuff there – it's big, so it's got more gravity. It's got an atmosphere so you can decelerate a little bit, but the atmosphere isn't dense enough that you've got, you can have parachutes that are big enough to land something big, blah, blah, blah. Yeah.

David Blaney:                    14:58 Why is Mars such a big focus for space agencies? NASA in particular?

Professor Bland:              15:05 Yeah, so Mars is fascinating because it's, you know, for so long, for like 150 years, people have wondered, okay, is there life on Mars? Right? And, obviously, you know, way back when people got quite optimistic about that – well if you're HG Wells, not necessarily optimistic – you know, but we know now there's not, you know, there's probably not been complex life on Mars. But we've, you know, there's still evidence that for a decent amount of time, Mars had equable conditions – that if you put terrestrial bugs on Mars a couple of billion years ago, they would've been quite happy. So it's, the question is, did life arise independently on Mars and having a yes or no to that would basically answer that question about, are we, you know, how lonely is the universe. If you have two independent if life can arise in two places independently in our Solar System, it means it's everywhere.

David Blaney:                    16:18 Do you see any Australian missions to the moon or Mars? What do, what do you see the Australian space agency getting up to?

Professor Bland:              16:26 Yeah, definitely. So I mean actually, you know, we're doing our own at the moment. So we have a program building our own CubeSats, which is going really well. We're launching the first one via, with a launch provider that's going to send it out the international space station that will be happening either the end of this year or early next. And that'll be building to a lunar orbiter in four or five years' time. So a CubeSat sized lunar orbit, and we're working with NASA. They'll be hopefully delivering that to the lunar orbit for us an ESA are gonna be doing mission control, which is really nice. So we've got a concept around that. We, we've also got industry collaborators on that proposal as well. So that's us, hopefully the agency will be doing, other missions as well.

Professor Bland:              17:37 There's because NASA has got a program now called Artemis, which is going back to the moon. But the idea is going back to the moon to stay. And then on to Mars, there's a lot more resources going to the moon which includes the ability to kind of get ride along on NASA orbiters or NASA landers. So we can kind of get access to places that we could never get, you know, three or four years ago. But now we can expect that we can get to lunar orbit without too much hassle.

David Blaney:                    18:13 Who exactly owns space? What can we do on the moon?

Professor Bland:              18:18 That's really good question. It's, there are a number of international treaties around obviously for for a planetary scientist this is kind of pushing the envelope of my specialty, but there's a number of international treaties around around kind of ownership or non ownership of heavenly bodies where there's asteroids. So the moon if it's for, if it's for scientific use, then then there's not an issue. We haven't really solved but it's not, a lot of that stuff was from, you know, a lot of the legislation, international legislation was from the '60s. People really didn't think that there would be kind of industrial applications that we'd be wanting to mine asteroids. So there would be companies maybe that were wanting to mine ice on the moon, convert it into fuel and sell that fuel to NASA. Right. No one had any of these concepts in mind. So so a lot of people now are giving a lot of thought to how can we amend that existing legislation to give industry access to that, you know,

David Blaney:                    19:39 It would be quite interesting 'cause when you dig stuff out of the ground in Western Australia, the government gets a royalty from it. And if someone goes space mining, what happens to that? Who benefits ultimately?

Professor Bland:              19:53 Like I say, right now, you know, so NASA can go to the moon and set up a base and mine ice and refuel their own rockets and that's all fine and anyone can do that. But owning any of it, and selling any of it there are international treaties around that, and I'm sure that some of that will be resolved in the next few years because there are so many opportunities there. It would be bonkers not to.

David Blaney:                    20:27 Do you see us as conquering Mars anytime soon?

Professor Bland:              20:31 I, well, I think so. I think it'll be the moon first. That's the sensible thing to do.

David Blaney:                    20:41 Bit closer. Less out of the way.

Professor Bland:              20:44 Yeah. You know, we built up a lot of kind of institutional knowledge with Apollo – just like how to do stuff right, how to do stuff in space, learning kind of on the job. We lost all of that. So we've got to relearn all of that. You don't learn that and then be in a place where you have to wait 18 months to get home again. Much nicer to do it when you've just got a three month, three day trip. So that's a much better place to learn.

David Blaney:                    21:16 It reminds me of a certain movie!

Professor Bland:              21:17 Right, exactly. But still, you know, the same hard conditions, but the ability to kind of pull people out. But I think, absolutely. Mars next. I personally I don't think we'll be able to answer the question of, was there life on Mars? Is there life on Mars without putting people there? We can send as many rovers as you like, but you know, a human can walk in a day and look at more rocks than probably all the rovers that have ever been there.

David Blaney:                    21:57 Really!

Professor Bland:              21:57 Yeah. And because, you know, it doesn't matter how many, like, you know, if I'm walking around here, I'm like, a perfect pattern recognition system with a geology hammer and a hand lens. I have more resources than any rover that's ever been ever been put there. Give me a little cart to trek around in and I can, you know, I'll see a weird rock over there.

David Blaney:                    22:22 Can't really do that with a rover. They're not quite smart enough.

