What’s the point behind space exploration? How to justify astronomically expensive space missions? There are many who claim that we should, quite literally, keep our feet on the ground and focus on more down-to-earth projects rather than “waste” our energy on achieving the ambitions of visionaries (or narcissistic charlatans) like Elon Musk. Unwittingly, such claims are often made with the use of technologies which can be easily traced back to space programmes. So what is the point behind studying the universe? It can’t be just to admire blue sunsets on Mars (which the Red Planet owes to its thin and dust-filled atmosphere, which diffuses light differently than the atmosphere on Earth).
Ready to move?
In May 2017, the legendary astrophysicist Stephen Hawking warned that humanity must colonise other planets within the next 100 years, as epidemics, overpopulation and climate change will soon make the Earth uninhabitable. If we fail to do so in time, humanity will face extinction. It seems therefore that we should at least try to find – and tame – Planet B.
We have been present in space for over half a century or, to be more specific, since 12 April 1961, when Yuri Gagarin spent 108 minutes orbiting the Earth inside Vostok 1 space capsule. “Oh, how beautiful…”, were the first words ever to be uttered in outer space. Five decades down the line, we have got space agencies, multi-billion budgets, and a lot more certainty than we could possibly have when counting down before that first launch. So what can go wrong?
Absolutely everything. Despite crowds of experts and strictly followed procedures one can never be sure of success. Take, for instance, the events of 23 September 1999, when a space probe worth roughly 700 million dollars went up in flames in Mars’s atmosphere.
What failed? Communication between software designers. Nobody had expected that software elements developed in England would be based on different measurement units than those developed in the USA by NASA. And despite countless tests, the error had gone unnoticed. If we cannot rule out such foul-ups at the level of mathematical calculations, how much greater the risk must be for equipment operating in alien and hostile conditions, or for astronauts having to handle extreme isolation, forced proximity to colleagues, and complete dependence on technology and each other?
Challenging conditions, distance, isolation, and small group environment – doesn’t it sound familiar? It sure should, as these are the exact same features which characterise work in the polar regions. As a result, the Arctic, the Antarctic, and the efforts aimed at unlocking polar mysteries have become a rich testing ground for space exploration.
Analog missions are extended dress rehearsals, during which errors, failures or breakdowns will not lead to disaster, even if during an actual space mission – on board a space ship, on Mars, or on the remote Proxima B, which hit the headlines a few years ago and was soon labelled as “second Earth” – their consequences could well be catastrophic. An example of such an analog mission was the Integrative Experimental Facility for Permanent Astrobase Life-support Artificial Closed Ecosystem (PALACE), set up by the Chinese. The main purpose of the enterprise was to check if the astronauts, cut off from the outside world, were capable of achieving complete self-sufficiency. The experiment was carried out by three volunteers, who spent 105 days in a laboratory with a capacity of 500 m3, which came to be known as Lunar Palace 1. In a plant cultivation cabin, they grew five different cereals, fifteen types of vegetables and one type of fruit. For animal protein they ate mealworms. Carbon dioxide they produced was used up by their plants, and waste was turned into fertiliser. All the oxygen was regenerated, all the water recycled, and 55% of food waste composted in dedicated compartments.
Poland also has experience with habitats, or facilities simulating conditions associated with space missions. Our habitat – LUNARES – set up near Piła in 2017 by Space Garden company, makes it possible to study human psychology during manned space missions and test the latest technologies, not only within the space sector. The habitat is completely isolated from the outside environment, with an additional area of 250 m2 for simulated space walks. The internal infrastructure of the base has been designed so that the health and behaviour of its inhabitants are constantly monitored.
A polar lab
Polar regions constitute a natural testing ground for space missions. Low temperatures, snow and ice, stiff winds and the dark create perfect conditions for testing the functionality of equipment, reliability of energy sources, shelters and food availability, and – just as importantly – the performance of analog astronauts. The list of requirements and challenges they must face is long and diverse. Perceptiveness, cognitive efficiency, a sense of confinement, depression, interpersonal conflicts, telecommunication and transportation challenges, natural immunity issues, limited access to medical help, you name it. It is a great test of resilience and resourcefulness, which many pass with flying colours. Like the general practitioner Leonid Rogozov, member of the Soviet Antarctic Expedition of 1961, who performed a successful appendectomy… on himself!
What do polar analog missions fail to test? Conditions of reduced gravity (like those on Mars, where the gravitational pull is half of what it is on Earth), complete weightlessness, and the impact of lethal cosmic radiation.
The north and the south
The Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station (FMars) is located on Canada’s Devon Island, inside a 39-million-year-old crater. The Mars Society, which owns the place, makes it available to NASA. Looking a bit like a silo, the station contains functional laboratories and living quarters for analog astronauts. The crater, which measures about 23 km across, is as Mars-like as it gets and is therefore perfect for fieldwork training, including – for example – simulated sample collection. There is probably no better place to test a spacesuit, as performing even the simplest tasks wearing it takes plenty of practice. It is expected that, in the future, FMars will be the first compulsory stop for everybody training to become an actual Martian explorer.
How about the southern polar regions? No civilisation has ever developed in the Antarctic and – unlike the Arctic – the area remains uninhabited. The hostile and dangerous environment, constant cold, extreme isolation and evident photoperiodism make the Antarctic the least welcoming place on Earth. In the long run, human survival out there is only possible with the help of technology. Since 1947, the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE) have been involved in scientific research, including medical research, on Macquaire Island. Conducted as an extension of this programme, Australian and American studies into immunology, microbiology, psychology and remote medicine made it possible to collect important data and enabled valuable insights into the mechanisms by which people adapt to extreme isolation, confinement and the harsh environment of the Antarctic. Multi-year studies indicated, among others, reduced immune response among expedition members.
The future is now
Before Elon Musk or another visionary paves the way for humankind’s first step on the surface of Mars, polar regions provide us with “cosmic services”. It is there that scientists study magnetosphere and solar activity, whose manifestations include northern and southern lights. It is also there that one can find the only two ground satellite stations on Earth that can see all low-altitude satellites in polar orbits and collect new data with each rotation of the Earth. The two stations are Svalbard Satellite Station (SvalSat), located on the plateau-like top of Platåberget in Svalbard, and Troll Satellite Station (TrollSat), located in Antarctica.
A polar orbit is one in which a satellite passes over polar regions on each revolution. There are plenty of them, ranging in altitude from 100 to 1000 km above the Earth’s surface. It is in the polar orbits that we can find Earth-observation satellites (such as those from the Landsat series) and the International Space Station Alpha. This means that SvalSat and TrollSat receive and circulate a wealth of information, which is then used by some of the greatest players in the field, like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It may well be, therefore, that it is the polar regions that the road to new-generation space exploration leads through.