Mission to JUPITER.

Sending humans to the largest planet in our Solar System might sound like something plucked from the annals of science fiction, but if the experts are to be believed it’s a goal that could be achieved this century.

«It’s my job to make sure Star Trek happens.» At first we’re sure Patrick Troutman is joking. He’s the human exploration strategic analysis lead at NASA’s Langley Research Center, a subset of America’s national space agency responsible for researching the technologies required to send humans into the unknown. And we’re not just talking Mars; Troutman and his team assess the possibilities of manned missions to Jupiter, Saturn and even beyond the Solar System. But the more we talk, the more we realise that Troutman is serious. Deep space missions to destinations like Jupiter, while not quite possible with modern technologies, can be enabled by developments in just a few key areas.

Troutman’s ideas sound like the stuff solely reserved for science fiction. A fusion-powered ship destined for the Jovian system; a proposal to land a crew on Jupiter’s moons; human interstellar travel. But for all its fanciful connotations, Troutman’s work is anything but fiction. His goal has been to analyse the possibility of such missions becoming feasible in the future, and on the subject of a manned mission to Jupiter at least, things are not as far-fetched as they might seem. «If we get a breakthrough in energy production where I can produce 100 megawatts in the palm of my hand, then we’ll have little sports cars that we can send out to Jupiter,» Troutman says. It’s comments like these that make us think that, despite all the obvious hurdles, things we usually associate only with science fiction could one day become science fact.

We’re sure most of you have seen Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking film 2001: A Space Odyssey but for those not in the know it sees two intrepid explorers set out for Jupiter in search of a mysterious obelisk in a futuristic spaceship that, at the time of the film’s release in 1968, preceded even the Apollo missions to the

Moon’s surface. Kubrick was at pains to ensure that the ship itself, from its propulsion system to its elongated shape, mimicked the expected reality of a deep space mission as closely as possible. As it turns out, even half a century later, he was not that far wide of the mark. «Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey ships are basic things that [inspire] a spacecraft configuration [designed for] people on long voyages,» says Troutman. «Whatever we have in the future I think will look like [Kubrick’s ships] in some way it will be of that size and scope.»

A 2009 paper written by Boeing’s Mark Benton titled ‘Crew Exploration Lander for Ganymede, Callisto and Earth’s Moon’ lends itself heavily to a Kubrick-style spaceship. Benton conducted a highly detailed analysis of the various components, technologies and equipment that would be needed to send humans to Jupiter and land on Ganymede or Callisto, and thanks to his attention to detail we’ve been able to illustrate some of his designs in the artwork throughout this feature.

For a mission to Jupiter Benton envisioned a long ship, which he calls Spaceship Discovery (a throwback to the Discovery One ship in 2001:

A Space Odyssey) composed mostly of propellant tanks, sandwiched between a nuclear thermal rocket and a crew habitation module containing everything from an artificial gravity centrifuge to multiple landing craft. Benton’s ship would traverse the Jovian system, sending two-person crews to the moons of Ganymede and Callisto. «[This design] is based on reliable and proven technology,» Benton wrote in his paper, stressing that «safety and redundancy» should be at the forefront of any such mission. Indeed, his paper includes a number of features, such as abort mechanisms during a landing on one of Jupiter’s moons and rescue scenarios to recover a stranded crew, which would prevent any casualties occurring.

It is Troutman’s job to ensure that visions such as this eventually see the light of day. His team has been responsible for some of the groundwork on NASAs upcoming Orion spacecraft, in addition to the cancelled Constellation programme, but while those projects tentatively opened the door to expanding the human presence beyond Earth it is the proposals to send missions to other planets that bust the door wide open.

«Some day, whether it’s through an asteroid impacting the Earth or the Sun turning into a red giant, we’re going to have to get off this planet,» says Troutman. «Of course that’s thousands of millions of years off to ten years off, depending on who you talk to, but we’re never going to get there unless we start [planning]. For us to survive as a species we have to be a multi-planet, multi-star system species. I believe it’s part of our destiny to explore and expand the sphere of human influence into the Solar System.»

