The Exploration of Space

Rosetta mission: ‘Go’ is given for comet landing

What will it find?
Depends how old the lump of rock (7P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko) is. The earlier the meteorite was formed, the more likely we are to expand our early knowledge of the Solar system.
Meteorites contain organic as well as inorganic compounds. Some meteorites even, controversial as it seems, contain ice. Could this? Seems unlikely or it would be trumpeted.
One thing that would interest me is meteorites that come from the Oort Cloud. If interstellar matter is present in the Oort Cloud, then there’s a possibility that such meteorites carry traces if this and could give clues on what lies in the interstellar void. 7P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, with its orbit of 6.45 years does not go out as far as the Oort Cloud. Did it in the past? We don’t know. Certainly its orbit has had at least one nudge from Jupiter.

What could lie out there?
We don’t know (again). To my reckoning, the interstellar void ought to have something that might help understand concepts like dark matter / dark energy (take a bow, Fritz Zwicky). That could be key to understanding the universe – or at least this sector.

The dream of exploration is often pursued in Science Fiction. The reality is always less than ambition; which is, I suppose, how it should be. In younger days, my greedy eyes devoured tales of out there. My first space book was The Exploration of Mars by Willy Ley and Werner von Braun with paintings by Chesley Bonestell, (Sidgwick and Jackson Limited, London, 1956)

The Exploration of Mars - title page

The Exploration of Mars
– title page

Mars was a good planet to explore. It was a home for many interesting Science Fiction / Fantasy adventures. I read Robert Heinlein’s Red Planet, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom, C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet and H.G. Wells War of the Worlds. Stuff to inspire young minds.

Chapter 8 Expedition-to-Mars

Chapter 8 Expedition-to-Mars

The Expedition looking to Scorpio; painting by Chesley Bonestell

The Expedition looking to Scorpio; painting by Chesley Bonestell

A Retrospect
Those early anticipations were that we would find new worlds to colonise. Many of the books had the manifest destiny doctrine writ large, out in space – that we would conquer its vastness with the same ease that the Atlantic was navigated. Nearly a century has passed since Pulp SF hit the stands. It’s time to test those dreams against the reality.

The mechanics of space travel require us to live in close confines for extended periods of time. The limits of what our bodies can stand as well as gravity, constrains size, shape and mass of the rockets we send up. Gravity hugs our atmosphere close; it also creates a well which must be climbed out of before we can go places. We’re more efficient in some aspects but our basic method of getting from A to B is little different to that envisaged by early dreamers. What does that mean in the bigger picture? Well, there’s a whole host of achievables, which in a rough hierarchy become:
· Orbital satellites
· Inter-planetary satellites
· Probes to fringes of Solar system
· Inter-stellar probe
· Manned Lunar landing (assuming your race has moons ;-))
· Manned orbital satellite
· Comet probes
· Manned planet landing
· Lunar base
· Planetary base
· Planetary colony

All the forgoing are achievable to one degree or another by current technologies, but these are barely the base of the pyramid. There’s the big hurdle of long distance travel before we get out to the stars. The nearest, Proxima Centauri, is 4.2 Light Years away. A light year is the distance light travels in one year (yep, you knew that already). Let’s put that into context. The Sun is over 90 million miles from the Earth. The nearest star is about 265,000 times further away than that. Ouch. That kind of distance means many years of travel by conventional rocket propulsion. SF writers like Heinlein covered this and his Orphans of the Sky plays tellingly on the fall from knowledge (and grace) of those in The Proxima Centauri Expedition.

Orphans of the Sky by Robert Heinlein; cover by Peter Jones

Orphans of the Sky by Robert Heinlein; cover by Peter Jones

(my copy is sadly damaged)

Orphans of the Sky by Robert Heinlein (blurb)

Orphans of the Sky by Robert Heinlein (blurb)

I’d rank such a mission as exploration at the limit of our current technology. It’s just about doable but, even if we dared, I doubt we’d do better than than Heinlein’s tale. Going by the state of competing philosophies and religions on this planet, we’re pretty poor on human interaction. This boils down to “My local custom supersedes yours.” We want to break Earth’s bounds but haven’t got beyond belief systems backed up a gun; enforced by rent-a-mob! Hmm.


We’re not there on the science as we haven’t come up with a viable propulsion model – that’s key. Not far behind is the fragility of the human form to excessive G’s. A watching alien, if asked about our interstellar credentials, would be inclined to answer: they go local. That puts a lot beyond our reach. ¹ Such as: local constellations, the local spiral arm, the (pretty unique) galactic bar at the core of the Milky Way, major spiral arms, black holes, dark matter galaxies.
What this means is that we’re stuck with observations of stars and systems from afar. At this moment of time the main star classification looks something like this:
Class O (blue)
Class B (blue white)
Class A (white)
Class F (yellow white)
Class G (yellow)
Class K (orange)
Class M (red)
What are the systems like there? Can life survive? Any aliens? Hostile? Friendly? 🙂
Other star classes get name checks here: Time Space and Things.
This has to frustrate scientists.
It’s worth noting that dark matter itself, depending on how it’s dispersed (there could be some knocking about in local interstellar space) may not be beyond our abilities to make informed observations upon. ²

Where does that leave the fun stuff? Alien civilisations, xeno-archeology, terra-forming, space tourism, zap guns, galactic empires and vast, complex, star-spanning eco-infinitae remain stuck in the limbo of fiction. ³

Which leaves us examining visitors from the furthest reaches of… our solar system.
That’s a very small step on the way to dreams of galactic empire. I don’t think I’ll be chucking out any time soon my paperbacks of Niven’s Ringworld, Cherryh’s Alliance-Union, Asimov’s Foundation, Andre Norton’s Forerunner Milieu, David Brin’s Uplift Universe

¹ What’s it really like out there? This is a constant mental marker for SF writing. In my case I start with the proposition that they come to us. For example:
In SF, I start with: we are where we are, stuck at the bottom of a gravity well on planet Earth; from this, I figure a plot angle. So, instead of an unmanned space probe, it’s a mission. Missions need a title. It’s to a near earth object, so Near Earth Object  = NEO :-).
A space rock could also do with a bit of (plug alert) livening up… in Near Earth Object

² You can construct a whole cosmogony from stuff like this. Take a little Fritz Zwicky (Zwicky proposed Dark Matter as a solution to the missing mass problem) sprinkle with Dust of Lovecraft and hey presto! you have a cosmogony.

³ As the science improves, swathes of speculation become fantasy but there’s still tons of stuff to say.


About Terence Park

Collections: vinyl records, comic books, paperbacks; I've plenty of them all. I also do spreadsheets.
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