Magazine article USA TODAY

A Trip to the Great Beyond

Magazine article USA TODAY

A Trip to the Great Beyond

Article excerpt

THE EXHIBITION "Beyond Planet Earth: The Future of Space Exploration" offers a vision of the future of space travel as it boldly explores our next steps in outerspace, taking visitors on humanity's journey to explore the next frontier, either ourselves or via robotic proxies, which already have traveled to every planet in our solar system.

Future missions--which once were limited to the realm of science fiction, but today are discussed by leading scientists and engineers--include building a space elevator on the surface of the moon, deflecting a hazardous near-Earth asteroid, and traveling to Mars (perhaps even establishing colonies there).

"... As we mark the 50th anniversary of human space flight, it is a particularly timely moment to celebrate the enduring curiosity that drives humans to find new ways to explore our universe," says Ellen V. Futter, president of the American Museum of Natural History. "Although NASA's final Space Shuttle mission ended [last] summer, the new missions that are being planned for decades and centuries ahead, as well as the scientific discoveries that await us, are thrilling to consider."

"Beyond Planet Earth is one of the most ambitious exhibitions on the future of space travel ever attempted," notes Michael Novacek, senior vice president and provost for science at AMNH.

Adds exhibition curator Michael Sham, "While we can't predict what the spaceships carrying us and our robots will look like, we do know where we're going, the challenges of getting them, and the opportunities available when we arrive at destinations as alien as anything out of 'Star Trek.'"

"Beyond Planet Earth" is broken up into seven sections:

Introduction. The exhibition opens with a retrospective of historic manned and unmanned space missions: Sputnik 1, the first man-made satellite; the Vostok 1 space capsule that boosted Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, into orbit; the Hubble Space Telescope; and a Mars Exploration Rover. Authentic equipment and artifacts on display include a Soviet cosmonaut helmet and U.S. astronaut gloves. A model of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, a spaceplane currently in development, highlights emerging space travel vehicles.

Solar System Theater. A video presentation introduces future manned and unmanned space missions to Mars, Jupiter's moon Europa, and beyond.

Returning to the Moon. NASA and other space agencies have identified Shackleton Crater, near the moon's south pole, as a promising site for a lunar base because it offers access to resources such as water-ice and near-constant sunlight to generate electricity. Along with a scale model of a habitat that could house four astronauts, this section features models of a space elevator that could be used to transport mined materials and a liquid mirror telescope on the moon's surface.

Exploring Asteroids. This section showcases a large 3D re-creation of the near-Earth asteroid Itokawa and the Japanese Hayabusa spacecraft that rendezvoused with it in 2005 to collect samples. Obtaining pristine samples for study not only helps scientists better understand the formation of the solar system, it may reveal the presence of valuable metals. Iron meteorites such as the Knowles meteorite am 99% metal alloy and--like some asteroids--could be mined for useful materials. …

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