PERSPECTIVE: Is Mankind Ready for Another Giant Leap? as Scientists Prepare for Another Foray to Mars, Prof Mike Cruise from Birmingham University Explains Why the Future of the Human Race Could Depend on Successful Space Exploration

Article excerpt

Byline: Prof Mike Cruise

We live on a rocky and isolated planet circling an unstable star that we depend on for our heat and light.

We also know that our activities on the Earth are causing long-term changes to our climate and we are running out of easily accessible fuel sources to power our current style of life.

The only rational approach to this situation is to find out more about planets - how they work, what makes their atmospheres develop and change, and to find out more about new energy sources and how to use them. We also need to understand in more detail exactly what is happening to the Earth, both at the local and at the global level.

Much of this research is being done from the ground in laboratories and at observatories across the world but some research does need space platforms to carry the instruments that will make crucial measurements to further our understanding of these very complex issues. Some instruments need the global vantage point that a spacecraft provides, others require to be above the Earth's atmosphere to avoid the distortion or absorption that affects certain kinds of radiation. All research is expensive but space research is especially so and we should only use space platforms when no other possibility exists. In the UK we spend about pounds 200 million a year on all aspects of civil space research and exploration. This includes work on satellite navigation systems and communications networks that now play an important part in our everyday life and essentially pay for themselves. Our spend on space in the UK is just a little above what we spend each year on cigars.

What can space do for our knowledge of our planet? First of all we can use space platforms to study in detail what is happening to the Earth. From orbit it is possible to map the ice fields of Antarctica as a monitor of global warming as well as study pat-terns of vegetation and drought across the world. Such measurements would be impossible from the ground whereas from space the entire globe can be imaged in a few days with instruments that allow direct comparison of one region another. We can also study the evolution of coastlines, the pattern of ocean currents and other markers of the land-sea interactions that are so vital to our climate.

Because the Sun has a range of planets orbiting around it at different distances, we can use the differences between them as a kind of planetary laboratory. We can't do experiments on them but we can test our computer models on data from planets very different to the Earth. This increases our confidence that our computer models are accurate and these models can then be used to predict what might happen here on Earth as our climate is influenced by mankind's activities. One of these planets, Venus, has a climate totally dominated by the greenhouse effect giving us a glimpse of what would happen to us if global warming became uncontrollable. Others like Mars pose scientific puzzles concerning how they have evolved into their present state since the formation of the Solar System. Far away from us are small planets with atmospheres similar to that of the Earth before vegetation began to release the oxygen we now depend on for life. …