In September 2020, a group of UK researchers published their findings that Phosphine, a toxic gas produced by microbes was found in the acid-drenched atmosphere of Venus. It generated great excitement; much like Mars Venus is also a close neighbour.
In the early 60s the first probes went to the nearby planets of Mars and Venus. They found them to have extreme conditions, which based on prevalent knowledge of biology made us conclude that they could not support life. So interest and research expanded to distant objects like the frozen moons of Jupiter’s and Titan, the largest moon of Saturn having organic compounds. As space exploration expanded, biological research was developing as well. On Earth, microbes were discovered that could survive in very harsh conditions, like nuclear waste, under deep sea and exterior panels of international space stations. So maybe, our neighbouring planets have extraterrestrial life. We might find simple microbes, but these represent the building blocks of life!
Exploring the frontiers of the universe and searching for life has and continues to be a major scientific endeavor. Humanity’s fascination with outer space has found expression in science fiction stories and movies, fueling a curiosity about it in general. Space exploration is heavily funded in countries across the globe. Many private companies have entered the arena in the last decade, like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Rocket Lab of New Zealand and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin.
In India too, space exploration is a continuously growing trajectory. The Mangalyaan or Mars Orbiter Mission – our first interplanetary mission – starting orbiting Mars since September 2014, and has been sending data about Mars since. ‘Gaganyaan’, ISRO’s first manned space mission is targeted for 2022. ISRO has also announced ‘Shukrayaan’, a mission to explore the atmospheric chemistry of Venus, to be launched by 2025. In June 2020, India also opened up its space activities to the private sector, including start ups.
So how do these discoveries of outer space impact our everyday lives. Many of us would say they don’t – we read them or gloss over them without a thought. However, amongst those who read or are active on social media, most would be aware of the latest developments. These leaps of human enquiry into the realm of space represent an audacity of hope and endeavour. They impact our day to day lives in myriad ways.
Einstein has famously said ‘Time and space are not conditions of existence, time and space is a model for thinking’.
Space exploration has greatly benefited life on Earth. The cutting edge technology put to use in space exploration, the materials used, the robotics, hi tech computing – they have changed the way we live on Earth. From the internet to solar panels to GPS, and baby food to infrared thermometers to camera sensors – they all originated in space projects. In space, longevity and sustainability of the project are of utmost importance. Reusable rocket technology is a step in making space exploration cheaper and sustainable. Once successful it could change the way we travel around on Earth, supporting sustainability on our planet too.
Women scientists played a major role in the 2014 Mangalyaan mission. In 2019, an all women space walk at the International Space station was a great moment for women around the globe, and Gwynne Shotwell, a woman, is President and Chief Operating Officer of SpaceX. Space projects present inspirational stories in the journey towards bridging the gender gap, which still has a long way to go.
Space missions also bring together different nationalities in pursuit of human enquiry into what exists out there in the realm of outer space. Space exploration provides a great platform for multilateralism in a world that struggles with conflict.
As humanity battles a pandemic not seen in the last hundred years, space exploration efforts provide us with a basis to hope for the future. If humans can reach Mars or Venus or explore faraway Saturn, or find other forms of life, we definitely will find a way soon to beat the corona virus here.
So, when the next headline appears about another step in discovering the mysteries of the universe, be sure that it will impact our lives on Earth too, sooner or later!
Published in Hindi in Dainik Bhaskar on 22 October 2020