Professor Bland:              22:27 No, and I don't think they ever will be. So a lot of people don't realise that, you know, Apollo was the most expensive set of missions that there's ever been. But in terms of kind of science output for a given mission it was actually the best value for money. So many papers came out of Apollo. So much knowledge came out of Apollo and still is from the samples that the astronauts brought back far more than on any of the other missions. So I think sending people to Mars supplemented with robotic assets, that's by far the best way to do it. I think that'll answer the question. You've got people on Mars for 18 months. The main thing they're going to be doing well, if I was one of them is a, is running around with a geology hammer looking for tiny fossils, which would be awesome. I really hope that that happens in my lifetime. I was born three months before the moon landing. So my old man actually did hold me up. Obviously those neurons aren't still connected, but I did see it. It'd be kind of nice to see humans land on Mars before I check out. Yeah.

David Blaney:                    23:48 So that means you were born in '66.

Professor Bland:              23:50 '69!

David Blaney:                    23:52 '69! Oh, sorry, three months. Not three years. My mum was born in 63, so she actually saw it in school.

Professor Bland:              23:58  I have no memory. But I did see it, you know, with my eyes.

David Blaney:                    24:07 What is, well, feel free to issue a public call to action for more funding. Why is space exploration so important?

Professor Bland:              24:17 Space exploration does does a whole bunch of things and and I think you can argue it from so many different angles. Its kind of the ultimate in collaborative international endeavours, right, So, you know, I do remember, the docking of the Soviet spacecraft and the NASA spacecraft at the height of the cold war and the astronauts and cosmonauts shaking hands through that port and that kind of thing. You know, it's the international space station. There's a Russian module on that. Russian rockets have been launching astronauts into space through all of the tensions and it's a great way of pulling governments and researchers together. I think there's nothing like space exploration for getting people excited, for inspiring members of the public for having that kind of national pride achievement that makes people just stand a little taller that day.

Professor Bland:              25:27 For getting students excited about doing science and engineering. I got into science because of the Apollo missions and [inaudible]. It drives innovation. So, we here at Curtin have an amazing team of PhD students and undergrads that are building our spacecraft and they're super excited about that because as well as the stuff we're doing with industry with those spacecraft you know, we have all of those industry collaborations. We can pull them together in the end to have a science outcome, which is getting to the moon. And that, you know, the idea that you've got WA students that can do a degree and build a spacecraft that's going to get the moon. Gets them pretty excited and it should do. So I think for all those reasons, and I think, you know I think that people don't realise is that NASA spends all those other agencies, every agency spends money on those missions for that kind of reason.

Professor Bland:              26:53 It's to kind of further research, but it's not, you know, if it was simply to make people like Phil Bland happy, then there wouldn't be $20 billion worth of assets orbiting Mars right now and on the surface. All of those spacecraft are built by space industry contractors. The instruments on them are mostly built by really advanced and capable university engineering teams. All those students go into jobs in space industries in their countries. The hardware that they build get into those space industries one way or another. There's a return on investment that's like you know, ESA NASA have calculated it. I think it's about, you know, $5 out for every dollar in. So when people think that space, you know, why are we putting money into space versus something else it's actually a great investment in an economy as well as all that other stuff. I'm obviously a big fan of the other stuff. But we make a lot of money out of investing in missions.

David Blaney:                    28:23 Gee, and in this economy, that's a great return. And what are you working on now research wise?

Professor Bland:              28:31 So we're doing a bunch of different things. I think we're doing a project with so actually an interesting kind of technology transfer one. We're kind of well known for a project called the desert fireball network where we track meteorites coming through the atmosphere, work out where they've come from in the Solar System, and then where they land. We use these kind of really tough observatories that we can put out in the bush and leave for a couple of years and they just take images every night. Now it turns out that those observatories actually really, really good for also tracking satellites and that's a big deal so that we can get in the end some sort of space traffic control. So we won't have a nightmare with overcrowding low Earth orbit or generating debris.

Professor Bland:              29:24 So we've been working with Lockheed Martin for three years now on translating that knowledge from, you know, tracking meteorites. I mean, you don't really get more blue sky than that to something that is a great outcome for them and hopefully you know, the world generally, if we've got a solution to tracking satellites, tell us one thing. And I'm really excited about the CubeSat program as well. I can't wait to get that first one up. I hope we've got enough money in the kitty so that we can take all of those students to the launch. So we can see it fly. I think that'd be great. And I've got to say I do we're also doing a program called the global fireball observatory, which is kind of expanding the DFN.

Professor Bland:              30:21 A colleague of mine is – this is awesome –she's working on a computer light intelligent system to count every single crater on Mars so that we can work out the age of the surface at really fine resolution. A bunch of my colleagues are analysing material returned by spacecraft. One of my colleagues is on the NASA insight mission which is awesome. And I'm really excited about where we're going to go with the CubeSat stuff and a lunar orbiter! I got to say, I do look at the moon a little bit differently now because I know that we could get there, that we have the capacity to do that. So that's very exciting to me.

David Blaney:                    31:25 Thank you very much. Phil for coming in and sharing your knowledge on this topic.

Professor Bland:              31:28 Pleasure. Thank you.

David Blaney:                    31:30 You've been listening to The Future Of, a podcast powered by Curtin University. If you have any questions about today's topic, please feel free to get in touch by following the links in the show notes. Bye for now.