A New Solar System


by Michael Martin-Smith

The Solar System enlarged 3 fold in ten years

The building blocks required for a human civilisation in Space

The advancement  of the small bodies exploration

A Home in the Sky

Some articles by Michael Martin-Smith

Credits: NASA/JPL/UMD/Pat Rawlings

The Solar System enlarged 3 fold in ten years

For Astronautical Humanists seeking to extend the scope for our species' future, current trends in solar system exploration are opening up new practical challenges and possibilities. The Classical Age of space exploration - its first 40 years or so - has been concerned with exploration the main planets and moons of our solar system, mostly from the point of view of scientific academia in the fields of Astronomy and Geology. The principal objective has been to try to explain the origins and evolution of our solar system , how the planets came to be composed and located, and to see how Life fitted into this process.

Our amazing robot explorers-in flybys, orbiters, landers, and sample returns - have visited all but one ( Pluto) of the classical planets ,and most of the major moons known as points of light to our earthbound astronomers. The processes leading to the formation of our solar system and the likely conditions under which Life arose and developed are much better understood than only two generations ago, but it is clear that key stages in the accumulation of small particles into planetesimals and their coalescence into planets, and the formation of atmospheres and oceans is only partially understood, and we now believe that the hitherto relatively neglected small bodies such as the Comets and Asteroids hold many of the remaining pieces of the jigsaw. 

In the past 10 years key features of our story have been altered beyond recognition. Before 1994-5 the idea that we should ever actually detect planets in orbit around other stars was a theoretician's dream considered by many to be forever beyond our reach. In 10 short years we have found 150 other solar systems, which are causing us to revisit our ideas of planetary birth. In this same period our own solar system has been enlarged at least 3 fold, with the discovery of large planetoids up to three times further from us that Pluto; indeed Pluto is now regarded as the "ambassador" of a whole new class of objects -neither typical planets nor yet asteroids or comets -from which our system was probably assembled in its first 50-100 million years.

As if this were not enough, we find comets that behave like asteroids, from exhaustion of their surface ices, and asteroids in elliptical comet-like orbits beyond their normal habitat between Mars and Jupiter- out to the reaches of Saturn and Uranus. Asteroids that regularly cross the orbit of Earth have been found while comets have been seen to break up and shift their orbits in a historical instant.

The building blocks required for a human civilisation in Space

Most importantly, interest in these bodies is acquiring a new practical, humanistic, significance- for they embody the possibility, indeed eventual certainty - of major impacts here on human affairs and also the promise of material for construction and space development on an economic scale. Spectroscopic studies of these bodies already reveal treasure troves of water ice, ammonia and methane ices carbon compounds, metals, silicon and oxides-all the building blocks required for a human civilisation in Space. 

It should not perhaps be surprising that these small building blocks of our solar system should become the building blocks of our future civilisation, nor that extra-solar planetary systems are also shown to have a retinue of comets and asteroids of their own.

In the past 10-15 years it has become clear that these small solar system bodies have dynamic effects on Earth's ecology and climate, so that, far from being a remote study of matters irrelevant to human concerns, these sciences are vital for our well being.

Firstly, there is the issue of mass extinctions by impacts on Earth from comets and asteroids; these are rare events but capable of destroying our civilisation in a violent manner.

Secondly and more intriguingly, has come the detection of significant amounts of dust injected into the atmosphere by small bodies exploding high in our atmosphere several times a year. These house sized asteroids lose 99% of their material on entry into our atmosphere in Hiroshima sized explosions, and are now thought capable of altering local temperatures and rainfall/cloud patterns on a regular basis. Detectors set up to detect human nuclear explosions have shown that dust particles from such events are not, as was traditionally believed of nanometre size, but 1,000 times greater and capable of opacifying our atmosphere in measurable fashion.

Thirdly and even more radically, studies of the cycle of Ice Ages here on Earth show a closer fit to a single 100,000 years period than the traditional triphasic cycle described in the 1920,s by Milutin Milankovitch. This is now attributed to a cyclical alteration in the plane of Earth's orbit round the Sun-which oscillates above and below the current ecliptic plane, thus taking our planet into regions of varying dustiness, from meteorite and comet relics. This 100,000 years solar system cycle is set within a 250 million years cycle of global cooling, believed to be due to a similar oscillation in the plane of our spiral arm's rotation about the centre of the Milky Way Galaxy.

