The news these days is replete with the possibilities thrown up by the images of the James Webb Telescope. Webb has delivered the deepest and sharpest infrared images of the distant universe so far. Now, astronomers around the world will have a chance to observe anything from objects within our solar system to the early universe using Webb’s four instruments. Space exploration has crossed another frontier, and seemingly the mystery of the universe is likely to unfold finally!
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. Thereafter, 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. Our neighbouring planets attracted attention again, and Mars and Venus are back in the exploration arena.
Exploring the frontiers of the universe and searching for life has, and continues to be, a major scientific endeavour. Humanity’s fascination with outer space has found expression in science fiction stories and movies, fuelling 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 – started orbiting Mars in September 2014, and has been sending data about Mars since. ‘Gaganyaan’, ISRO’s first manned space mission is targeted for 2022. Chandrayan-3 is likely to land on the moon in early 2023. ISRO has also announced ‘Shukrayaan’, a mission to explore the atmospheric chemistry of Venus, to be launched by 2025. In June 2020, India opened up its space activities to the private sector, including start-ups. In a watershed moment for start-ups in the country’s commercial space sector, two high-end technology payloads of startup companies were successfully launched by ISRO in July 2022.
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. These leaps of human enquiry into the realm of space represent an audacity of hope and endeavour. Einstein has famously said ‘Time and space are not conditions of existence; time and space are a model for thinking’. Space exploration has greatly benefited everyday 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. From the Internet to solar panels to GPS, and baby food to infrared thermometers to camera sensors – 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 the planet too. Women scientists played a major role in the 2014 Mangalyaan mission. In 2019, an all-women spacewalk 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 the realm of outer space, providing a great platform for multilateralism in a world that struggles with conflict. So, the images that are streaming from the James Webb are not only another step in discovering the mysteries of the universe, they will impact our day-today lives on Earth too, sooner or later!