The spacecraft.

For all the public attention that proposed missions to Mars garner, it will ultimately fall upon the shoulders of our descendants to take humans to new destinations in the Solar System and beyond, and once Mars has been reached the obvious port of call is Jupiter. «If you look into a lot of the NASA mantra, Mars is the ultimate destination,» continues Troutman. «That comes and goes; sometimes it’s Mars, sometimes it’s the Moon.» But while NASA tos-and-fros over its true direction, Troutman and his team have quietly put together a sound strategy for an eventual mission to Jupiter. «As a destination it looks within reach given stretches in technologies,» Troutman points out.

Joseph Shoer, a spacecraft guidance and control engineer for a major commercial spacecraft company who drew up his own proposal for an unmanned Europa lander mission, is quick to agree. «There’s a lot of extra technical challenges that come with a manned mission, but you do gain something for that,» he says. «[If you] compare the amount of work, say, one of the Mars rovers can accomplish and the amount of work a human geologist can accomplish, then the human blows the robot away. If you send people you get this additional understanding, you get this ability to solve complex problems in a way that a robot can’t.»

Before we get too excited about a human being setting foot on worlds in the outer Solar System, we should point out that experts including Troutman and Shoer are well aware of some of the challenges of sending humans to Jupiter. It’s a daunting prospect that not only requires significant financial investment but also considerable advances in technology. «The downside of sending people is that you have to deal with all the needs people have,» explains Shoer. «You have to provide food, you have to shield them from radiation, things like that. And going to Jupiter is a really long trip; this might be a full career for an astronaut.»

While the good news is that humanity is almost capable of mounting an expedition to Jupiter, the bad news is that you might not be around to see it. «Technology wise I think [the next 50 years] is possible,» says Shoer. «We’ve got all the disparate technologies, we just haven’t necessarily proven them all together, but I think once we know what has to happen in principle then it’s just a matter of implementation.»

To work out just how achievable such a goal might be, Troutman conducted a study in 2003 with Kristen Bethke from Princeton University titled ‘Revolutionary Concepts for Human Outer Planet Exploration (HOPE)’. In it, the two proposed a mission, namely one to Jupiter, that would require significant technological advancements and set NASA a stretch goal that they could have on the back burner, ready and waiting to be completed once the appropriate technology and financial means were available.

To get humans to Jupiter Troutman and Bethke concluded we would need significant developments in key areas of technology. Not since 1972 have we ventured beyond low Earth orbit, and while astronauts have lived on the ISS for over a decade testing, among other things, how humans cope with prolonged time in space, it has not provided us the opportunity to design new spacecraft and propulsion systems as we simply haven’t had the need for it. Even the Moon and Mars can be reached with «the limits of today’s technology,» says Troutman. To truly enable us to become a space-faring species, setting Jupiter as a stretch goal will allow us to begin researching advanced technologies.

«The two big hurdles are advanced propulsion and making sure crews can survive for long durations away from Earth,» Troutman explains. «When you start talking about the Jovian system and the combination with exposure to radiation, we cap the missions at five to six years to drive the propulsion up. So now you’re getting to the point where we’re going from traditional chemical and nuclear thermal rockets to high specific impulse electric propulsion, and we’re talking megawatts of power.»

