Our spacecraft have reached nearly every corner of our solar system, from the barren sun baked world of Mercury to the (soon to be visited) frigid ice ball of Pluto. We’ve gazed at all of them from afar many times but there are precious few we have made even robotic footfall on, with only a single other heavenly body having human footprints on it. Still from those few where we’ve been able to punch through the atmosphere the scenery we’ve been greeted with has been both strangely familiar yet completely alien. Mars is most famous of these but few are aware of the descent video from the Huygens probe that it made on its way down to Titan’s surface:
Titan gets its thick orange atmosphere from its mostly nitrogen atmosphere being tainted by methane which is thought to be constantly refreshed by cryovolcanoes on its surface. Whilst the mountain ranges and valleys you see were formed in much the same way as they were here on Earth those lakes you see in between them aren’t water, but hydrocarbons. Indeed much of Titan’s surface is covered in what is essentially crude oil although making use of it for future missions would likely be more trouble than its worth.
Still it’s amazing to see worlds that are so like ours in one aspect yet completely foreign in so many other ways. This rare insight into what Titan looks like from on high is not only amazing to see but it has also provided invaluable insight into what Titan’s world actually is. I honestly could watch videos like this for hours as it’s just so mesmerizing to see the surface of worlds other than our own.
It’s almost scary how similar Earth and Venus are in some respects. We’re roughly the same size, with Earth edging Venus out by 300KMs in diameter, and consequently roughly the same mass as well. The similarities end when you start looking further however with Venus being the hottest planet in our solar system due to its runaway greenhouse effect, it’s atmosphere a choking combination of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and sulphur. If there was ever a warning about the devastating potential about greenhouse gases it is our celestial sister Venus, but in that chaos lies an abundance of scientific data that could help us better understand ourselves and, hopefully, avoid the same fate.
Studying Venus’ atmosphere isn’t an easy task however as those extreme conditions have meant that the longest our probes have managed to survive down there is a couple hours. We can still do a lot of good work with satellites and spectral analysis but there’s really no substitute for actually being in the atmosphere for an extended period of time. Strangely enough whilst Venus’ atmosphere might be one of the most unforgiving in our solar system its composition, made up primarily of heavy than air elements, provides an unique opportunity that an atmospheric study craft could take advantage of. A concept craft that does just this is called the Venus Atmospheric Maneuverable Platform (VAMP) by Northrop Grumman.
The VAMP is part airship, part traditional aircraft which would spend the majority of its life high in Venus’ atmosphere. To do this the VAMP craft is extremely light, on the order of 500kgs, but it has a wingspan that exceeds that of a Boeing 737. The craft itself would be inflatable, allowing VAMP to cruise at altitudes between 55KM and 70KM above Venus’ surface. It can do this because of the incredible density of Venus’ atmosphere which makes even regular breathable air from Earth a powerful lifting gas. The only limit to its lifespan in the Venusian atmosphere would be its power source and since it could take advantage of the freely available sun a platform like VAMP could run for an incredibly long time.
The concept is actually a rework of another one that was designed to fly through the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan, a mission many have wanted to undertake since the Huygens probe landed there a decade ago. The challenges of flying an aircraft there are far greater than that of Venus, primarily due to the much thinner atmosphere and huge drop in solar radiation to take advantage of. It would still be doable of course, however the mission profile you’d have to go with would have to be much less ambitious and the time frames much shorter. Still it surprises me that the concept didn’t go the other way around as putting balloons in Venus’ atmosphere has always been a concept that many wanted to explore.
Northrop Grumman appears to be quite serious about the VAMP project as they outlined many objectives they wanted to achieve for it back in 2013. I can’t seem to find much more on it unfortunately which means it’s likely still in the concept phase, hoping for a mission profile to come along that suits it. Considering how many incredible envelope pushing missions we’ve had of late I don’t think something like VAMP is too far out of left field, especially considering that it’s based on already proven technologies. Still it doesn’t seem like it will be too long before we have a plane soaring through another world’s atmosphere, another science fiction dream becoming a reality.
