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The new space mission is a European-built probe destined for an interplanetary journey with the overarching purpose of finding signs of life. Since the project required an immense amount of funding and collaboration of multiple countries, it is critical that it passes the initial stage – the rocket launch without any aberrations. In the baseline scenario, the launch is smooth, and this is to be expected as per recent statistics. As stated by Kyle (2019), who provided raw data on the subject, the manned failure rate was at 1.64% while the unmanned was at 8.08%. However, since science has been developing at a rapid rate, refining existing technologies, in the last 20 years, the unmanned failure rate was down to 6.68% for manned and 0.79% (Kyle, 2019).
It is estimated that the mission will last no longer than a few months, given that everything goes according to the plan. The tentative duration is in line with the average space mission duration. NASA (n.d.) reports that typically, the ISS (international space station missions), also commonly referred to as expeditions, do not exceed six months. From the case description, however, it becomes apparent that the current space mission is likely to be unmanned and controlled remotely, without an actual crew on board. In this case, an average space probe lasts around 90 days, or three months, which is close to the initial estimate.
One of the primary targets of the mission, measuring the atmospheric composition of the new planet, is expected to be achieved without major problems. Today, there are well-defined, thoroughly developed tools for determining what elements compose the atmosphere of a planet. They employ the light-absorbing characteristics of elements for generating the so-called “light signature.” Mapping the composition of the surface with a 100-m resolution is considered to be a medium characteristic of the most commonly used sensors put in use as early as 1999 (Ose et al., 2016). The baseline scenario implies that the mission will yield medium-resolution visual data whose collection will not be impeded by any natural phenomena.
The difficulty of surface observations will depend on the unique characteristics of the planet. For instance, surface observations on Venus have long suffered from its extremely dense atmosphere and natural occurrences such as strong winds whose velocity easily amounts to 80m/s (300 km/h) (Tinetti et al., 2013). Nevertheless, since even Venus has since been thoroughly researched, the baseline expectation is that there will be a way to observe the surface of a new planet.
The mission team does not raise their hopes too high regarding discovering signs of extraterrestrial forms of life. The same goes for water: with 71% of its surface covered with oceanic water, Earth is the only known planet with a stable water resource. As of 2015, it has been established that the volume of water inside the solar system is roughly 25-60 times the volume of water on Earth. Based on this piece of statistics, having at least water on its surface, be it ice or liquid, is not exactly a rarity, but at the same time, it does not mean that it is conducive to the emergence of life.
The Best Case Scenario
The best-case scenario for the current case includes the attainment of all the goals on the agenda. It goes without saying that the best-case scenario leaves no possibility for a failed launch, which, as it has been mentioned before, is not likely to happen in the first place based on the available data. The atmosphere composition of the planet will be so those surface observations will be easier than expected, and the shuttle will be able to collect probes for further analysis. Apart from it, the picture quality will advance from medium (100-1,000m) to high resolution (<100m). The mission will not be confronted with any of the extreme natural occurrences akin to those that take place on planets such as Venus.
What differs the best-case scenario from the baseline scenario is its groundbreaking discoveries and breakthroughs on issues that have long haunted astronomical, physical, chemical, and other sciences. The primary, overarching goal of the present mission is to discover extraterrestrial life, for which it is critical to come across natural conditions that are conducive to its emergence. Hence, the best-case scenario implies that such a discovery will be made, rendering the venture worthy of time, money, and human resources invested.
This year, Clash (2020) interviewed Story Musgrave, an astronaut that was on board of all five of the Space Shuttles – Endeavor, Discovery, Atlantis, Challenger, and Columbia. As cited by Clash (2020), Musgrave shared that statistically, there are millions if not billions of planets that have biological life. At present, the Habitable Exoplanet Catalog (HEC) maintained by the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo (2020) counts as many as 55 potentially habitable exoplanets. According to the newest calculations, the closest one, Proxima Cen B, is in 4.2 light-years from Planet Earth, which means that the journey would take far longer than the tentative duration for the mission. However, in the best-case scenario, the exoplanet that the current space probe seeks to investigate turns out to be habitable – a trait that has gone unnoticed for years.