In his study, Troutman looked at a number of different methods to carry out a mission to Jupiter in a suitable time frame. «One of our options was magnetised fusion, or targeted fusion, and that was basically a deuterium beam imploded by lasers for a fusion reaction that pushed the spacecraft,» says Troutman. «That had a really high specific impulse, and we could do a mission to Callisto in two years with that system. If you took that same system and applied it to Mars, you’re doing Mars and back in three months!» The other hurdle to overcome is Jupiter’s intense radiation environment. Although the exact effects of sending a human to the vicinity of Jupiter are not fully understood, it is generally agreed in the scientific community that the radiation emitted by Jupiter, in addition to the absence of a protective magnetosphere like that around Earth, would pose significant health problems for prospective astronauts. «We still haven’t solved that problem,» agrees Troutman, «so that’s why we need to get some folks out in deep space beyond low Earth orbit and build up an experience base there.» One proposed solution has been to encase one area of the ship’s habitat in a layer of water, which does an excellent job of stopping radiation passing through. During periods when the spacecraft passes through an area of more intense radiation, the crew could move into this safe area to alleviate the damaging effects radiation is known to cause.

The arguments for carrying out a manned mission to Jupiter are varied and numerous. Aside from continuing the human exploration of the Solar System, the Jovian system itself is a fascinating place full of secrets just waiting to be discovered. «It’s like a mini Solar System with its own cold Sun and a bunch of minor planets floating around it,» says Troutman.

And it is these ‘minor planets’, or moons, that are of most interest. Europa is thought to harbour an ocean containing more water than there is on Earth beneath its surface, where there is a «great opportunity for life» to exist. Other moons such as Ganymedeand Callisto are «giant snowballs» and it is this abundance of water, whether it’s frozen or not, that makes Jupiter such an attractive destination. «Water is what we need to drink, it’s what we need for oxygen to breathe, and you can make great rocket propellant out of it. So given that there’s plenty of water, given that it’s the next closest major ‘planet cluster’, given there’s an opportunity for life out there, then why wouldn’t [Jupiter] be a good place to send humans?»

Of course, apart from the scientific knowledge that could be gleaned from such a mission, the survival of the human species in the case of impending Armageddon would rally the globe like never before. «If we detected a killer asteroid that was going to wipe out the Earth, I do believe that if we combined the resources of Earth with political will we could come up with a solution in five years to save the planet,» says Troutman. «However, there is no such desire or need or urgency with respect to sending humans out into the great beyond [right now].» Without such an impending event, and instead just with unlimited funds, Troutman thinks «we could have people walking on the surface of Callisto and submarines in Jupiter in under 30 years. In a realistic world, it’ll be the end of the century before we do something like that, unless there is a huge breakthrough in technology or physics that we are about to discover.»

To paraphrase John F Kennedy, we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Fifty years ago the suggestion that humans could be sent to Jupiter would be scoffed at; now it’s met with cautious interest. For while we are yet to explore some closer destinations, including asteroids and Mars, there’s little doubt that the Jovian system is one of the most intriguing places in the Solar System. Sure, it’s unlikely we’ll see humans venture there in the next 10, 20 or even 30 years but it’s comforting to know that a manned mission to Jupiter is not only plausible, it’s downright achievable, albeit with a ton of money and a truckload of ingenuity. Nonetheless, once humans have set foot on Mars and the public grows weary with more missions to the Red Planet, we’ll be safe in the knowledge that NASA and other agencies will have the work of Troutman, Benton et al to thank when they begin planning the next leap in human space exploration: a manned mission to Jupiter.

Planet Earth Education.

One of the UK’s most popular and longest standing providers of astronomy distance learning courses. Choose from five separate astronomy courses, suitable for complete beginner right through to first-year university standard, including GCSE Astronomy. A certificate is issued for each completed course. You will find a complete syllabus for each of the courses available, along with other details about each course, and the necessary enrolment information on our website. There is a ‘Student Feedback’ link where you can view some of the unsolicited comments we have received from past students. We pride ourselves on being accessible and flexible and offer very attractively priced services, of the highest standards, and we work hard to provide you with what you want. Of paramount importance to us is the one-to-one contact students have with their tutor, who is easily accessible even outside of office hours. Planet Earth Education’s popularity has been growing over many years with various home educators who have used our courses in the education of their own children, many obtaining the GCSE Astronomy qualification, a recognised science qualification.

Like this post? Please share to your friends: