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RAS puts the case for manned space missions

Robots can't do everything, you know

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The Royal Astronomical Society Commission has called on the UK government to reconsider its deep-seated opposition to space exploration by humans, and outlined several areas of scientific exploration that can only be done with real people.

The University of Oxford's Professor Frank Close, lead author on the report and chair of the RAS Commission, told The Register: "The received opinion among scientists is that it [human space exploration] is a waste of money. And if you start by looking at the cost, that is likely to continue to be the conclusion people will come to."

He argues that the more important question, and the question he and his colleagues started by trying to answer is: is there science that can only be done if humans are in space, and if so, how highly do you prioritise that research?

In the report, the commissioners conclude that there are "profound scientific questions relating to the history of the solar system and the existence of life beyond Earth can best - perhaps only - be achieved by human exploration on the Moon or Mars, supported by appropriate automated systems".

They identify three specific areas of research that need human involvement, often because present or "foreseeable" robotics technology isn't capable of recovering or analysing deep core rock or permafrost samples.

The first research project is mapping the solar system. Deep lunar core samples, down to 100m in depth, are needed here to track the history of cometary bombardment, perhaps looking for signs of organic molecules.

Secondly a thorough search for life on Mars will probably also involve deep drilling. "We are not persuaded that a robotics approach alone can deliver this now or in the foreseeable future," the commissioners write.

Finally, the commissioners argue, if Mars is found to be dead, further exploration of the planet would be better handled by humans than by robots.

The report also concludes that although such exploration would be expensive, the wider commercial, educational, social and political benefits would help justify the financial outlay. "There is no doubt that any such venture would have to be multinational. Given that the US is pretty committed at least to going back to the moon, then Europe, and in turn UK, need to decide how involved it wants to be in this process," Professor Close continues.

"The question then becomes what are the implications for the UK, in terms of industry and human spirit, if we decide not to join in?"

As to the question of cost, Professor Close is not a fantasist. He acknowledges that the funding for such missions could not be raised by trimming other space exploration budgets: "New money would have to be raised".

He also argues that robotic exploration would have to continue alongside any manned missions.

"Human space flight beyond Mars is just not possible because of the increased exposure to galactic cosmic rays," Professor Close told us.

Epidemiologists can just about be satisfied that a six month trip to Mars, and the same return journey leads to an acceptable accumulation of rads, provided there is no exposure to solar flares.

Traditional shielding, when bombarded with galactic cosmic rays would only induce secondary radiation as bad as anything you started with, Close goes on.

"Until such time as we have found ways of doing things like genetic repair, human space exploration will not go beyond Mars, and the realities of this should be the focus of wider research."

Ultimately, Close says, people should read the report carefully before coming to any snap judgments. You can do this by clicking here (PDF). ®

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