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Vladimir Polevanov: “We have embraced the age of great space discoveries”

Vladimir Polevanov

Synchronism is a sign of the time, an evidence of perpetual struggle between the powers of destruction and creation. Two landmark events happened in Russia almost simultaneously: the failed launch of Soyuz 2,1b/Fregat M rocket with its 19 satellites crashing into Atlantic Ocean and a comprehensive report called “Age of Great Spatial Discoveries” by Vladimir Polevanov, a former deputy prime minister of Russia, academician, Deputy Head – Chief Geologist of Rosgeolexpertiza Federal State-Funded Institution. Bold ideas of the report presented at “Felix Zigel Lectures” conference in December 2017 are yet to be comprehended. The sooner we do it the better. We have requested the author to comment on some provisions of his report.

You have mentioned the age of great space discoveries. What does it mean?

Age of great space discoveries is comparable with the age of great geographical discoveries. The man has discovered the land, rivers, seas, and oceans – aquatic and aerial ones. The next step is space discovery. We should start colonizing it.

The Soviet Union and U.S. are the pioneers of space exploration. Now, China, Russia, EU, Japan, India are on that list. Space civilizations are being formed. This is a logical and inevitable process. I am absolutely sure that united global efforts to colonize near space: Mars, the Moon, Saturn satellites, will become the task for the nearest future.

In 2017, we celebrate the anniversary of launching the Earth’s first artificial satellite. The Soviet Union was the first to do it. That event marked the beginning of space exploration. You have mentioned in your report the man’s achievements of the last sixty years. What is the most important one?

Space has become one of the leading sectors. Without its development, human progress is impossible. Television, internet, communication satellites, navigation, military intelligence, geology, cartography, ecology, agriculture and this is not the full list.

There are 28 space launcher complexes operating on the planet (exclusive of the Sea Launch), 5,600 starts have been made so far. The first is USSR with 2,445 starts, U.S. goes the second with 1,639 starts and Russia is the third with 804 starts.

For the time being, the total number of satellites is 1,619. U.S. is the leader (576), then goes China (181), the third is Russia (140). Unfortunately, we are no longer the leading space power! This is obvious in the segment of development and launch of small satellites i.e. below 1 ton. Their orbital launch can be implemented with “ordinary” rockets (for instance, those made on the basis of intercontinental ballistic ones). Besides, they can be placed on usual satellites as additional load.

Such crafts are developed by university staffs, research groups. NASA is actively funding these programs. 1,282 small satellites are in orbit now. Only 7 of them are Russian. We are the last here. It’s a pity. (The market of small satellites will total $2.92 billion in 2017 and will reach $7.53 by 2022 with an annual growth for 20.83%, according to forecasts – EADaily’s note).

Who claims the Solar system?

The USSR explored the Solar system: we sent spacecrafts to the Moon and Mars. Yet, we made only two successful launches to the “red planet.” Instead, the Soviet Union explored Venus quite intensively and successfully. It was considered to be “our” planet.

However, Russia does not explore the Solar system at all. China, India, France, EU, Japan send their spacecrafts there. Everyone does, except us. We stopped exploring outer space in 1989.

Would you brief on the key discoveries by foreign researchers?

Almost all planets in the Solar system and their main satellites have been explored. The key result of the surveys was discovery of water in incredibly large amounts. Many were shocked. Existence of oceans of water has been registered on five planets and satellites, 75% of asteroids contain water. This makes the future colonization of the Solar system much easier.

A many-kilometer large ocean on surface of Saturn’s satellite Europe has been proven. The celestial body is ice-covered. Although Europe is much smaller than the Earth, its global ocean contains at least twice as much water as our planet does. Existence of salty ocean on Ganymede, Jupiter’s satellite has been proven too. There is a kind of “sandwich” of several layers of water and ice there.

A ten-km-deep ocean underlies the two-hundred-km-thick ice on Callisto, Jupiter’s moon. They have identified water on Enceladus too. A forty-km-thick ice overlies ocean on that moon of Saturn. Enceladus is active – hot springs flash into the space for tens of kilometers.

What about the Moon and Mars?

Man will not face water deficiency if he has a base on the Moon, and there will be such base, I assure you. Using data of Chandrayaan-1 Indian spacecraft launched in 2008, American scientists have identified the chemical composition of the Moon. Researchers have not drawn distinctions between real water (H2O) and the so-called hydroxyl water (OH). It has been established that there is about one hundred million tons of water on the Moon. This is several times as much as in Baikal.

“The signature of water is present nearly everywhere on the lunar surface, not limited to the polar regions as previously reported,” said the study's lead author, Shuai Li. The amount of water increases toward the poles and does not show significant difference among distinct compositional terrains. The water concentration reaches a maximum average of around 500 to 750 parts per million in the higher latitudes. That’s not a lot — less than is found in the sands of Earth’s driest deserts. To prove that water exists on the Moon, it is anticipated that lunar crater Cabeus will be drilled during one of the forthcoming spatial experiments.

As to Mars, it is packed with water. Sand dunes, blind creeks, and ice in the crater. There is enough water there.

Science and technologies develop rapidly. Specialists say the space may help settling some problems on the Earth, particularly, energy deficit.

