A view from SpaceX's Crew Dragon spaceship as it come into dock with the International Space Station

60 years in space – the final frontier

While Earth’s atmosphere and gravity serve as a protective cocoon to life on this planet, our influence extends into space as well.

Modern technology including the GPS technology in our smartphones would be useless, without the array of satellites orbiting above our heads. Monitoring the changes to the polar ice caps would also prove harder to maintain, without a contingent of astronauts permanently manning the International Space Station each and every day.

It would be a mistake to view space as some lifeless void beyond our influence or understanding. In fact, each blast-off into space litters our immediate neighbourhood with space debris, which could pose a danger to future generations of interplanetary explorers yet to come.

Space is far less foreign, and merely an extension of our environment. It is the final frontier, as Star Trek fans around the world can attest to. How are we treating it, and what does the future have in store for humans in space?

Moments from history

By his own description, data scientist Joshua Gladwin is a space fanatic, who formerly worked as a volunteer at the UK Science Museum. “Space used to seem distant and disconnected from our lives. But in the past sixty years, our lives have become intertwined with space”, he tells us.

Admittedly, space travel has only been the luxury of a select few human beings so far, but in Joshua’s view, more of us could learn to discover our space wings, especially with the growth of so-called ‘space tourism’, and set our sights for horizons beyond our own. “I can only see the relationship between humanity and space growing deeper, as we expand out to explore and exploit the solar system as we see fit.”

Life is sustained on Earth by a delicate balance of ecosystems. If something were to upset that balance, say climate change, nuclear war, or a meteor strike, you could easily see the last 12,000 years of human history erased from the planet

– Joshua Gladwin, Data Scientist

As we revealed in our special piece about Yuri Gagarin, our first forays into space were driven by the geopolitical tensions of the Cold War. Even so, the Cold War eventually thawed, and the exploration of space has served not only as an opportunity for progressing into the unknown; it has offered humans the ability for self-reflection like never before.

“Space exploration may seem as if it is all about looking out into the cosmos, but it also allows us an opportunity to look back at ourselves”, according to Joshua. “For me, the most important moments are the images we have taken of the Earth itself.”

Such images include the famous photos of Earth taken by Apollo 17, and the infamous ‘Pale Blue Dot’ image relayed back home by the Voyager 1 probe, as it journeyed beyond the solar system into uncharted deep space. By being able to leave the confines of Earth, our probes and astronauts have helped us gain perspective, changing our view of the planet from a simple dumping ground to a unique oasis in the vacuum of space.

Left: Cassini’s 2017 tribute to the ‘Pale Blue Dot’, showcasing Saturn, Earth and our Moon. Right: A photo of Earth from Voyager 1 back in 1990.

For Doctor Alfredo Carpineti, the history of space exploration is a story of continued progression. The most pivotal moment depends on what you consider important. “It is difficult to say. It could have been Sputnik, or Gagarin’s flight, Valentina Tereshkova’s trip to orbit, the Apollo program, or the 30 years of observations of Hubble”, he muses.

Doctor Carpineti is a science journalist reporting for IFL Science. He holds a PhD in Astrophysics and hosts a podcast, The Astroholic Explains. He is also a chair and founder of Pride in STEM, the single largest UK-based charitable trust working to support LGBTQ+ people working in the field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“These are milestones but also baby steps into the Universe”, Doctor Carpineti adds, “so I’d like to believe that our most important moment in the exploration of the cosmos will always be tomorrow, at least for a long while.”

What space teaches us

As we gaze out into space, it’s impossible not to do so, we bring half a century’s worth of science fiction influences along with us. The discovery of life beyond Earth would confirm that we aren’t alone in the Universe, but in all our work so far, we haven’t made that breakthrough just yet. But why is that so? Surely if life can exist on Earth, why can’t we find similar safe havens where other civilisations can emerge from?

“This is known as the Fermi Paradox, named after the physicist Enrico Fermi”, Joshua informs us. “There are many possible solutions to this question, but one of them is the idea that civilisations are destroyed, either by natural or man-made means.”

The Fermi Paradox holds that there are most-likely so many Earth-like worlds which could sustain life. There are plenty of star systems far older than ours and that the Universe is old enough for plenty of civilisations to have emerged by now. Despite the high odds of this happening, we remain alone for the time being. Perhaps it was a case of existing at the right place but at the wrong time in the history of the Universe?

There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known

– Carl Sagan, Astrophysicist, commenting on the 1990 ‘Pale Blue Dot’ Voyager 1 image

For all we know, in the billions of years since the Big Bang, countless civilisations could have risen and fallen before life ever began on Earth, or they could be yet to be born.

“Life is sustained on Earth by a delicate balance of ecosystems”, Joshua explains. “If something were to upset that balance, say climate change, nuclear war, or a meteor strike, you could easily see the last 12,000 years of human history erased from the planet. It is not unfeasible that other civilisations in the galaxy have similarly been destroyed.”