I romanticize space quite a lot here and in real life as well. The sheer scale of our universe is something that is so mind boggling that I simply have no choice but it stand in awe of it constantly, lest I become overwhelmed with the sheer insignificance of my life when compared to it. Still even with my helplessly deluded romantic view I still recognise that the universe is one harsh mistress and humanity’s entire existence is just a tiny blip on the greater timeline of the universe.
Knowing this one of my close friends proposed a question to me last night which he had seen on a craigslist ad some time ago. Whilst the ad has unfortunately been taken down there are still a couple news articles around to give you the general idea of the question:
Just look at the first, enticing sentence of the ad: “Astronaut needed for experimental flight to Titan.”
Perhaps you might be concerned that this ad was not, in fact, placed by NASA. Please, let me put your mind into horizontal mode. The advertiser assures all applicants that he has been “working on this project for near 40 years.” Indeed, the only reason he is seeking an Armstrong for his flight is that he himself seems to have weaker limbs now that the years have passed.
In the advertiser’s own persuasive and humane words: “I am certain you will make it safely to Titan but there will not be enough fuel to get home. This is for someone unique that has always wanted to see the universe first-hand and has perhaps a terminal view on life here at home. Here’s your shot at romantic history.”
For a moment suspend the notion that this is just some crackpot putting up a free ad on the Internet to get some lulz and take a step back to analyze the question. Would you, given the opportunity, be willing to travel further than any other human has before into some of the deepest reaches of the solar system and cement your place firmly in the history books at the cost of never coming back? It’s an intriguing notion and one that I initially struggled to find an appropriate answer for.
Then it dawned on me. Such an adventure is not noble nor romantic. It is, above all, a completely selfish endeavour.
The idea of long term space travel is one of those things that gets me all excited about all the possibility that such a thing would bring. Colonies on other worlds, telescopes showing completely different views of the universe and one day the hopes of finding another form of intelligent life. We’re quite capable of keeping people up in orbit for months at a time currently but we haven’t been able to send people off on their lonesome for more than a couple weeks. The question gives you the impression that not only is his propulsion system highly advanced but so is the life support systems to. It takes about 3 years to get to Titan and that’s a problem that even NASA is struggling to find solutions for.
However despite the improbability of an actual solution to a lot of engineering problems you have to question the reason for sending a single human to a far off world without the possibility of them ever coming back. We could argue at lenght that there’s an enormous amount of science that could be done and there would be nothing more inspiring than another human actually visiting another world. But in reality the scientific achievements could be done much easier by robotic spacecraft so the value a human provides there is completely moot. The point was made that the moon landings grabbed the attention of the entire world at the moment we touched down and that such an endeavour to Titan would do the same.
It wouldn’t though. Had we not made it possible for the Apollo astronauts to return we would have scarred the moon forevermore as the place where we sent some of our best and brightest to die merely for the point of placing a flag. The same can be said for sending someone on a one way trip to Titan and I know that the world couldn’t be inspired by a man they sent away just to die alone on another world.
I believe that humanity must expand beyond our mother planet not only because of our innate desire to explore but also to protect ourselves as a species. There is so much to learn from leaving our home world that just can’t be done any other way that ignoring space feels tantamount to condemning ourselves to an eternal prison of this gravity well. Whilst the first to pioneer the frontiers of other planets will always be celebrated sending them to their graves becomes a purely selfish endeavour for all those involved. We can not conquer the challenges the universe puts in front of us by planting flags or being first at something. We conquer them by overcoming all the challenges, including the one of coming back home.
This is a wholly different idea from that of trying to accomplish something, say summiting mount Everest, which could end up with one losing their life. Such endeavours form the core of the human spirit, undertaking a challenge to push the limits of what was thought possible. I make the argument that all of those who attempted such journeys always had the intention of coming back down as I know of no one who has undertaken such missions just to die once they reached their destination.
So in the end I decided that no, I wouldn’t take the trip. Sacrificing my life, or anyone elses, just for the sake of putting my name in the history books is not worth the price of admission. Additionally such an endeavour achieves nothing for the greater cause of humanity and only serves to mar the destination with the death of a person who’s only ambition was to be remembered after they died. Whilst that is a hope that we all carry there is little value in throwing your life away in such an endeavour and I will never celebrate those condemn themselves to such fates.