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Archive for Sunday, April 25, 2004

Commentary: Unmanned space missions should be funding priority

April 25, 2004

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As a boy, I read "Tom Swift and His Outpost in Space," "Tom Swift and His Giant Robot."

I'm the kind of nerd who should favor the political drift these days toward putting people on planets.

But I'm not getting liftoff from the idea of putting people on Mars.

Today, less than a quarter of the NASA budget goes for human and robotic exploration of our neighborhood, the solar system.

By 2020, if current plans hold, more like two-thirds will be spent on that.

We'll send space cowboys to the Moon, put a base there, then gear up to plant the flag on Mars by the year 2030.

Less and less will be spent on the unmanned expeditions favored by the National Academy of Sciences -- and less and less on probing the rest of the universe.

This despite the fact that scientists generally agree you get more scientific information for your space buck by probing the universe with unmanned instruments.

Do people really need to go along for the ride?

Sure, it would make for great vanity license plates once the astronauts returned.

"Eat my red dust." That kind of thing.

A Kansas University astronomy professor, Bruce Twarog, recently lectured to a KU science writing class I'm helping teach.

He talked about what he considers to be worthy space projects, alternatives to poking around in our own neighborhood.

One involves searching for more planets outside the solar system. We've already found about 125. A proposed instrument would look for more by detecting the tiny wobbles of stars caused by planetary gravitation.

A second project focuses on black holes. A bunch of satellites would be electronically harnessed so they could act, in effect, like a telescope with a lens a few miles wide.

This array could see very distant things in fine detail.

It would scan the skies looking for evidence of gas being drawn at high speeds into black holes by their withering gravitational pull.

A third project would have us looking farther out in space, and further back in time, than we've ever looked, Twarog says.

Astronomers who examine light waves coming our way from distant realms are essentially looking into the past. But there's a limit on how far back in time they can see.

The earliest picture of the universe they can assemble comes from 300,000 years after the big bang.

New instruments would detect not light waves but gravitational waves. Twarog says that these contain information about the size, energy and distribution of particles in the first fraction of a second that the universe existed.

The fraction I'm talking about is a decimal point followed by 13 zeroes and a one.

Now maybe it's stupid to spend money on anything above cloud level. Some people think that. But we're an inquisitive species. We're unlikely to cease our explorations.

So we need to be thoughtful about how we spend our space dollars.

I find the idea of searching for black holes and planets outside our solar system and of theorizing about the universe in its extreme infancy more interesting than the possibility of putting people on planets.

As I get older, where our species goes seems less important to me than what it knows.




- Roger Martin is a longtime research communicator for Kansas University. His commentaries on research can be found at www.ur.ku.edu. Martin's e-mail address is rmartin@ku.edu.

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