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Space exploration is heating up.
As mentioned in this column recently, New Horizons has started sending back images of an ancient object in the Kuiper belt, China has landed a rover on the moon and now NASA are considering sending a drone to Titan.
Of course there are still flights of fantasy... such as Elon Musk's craving to send people to Mars within the decade.
However, it was very interesting to note the very close cooperation between China's space agency and NASA during the Chinese rover landings a week or so ago. This, despite the fact that a cold war has been increasing in magnitude between these two superpowers for quite some time.
It's also worth remembering that since the cancellation of the Space Shuttle programme, Russia has been providing the only way of transporting astronauts to and from the ISS.
Yes, it seems that space and science are the last bastions of commonsense and cooperation.
No matter how hard-headed and stupid our politicians and leaders here on earth become, the purity of science and a mutual desire to explore beyond the confines of our own small planet seems to unite intelligent individuals in a way that nothing else can.
What a shame we don't have more scientists in the halls of power.
So let's look at that proposed drone mission to Titan in a little more detail...
It won't be the first landing on Titan, the Huygens probe accomplished this back in 2005 and sent back some stunning images as it descended through the clouds before performing a soft-landing on the surface. Lakes, rivers, fjords and many of the geographical features we see on earth were also present in the pictures beamed back from this tiny moon, so far from our blue-green sphere.
Of course the rivers and lakes were not water, they were likely liquid methane -- making Titan a rather in hospitable place for life, but an incredibly interesting one never the less.
Right now, NASA are seriously considering sending an aerial drone to Titan which would arrive at the moon in around fifteen years time during 2034. The craft would not be launched until 2025 and require a journey of some nine years to reach its destination.
Being so far from the sun that solar power would be impractical for such a small flying craft, NASA plans to use a nuclear power source for the drone. This would not power the drone's motors directly but instead, charge a set of batteries that would allow relatively short-duration hops. These short flights would allow the craft to be regularly repositioned on the moon's surface, thus offering a greater number of vantage points from which to send back images and conduct science.
Although no firm decision has been made to go ahead with the mission, hopes are high and expectations are that the go-ahead will be given by the end of the year.
Given just how much knowledge there is to be gained from such exploration, I certainly hope that nations can join forces (financial and technical) to ensure that even bigger, bolder, more exciting journeys can continue to take place in the future.
Who knows what our political overlords might learn from the fantastic benefits that tend to flow from such cooperation.
Or am I dreaming?
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