At present, there is a consensus that the habitability of any planet is contingent on the presence of liquid water (Sellers Exoplanet Environments Collaboration, n.d.). The chances that the investigated planet has water are moderate to high: for instance, as of 2015, it had been established that water is present in as many as 23 places in the Solar system alone (Hsu et al., 2015). As told by Hsu et al. (2015), there is good evidence that Enceladus, Saturn’s sixth-largest moon, has a hot hydrothermal environment – similar to the one that led to the emergence of life on Earth. This might be the case with the current exoplanet; however, there is still a possibility that the mission will discover new environments that can sustain life. In the best-case scenario, not only the exoplanet will be found habitable, but its natural conditions will also help to redefine the requirements for habitability. All in all, the mission will make a significant contribution to the modeling of diverse planetary conditions.
The Worst-Case Scenario
Even though in the last twenty years, technology has significantly improved, worst-case scenarios still cannot be completely excluded when planning a space mission. There are three ways according to which the space probe might fail and sabotage all plans. Firstly, as shown by Kyle (2019), unmanned shuttles are more likely to fail than those that are manned. Looking at the available data, it is easy to notice a striking difference in failure rates: 6.68% against 0.84% accordingly. Therefore, as per the worst-case scenario, the space probe faces an engineering disaster that compromises the whole mission.
To better understand what could go wrong, it may suffice to look at the history of failed missions, especially those that took place not so long ago. In 1986, the space shuttle Challenger lost control and broke into pieces barely a minute after its launch. It crashed into the Atlantic Ocean from an altitude of more than 50,000 feet, never making it to its destination (Grush, 2015). The 1960 Venera operation ended in failure the first two times: shuttles were flying by the orbit of Venus without entering the atmosphere (Grush, 2015). The way back might be as dangerous: the 2003 16-day “Columbia” space mission ended in a disaster when the shuttle broke apart when reentering the Earth’s atmosphere (Grush, 2015). Alternatively, the 2004 Genesis carrying the particles of the solar wind shuttle was not able to descent properly as its drogue parachute did not deploy on time. The failure to reenter the atmosphere or descend may lead to the loss of valuable samples.
Secondly, even if the launch itself is successful, in the worst-case scenario, none of the targets set by the international team are attained. For instance, akin to what happened to the 2009 NASA’s Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), the probe might be sent into a crater and slam to its destruction (Grush, 2015). The exoplanet is an unfamiliar environment, hence, surface observation might present such unexpected turns of events. Apart from that, in the worst-case scenario, the probe will not be able to take pictures with the required resolution due to unexpected natural occurrences in the atmosphere of the planet. It could be that the atmosphere of the planet would be so dense and prone to the formation of winds with extreme velocity, that any attempts to capture images would be rendered futile. Yet another tragic possibility is losing communication with a shuttle altogether.
Lastly, no matter which of the aforementioned events happens, the worst-case scenario implies the loss of an immense amount of money. If the mission proves to be an utter failure, some of the participating institutions are likely to be defunded and withdraw from participation altogether. The European Union is a powerful scientific hub, and yet, the quality of research and availability of funding vary from country to country. For instance, a recent paper by the European Union (2019) shows that Germany, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands are the most research-intensive countries while others are barely mentioned. The worst-case scenario might lead to the growing discrepancy in scientific development within the EU.
The Unthinkable, Almost Impossible Scenario
When realizing a project as big as the current space mission, it still makes sense to entertain the most unthinkable, nigh-on ridiculous scenarios. The present mission set the discovery of new forms of life as its primary goal, and it does attain it as per the best-case scenario. However, the question arises as to what happens if the newly discovered forms of life are intelligent, aggressive, and do not have the best intentions. The presence of extraterrestrial civilizations has now been a mind-boggling issue for many decades. A statistical approach that allows us to measure the possibilities of encountering intelligent life outside Planet Earth is authored by the astronomer Frank Drake and embodied by the Drake equation (see Image 1). The equation entails the main concepts that scientists need to take into consideration when approaching the question of extraterrestrial radio-communicative life.
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As for current approximations, using low estimates, it appears that humans are alone in this galaxy and, potentially, in the observable universe. On the other hand, with the proposed higher values, N may be as great as 15,600,000, meaning that there might be innumerate intelligent civilizations. Scenario D, the unthinkable, almost impossible scenario, entertains the latter version and suggests that on its space search, the shuttle starts communicating with an intelligent, technologically developed civilization.
Image 1. The Drake equation where N stands for the number of radio-communicative civilizations, R* is the average star formation rate, fp = the fraction of the stars that have planets, ne = the average number of habitable planets per star, fl = the fraction of habitable planets that do develop life, fi = the fraction of inhabited planets that have civilizations, fc = the fraction of civilizations that harness radio-communicative technologies, and L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space (Information is Beautiful, 2020).