The advancement  of the small bodies exploration

In the past 5-6 years the exploration of these small bodies has advanced in leaps and bounds, and is demonstrating the steps necessary both to deflect them from possible collisions with Earth, and also for their future economic development by astronautical industry. From the astronautical point of view, one of their principal attractions is that, being much smaller than moons or planets, they requite little energy for rendezvous landing, and return missions. Low thrust engines such as ion-electric engines, have come into their own, with several of these new missions - notably Deep Space 1,which flew close to Comet Borrelly in 2001,and now the Japanese Hayabusa mission which is to approach asteroid Itokawa this month at very low thrust .Its mission is to capture a sample of asteroid material and return it to Earth, while a similar NASA mission to Comet Wild2, launched in 1999 met up with the Comet in January 2004 and is due to return a sample of its tail to us in 2006.

The first landing-more like a space rendezvous and docking manoeuvre- occurred with NASA's NEAR mission to Eros, on Feb 14,2000, and showed the way to much more direct exploration of these bodies. This summer, on July 4, the Deep Impact probe slammed into a comet,Tempel 1, realising material from beneath its surface for analysis by its Mother ship.

Scientific analysis over coming months should reveal much about the consistency of this Comet and its internal unaltered composition.

Space Honey Moon

A Home in the Sky

This understanding is vital both for those who wish to deflect such bodies from Earth and also to future miners and space builders.

The emergence of a commercial human space industry during this recent period and the near future, is a real prospect and is likely to be based on tourism in its early stages and space based power generation in later phases. Both of these will prosper more surely if they are supported by raw material collected and processed in Space and the asteroids and comets provide such materials in usable packets and at low costs in energy .

It is well known that, with the monitoring of asteroids in recent years, many have been found to be approaching Earth which on closer tracking of their orbits have proved to be safe; there is a degree of error in first detection of small asteroids and it can take several months of patient monitoring to track their orbits. These, moreover can change due to passage by other planets or even collisions with other asteroids or comets. A radio beacon placed on such a body by a robot lander will increase the accuracy of orbit prediction many fold, and ensure that we are not mislead into avoiding- or a carrying out - deflection manoeuvres which turn out to be wrong!

Thanks to missions such as these, and with the approach of nanotechnology in the next 10-15 years, the landing of spacecraft on comets and asteroids and in situ of manufacture of solar reflecting surfaces for orbital alteration, using materials mined from the bodies themselves is now a reasonable projection rather than the stuff of science fiction.

Many people are anxious about the prospects of terraforming Mars, citing the danger of "playing God" with the lives of innocent local life forms-albeit mere microbes.

With the ability to approach manoeuvre and develop the small solar system bodies under the stimulus of private business, rocket fuel supply and clean energy production we may be entering a phase when we shall build a new solar system for Humankind, using the same tools as were used to build our first, nursery, solar system.

What could be more apt than that the Cosmic Child of our pregnant Mother Earth should be born to build its own nursery from the bricks lying so close to hand? 

Michael Martin-Smith, Aug 28, 2005


Some  articles by Michael Martin-Smith

Notes from the 51st IAF Congress in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil Oct 2-6 2000

Reportage from Amsterdam IAF 50th

China in Space

The Dinosaurs became extinct through lack of a space programme?

Humble Space Telescope, a tool for Astronomy Students

The space shift of the UK Government

Two Steps Forward

Humble Space Telescope, a tool for Astronomy Students

Space Power Systems on Moon or in Orbit

Nostradamus and all That

Report of the Task Force on the potential dangerous Near Earth Objects


Shuttles forever? NASA reckons without its host (China)

From Conquest to Creation - a Tale of Two Millennia

Ion Engines

Sputnik - 40 years on

The Two Mayflower Expeditions

Asteroid 2000.QW7 passed at 3 millions km from Earth

Stardust - a surprise package

Life in the universe

"Deep Impact", the new Spielberg's movie

The X Prize and Mercantile Astronautics

Asteroid Impacts - Danger, or Opportunity

People Space Programme

Mother Earth and the Butterfly

Rosetta and the Comet (artist view)


[022.MMS.TDF.2005 - 10.11.2005]