Speaking of Hubble...

Dragon’s Lair

June 5, 2012 by Alberto Conti
Maneuvering Dragon to the docking port of the International Space Station. CREDIT: Andre Kuipers/ESA/NASA

Maneuvering Dragon to the docking port of the International Space Station. CREDIT: Andre Kuipers/ESA/NASA

On the tail of my last post about Planetary Resources’ goal of mining asteroids, last week I was reminded on three separate occasions of the excitement I often feel when thinking (and dreaming) of our place in the universe. It’s a remarkable time.

First, on May 20 (May 21 in in the Eastern Hemisphere), a spectacular annular solar eclipse took place. Such an eclipse occurs when the Moon passes between Earth and the Sun, partially obscuring the image of the Sun for lucky observers here on Earth. The key word here is “partially.” In these types of eclipses, the Moon is unable to completely cover the surface of the Sun, leaving an annulus known as the Ring of Fire. Fortunately, even if I was not one of the lucky ones to view the event in person (the eclipse was not visible from the East Coast of the United States), an abundance of live feeds on the Internet allowed me to truly feel part of the action.

Then, on May 25, the board of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) Organization convened in Amsterdam to announce their final decision on the site that will host the SKA radio telescope. This decision was important for astronomy in that SKA will be the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope ever built. The decision was an anticlimactic tie, in that SKA antennas will be hosted both in South Africa and Australia, but this was somehow expected. SKA is big science with the potential of big discoveries, and many wanted to be part of it.

I will come back to SKA in an upcoming post, given that in this case big science truly means big data as well.

Finally, a Dragon ran from Earth but was captured by the International Space Station (ISS). Just when many of us looked with apprehension at a future without reusable vehicles like the Space Shuttle, and thought that exploration had effectively been put on hold, NASA sanctioned a commercial company to deliver “groceries and supplies” to the ISS, thereby opening the door for a viable commercialization of space. The successful mission of the unmanned cargo capsule, named Dragon, could potentially be a game changer, particularly if companies like SpaceX will initially take the role that FedEx on Earth has assumed for our personal packages. However, in light of Planetary Resources’ announcement, I believe many companies are now on a trajectory that will put them at the forefront of space exploration: delivering packages is just a required stepping-stone. SpaceX needs to learn how to dock before it can plan on orbiting another planetary body.

Most of the success of companies like SpaceX is due to the remarkable ingenuity and entrepreneurship of people who simply never stopped dreaming about space. A few individuals, after having made a fortune in business, are now turning to their “hobby.” Luckily for all of us, their hobby is the exploration of space. This is indeed the case for Elon Musk, CEO and Chief Designer of SpaceX. He co-designed one of the first viable electric cars of the modern era, the Tesla Roadster, he co-founded what is now the world’s largest Internet payment system, PayPal, and he built SpaceX, the first commercial space company able to send its own capsule to the International Space Station.

SpaceX has effectively opened a new era for private spaceflight after the end of the 30-year U.S. shuttle program. I think this maiden flight and docking to the ISS will someday be recognized as a historic event, even if only for the potential to inspire others to reach further in our planetary neighborhood.

Elon Musk is only 40 years old, and if the past is any indication about his capabilities of turning ideas into products (SpaceX was founded just 10 years ago), I expect to see a big push in the coming years for a much bigger mission: Mars, within his lifetime.

It’s starting to feel like the early 60s all over again: a time where anything in space seemed possible!