The thought of contacting an extraterrestrial civilization is as hopeful as it is unsettling to the scientific community. The “dark forest” theory that can be traced back to the 2008 work by the hard science writer Cixin Liu, suggests that civilizations from different planets seek to avoid one another (Omoregie, 2019). The author compares the dynamics of such “cohabitation” to a walk in the dark forest (Omoregie, 2019). The exploration of a previously untouched, unfamiliar area makes one assume that anyone who he or she encounters does not have the best intentions. If two predators become aware of each other, each of them grows increasingly cautious about whether the other one plans to do any harm.
According to the unthinkable scenario, the “dark forest” theory proves to be true. The intelligent civilization that the space probe detects during its journey is easily provoked and sees the foreign object as an aggressor. The space probe is unmanned, and, therefore, the team is unable to communicate with the newly discovered civilization in a timely manner. Since the inhabitants of the exoplanet see the probe as a threat to their security, they capture it for further analysis. The team soon understands what happened to the probe and comes to a realization that the consequences of this contact might be dangerous to earthlings.
In any business case, developing scenarios that range from the most optimistic to almost impossibly pessimistic requires taking several thoughtful steps. Essentially, to entertain possibilities means to explore different futures: writing scenarios allows for more clarity and, in turn, preparedness for any turn of events. The first step that I took to before writing any of the four scenarios is defining the issue. It was critical to understand what the international astrophysics team wanted to achieve as well as outline the timescale within which it needs to happen. All scenarios are primarily driven by the scale of the plan offered for examination. Fortunately, the case description was detailed enough to allow for singling out the primary goal and minor stepping stones. From the description, it became clear that the scientists had hoped for discovering signs of extraterrestrial life. Yet, more realistic targets included collecting probes from the atmosphere and the surface of the newly discovered exoplanet.
The second step was collecting data since previous experience often informs current decisions. For the baseline scenario, it was only reasonable to explore what typically happens during space missions such as the one in question. I operated the data on average mission duration and success rate for manned and unmanned shuttles. The extremities were included: I was only interested in the normal flow of events. Throughout the entire analysis, I was separating certainties from uncertainties and focusing on the latter since they are what can make or break the entire mission. While the baseline scenario revolved more around minor stepping stones, the best-case scenario assumed that the overarching goal will be somehow attained. To ground this assumption in data, I looked up the requirements for planet habitability and their existence in the observable universe. I made a point to show that the best-case scenario ends up in a scientific breakthrough that changes the way we see some issues in astrophysics and beyond.
The worst-case scenario was the one with the greatest numbers of the possible development of events. It was for this scenario that I did the most of historical research. To me, it made sense to understand the failed missions of the past to project them onto the future. I was especially interested in the most disastrous of missions since I was developing the worst-case scenario. It seemed only fair to embark on the topic of the state of research in the participating countries. The success of the mission would affect the reputation of some countries and potentially hurt those that were disadvantaged, to begin with.
Lastly, for the unthinkable scenario, I turned to science fiction. Space exploration often concerns itself with the questions of intelligent life outside our home planet, so this was the idea that I decided to develop. The “dark forest” theory ignited my interest in what dynamics between earthlings and extraterrestrial beings might be, so I used it as a foundation for the scenario. All in all, this assignment required rigorous data analysis and independent research as the key steps toward successful completion.
Clash, J 2020, Is there extraterrestrial life, and has it visited Earth?, Web.
Grush, L 2015, When space probes crash — for science and otherwise, Web.
Hsu, HW et al. 2015, Ongoing hydrothermal activities within Enceladus, Nature, vol. 519, no. 7542, pp. 207-210.
Information Is Beautiful n.d., Are we alone in the universe? Calculate the chance of intelligent alien life with the Drake Equation, Web.
Kyle, E 2019, Space launch report: orbital launch summary by year, Web.
NASA n.d., NASA FAQ, 2020, Web.
Omoregie, G 2019, The Dark Forest Theory: the reason why we shouldn’t be looking for aliens, Web.
Sellers Exoplanet Environments Collaboration n.d., What makes a planet habitable?, 2020, Web.
The European Union, European Research Ranking 2019, Web.
Tinetti, G, Encrenaz, T & Coustenis, A 2013, Spectroscopy of planetary atmospheres in our Galaxy, The Astronomy and Astrophysics Review, vol. 21, no. 1, p. 63.
University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo 2020, Habitable exoplanets catalog, Web.