You are quite right. Humanity will undoubtedly explore thermonuclear fusion reactions and that fuel will come to replace oil, gas and hydrocarbons. The Moon is known for its Helium, first of all. The lunar geology has been explored sufficiently.

Use of Helium-3 isotope in nuclear reactions may well result in big benefits for power engineering on the Earth. The undisputable advantage of that process is effective power generation with almost no radioactive waste generation. Energy efficiency per ton of Helium-3 is equivalent to 20 million tons of oil. Spacecraft can bring 150 tons of Helium-3 to the Earth, a flight would ensure one year of life for the Earth.

Specialists say lunar reserves of that nuclear fuel will be sufficient to provide electric power to the entire humanity for about 5,000 years. U.S., China, India plan to recover Helium-3 from the lunar surface by 2030. NASA specialists have figured out that production of one ton of Helium will cost $3 billion, which is an economically viable figure. Construction of the necessary infrastructures will cost $20 billion. To satisfy the annual demand for energy in U.S., some 35-40 tons of Helium-3 is needed.

Russia also plans to explore the Moon, but it has postponed that process until 2050 for some unknown reasons. The country plans to spend $210 billion on that project. I hope the term will be corrected; otherwise we will be left behind with no hope of catch up.

Your report addressed the activity of Elon Musk, an American engineer and businessperson, the founder of SpaceX Corporation. Is he a hero of our time?

Musk is a romantic person. He says: “You want to wake up in the morning and think "the future's going to be great". And that's what being a space-faring civilization is all about. It's about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can't think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars. That's why.”

In 2006, he funded construction and launch of Falcon-1 rocket. The first three starts failed. Musk had money enough to make the fourth rocket only. If it exploded too, he would become a bankrupt. Fortunately for all of us, it was a success. For the time being, the “power horse”, heavy rocket Falcon-9 regularly transports cargoes to the space.

SpaceX launched activity in 2002 and its market cap of launches reached 45% in 2017. A phenomenal success! Next year, the American businesspersons anticipate a growth of their share in the market to 60%-65%. European launches will not exceed 30% of total, whereas the Russian ones will account for some 10% of total.

Do you mean that peers are on our heels?

Due to Musk, we had to reduce the launch price to $70 million, as he takes only $60 million and will soon reduce the fee to $30 million. Musk returns the first two stages of rockets to the earth. He has achieved their landing on platforms in the ocean. That platform is as large as a football pitch. The strategic goal of SpaceX is to create a high-speed interplanetary transport system to colonize planets, the Moon and Mars, first.

Will they build a city on Mars?

Musk speaks about it constantly; I have listened to ten hours of his speeches. He is absolutely sure he will do that. To fly to Mars and colonize it, four problems need to be settled: 1) creation of a spacecraft for multiple flights, 2) refueling on the Earth’s orbit (the necessary tankers have been created), 3) production of fuel for rockets on Mars (a theory of how it can be handled has been developed already, 4) selection of optimal rocket fuel.

Musk plans to land the first man on Mars by 2026. SpaceX capsule will be sent to the “red planet” in 2020.

Musk has far reaching plans to create a million-strong city on Mars. They have made calculations saying that such number of people can be delivered to Mark within 40 years. Mars will become a base for further exploration of the near and far space.

Vladimir Pavlovich, why space? You are a geologist; you know the Earth’s problems perfectly. Don’t you think that it would be more logical to bring order to the planet first and tackle the space issues afterwards?

Space is vital for humanity already now. This is the condition for our survival as a civilization on the planet. Since 1980s, the human needs exceed the capacities of the planet. We live “in credit.” We have already exceeded the planet’s load limits by 20%. The planet has already lost its self-restoration function. The global ocean has appeared on the verge of overall contamination. The size of the “garbage continents” in it has exceeded 11 million km2. Plankton mass is 6-times smaller than the plastic mass in the ocean.

The largest oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010 was another tragic page in history of the Earth. The Gulf Stream has weakened, the weather in Europe and North America has changed dramatically. Over 400 types of flora and fauna of the Gulf have died out.

Practically, space colonization is vital for the humanity to save the planet. We need to coordinate activity of all the developed countries to that end. I think Russia as the successor of the first space civilization – USSR should undertake that role, that mission, that planetary project.

Is it realistic?

Nothing is impossible when there is desire, of course. I would like the world to change its attitude towards Russia. We must initiate two ideas:

The first is to save the global ocean. Priorities of consumerist society will result in destruction of the Earth biosphere with all that it implies for the humanity. We need to change the paradigm of development: cooperation instead of competition, development instead of unrestrained growth of indicators!

The second is to set up a creative group to develop a global program of colonization and exploration of the space. The project will help avoiding duplicates of expensive projects, speeding up progress and, which is the most important, uniting rivals for the common good undertaking. The world is on the brink of a new world war and maybe a nuclear one that will destroy entire civilizations.

To implement such project, we need to create an international managing structure with a conditional name “Interspace” involving Russia, China, U.S., Japan, Brazil, Iran and some other states.

A special bank to fund common space projects should be on agenda. And finally, we need to draft new global space legislation.

Sounds great…

It will happen anyway! It would be good if we were the first to do it.

Interviewed by Lidia Sycheva for EADaily

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