Doctor Carpineti suggests an entirely different explanation: “Life on Earth has shown longevity and resourcefulness against some pretty dangerous extinction events, so we might think that life is sturdy but we just might have been extremely lucky.”

Earth may have been the lucky winner in a game of pure chance, enjoying a Goldilocks-like fate while planets in our own solar system and beyond might have simply been unable to sustain conditions needed to support life for very long.

Venus is a tantalising glimpse at one of our closest neighbours in space, slightly smaller in size than Earth which suffered a hellish fate. “Venus was not always the toxic blazing hellscape it is today”, Joshua reveals. “We are a long way off the runaway greenhouse effects of Venus, but we learn much from careful study of how catastrophic climate change can occur.”

Greenhouse gases are a valid yardstick for tracking the impact of human activity on Earth. However, these substances can be naturally produced in large quantities, especially by volcanoes such as those found on Venus. Earth might be far from descending into a dystopian world enveloped in acid rain and completely unbreathable air, but Venus serves as a warning from nature about how such a fate could befall a planet.

Doctor Carpineti clarifies, saying: “We can draw parallels between Venus and the dangers we are creating on Earth, especially regarding acid rain and its greenhouse effect that make Venus a deadly planet, the hottest in the Solar System. But we need to remember that those processes were natural on Venus and they are human-made on Earth. I think the most important lesson that we can learn is that our planet might have gone a very different non-life-sustaining way very easily.”

The shape of alien life

If we do indeed find examples of life beyond Earth, the question arises: what will it look like? On Earth, all known lifeforms are carbon-based, but scientists are increasingly open to the idea that life elsewhere could comprise of other elements. Imagine an alien lifeform comprised of silicon, ammonia, or some hydrocarbon solvent such as methane or ethane.

If the Universe is far more hostile to life springing up on other worlds, life may have found its own way, producing lifeforms which evolved in radically different ways in order to survive.

Doctor Carpineti is sure of one thing. “If we discovered a pathogen from outer space that can infect us, we would have two major discoveries. First, alien life! The second one that alien life works on the same principles as Earth-life, such as using DNA/RNA and similar cellular machinery. That would tell us so much about how life came to be.” Talk of alien pathogens opens the door to another issue which is highly pertinent to our current era. The world is in the grips of a pandemic of Earthly origins, but there is a risk that if we reach out into space without care, we could bring our own pathogens with us.

“We should be so very careful in what we bring to space”, Doctor Carpineti urges. “Some Earthly lifeforms are very sturdy and if life exists elsewhere in the solar system, we should make sure we don’t harm it in any way.”

If we find no alien lifeforms welcoming us along the way in the future, there is always the possibility that we can seed the Universe ourselves, terraforming worlds in Earth’s own image and colonising them. Venus is close, but as we previously mentioned, it is a firmly volcanic planet enveloped in thick acidic clouds and the atmosphere is almost entirely CO2. Add a mean temperature of 464 degrees celsius, and you can strike Venus firmly off any terraforming list.

Mars offers a suitable alternative – little over half the size of Earth, Mars is exceedingly cold, but has a thinner atmosphere, supplies of frozen water within its polar ice caps and evidence of flowing streams and greater potential for past incubation of life. The only snag: it failed to retain its Goldilocks status, and could prove harder to make habitable than we realise

As Joshua explains, “Mars already lost its atmosphere once before, through methods we still do not completely understand. How can we be sure this atmosphere will stay? How do we increase the air pressure? And where will we get all those greenhouse gases from?… Overcoming all these issues is far beyond our scientific understanding and technological capabilities now.”

Terraforming poses another interesting question: why ditch the safety of Earth, and risk potentially damaging another planet or satellite in a bid to make a new home? As Joshua adds, “There are also philosophical questions as to whether we even have the right to alter another planet so drastically for our own gain.”

Moving beyond terraforming, Doctor Carpineti looks to the next generation of space exploration, claiming: “I think the next big thing will be the renewed exploration of the Moon. The Artemis Program aims to put the first woman, the first person of colour, and the next white man on the Moon by the end of the decade. And then we can start thinking of safe exploration of the solar system beyond our natural satellite.”

When talking about how humans will live on the Moon and beyond, Doctor Carpineti clarifies something very important: gone are the days of talking about lunar colonies. Such words are simply no longer used in the scientific community, which opts to replace such archaic words with alternative ones such as Moon habitats.

This change in language suggests that the future of space exploration is no longer a game of one-upmanship or conquest; it’s a collaborative field of study, research, exploration and wonder, waiting right on our doorstep. How we treat our own home planet informs how we ultimately treat other potential habitats. Life could come in all shapes and sizes beyond Earth, or we could be all there is. Whichever option is closer to the truth, space is undoubtedly an extension of our environment, and it’s down to us to take good care of it.

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