Like the universe itself, exploring space has no limits.
But is it worth the time, effort and money to continually push the envelope to investigate ever further reaches of the universe?
All the evidence indicates that space exploration is not only useful today, but that it is essential to our well-being in the future.
Exploring other planets to prepare for the future of our own
Space exploration is not simply a sign of humanity’s hubris in continually trying to push the boundaries a little further. It has actually been a source of genuine improvements for the inhabitants of planet Earth. Indeed, today’s space missions may enable us to find the host planets of tomorrow.
Space exploration has provided answers to some fundamental questions about the origins of the Earth and humanity’s place in the universe. By studying the solar system, for example, we have gained a better understanding of phenomena such as gravity, the magnetosphere, solar planets geology evolution and atmosphere and fluid dynamics.
This quest for knowledge is far from over: scientists are continuing their research into dark matter and dark energy, for example, in order to better understand the role they play in the hidden mass and accelerating expansion of the universe. This is the objective of the Euclid mission, for which Thales Alenia Space is proud to be prime contractor on behalf of the European Space Agency (ESA).
Progress for humankind
As well as being useful in themselves, space exploration missions have brought tangible improvements for the Earth and its inhabitants.
Countless innovations in sectors ranging from metals and alloys to biology and medicine have been possible thanks to space exploration.
Materials developed and tested in space, under unique conditions that are difficult to replicate on earth, can give rise to stronger, lighter, higher-performance products. One of the experiments conducted by ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet on board the International Space Station (ISS), for example, involved testing innovative materials designed to prevent bacterial contamination. These materials offer considerable potential for use in a range of public health and hygiene applications, such as in hospitals, on public transport and in the food industry.
Periods spent in space by astronauts, and the associated consequences for the body in terms of loss of muscle mass and bone density, as well as accelerated wear and tear on the circulatory system, also provide an opportunity to study the effects of ageing, thereby helping to progress research into conditions such as osteoporosis.
Kinder to the planet
Space exploration also teaches us to be more sparing in our use of vital resources.
Astronauts are trained to survive on limited quantities of food, raw materials, sunlight, energy, water and oxygen. And recycling in space is teaching us how to best implement a circular economy of resources.
New horizons for humanity
The ultimate aim of space exploration is to discover whether other planets harbour the resources that we will need when our own are exhausted, and even whether any of them — Mars, Saturn satellites, the Moon, asteroids, comets — are potentially inhabitable.
Thales Alenia Space is the partner of choice for the most imaginative and far-reaching European and international space exploration missions across the solar system. The technologies which we are developing will give space crews the autonomy they need to embark on the most far-reaching missions.
To mention a few examples:
The Cygnus cargo spacecraft, for which Thales Alenia Space builds all the pressurised cargo modules, carried a portable 3D printer for the purpose of carrying out tests under zero-gravity conditions. The printer could eventually enable astronauts to produce any spare parts they need directly on board;
The EDEN ISS project, meanwhile, aims to develop techniques for the cultivation of food plants in extra-terrestrial environments, in order to provide food for the ISS and, in the longer term, for space exploration vehicles and planetary outposts;
And, thanks to the expertise we have gained through the development of orbital infrastructures on board the ISS, we are also working on a module that will allow people to live, work and communicate in extreme environments on earth, such as in the desert, in polar stations or in humanitarian bases for example. This is a typical example of space technology being used to serve the needs of citizens on earth.
The aim of space exploration is also to discover whether other planets are potentially habitable.
In terms of potential host planets, Mars is the closest contender, although it still takes 7-9 months to get there. This is one of the motivations behind the ExoMars project, which aims to land a rover on Mars in 2021 to search for evidence of former life on the planet. And, launched in March 2016, The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) has already been studying the composition of the Martian atmosphere, to identify any gases of biological origin.
Venus, Mars, Mercury, Saturn, the Moon… Thales is a major partner in Europe’s fantastic missions across the Solar System. For example, Thales Alenia Space is ExoMars overall prime contractor, a major partner onboard BepiColombo’s space exploration mission dedicated to explore Mercury and played a pivotal role in the Cassini-Huygens mission meant to explore Saturn.
Ongoing areas of focus for the future of space exploration include understanding habitats on other planets, and understanding how our own biological systems and materials will behave when not under the influence of gravity.
The challenges of space exploration are great and we can learn so much from mastering them. Thales is committed to playing its part in this unique and historic adventure.
We are driven in the knowledge that, all together, we will make unimaginable discoveries as we push the limits of space and of our minds.
When we think about the universe, we all feel like we’re riding an emotional roller coaster, from fear to surprise to wonder.
Last weeks we were all sad, as we said goodbye to NASA’s incredible rover, Opportunity.