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Imagining space exploration in future decades -

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Robyn Williams: And we end with other wild ideas, cosmic engineering this time with Randii Wessen from NASA.

Randii Wessen: What I work on is looking at stuff that's 30 to 40 years out in the future. I guess a good example is with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is a spacecraft around Mars right now. We see blackspots on the surface. We go, blackspots, what are those? We find that they are cave openings. So they may say, okay Randii, how would you guys do a cave exploration mission on the surface of Mars? And we try to cook up an idea of how you would do that.

Robyn Williams: So that you don't lose the vehicle?

Randii Wessen: Well, that's one of the objectives, but to get science, how do you get into the cave, had you explore the cave, how do you get power and command to the vehicle, how do you get data out of the vehicle. So we try to come up with the initial idea of this concept.

Robyn Williams: And so you are mostly working on the exploration of planets and so on. What about some of the unbelievably expensive new giant telescopes going up?

Randii Wessen: We work on space telescopes, and even there we have wild ideas. As an example, Hubble is 2.3 metres, primary mirror. We want to actually make a telescope mirror out of dust and we take this dust and we put it out between the Earth and the Moon where it's balanced and then we use lasers not to melt the particles but to shape it into a primary mirror. And you are just limited by how much dust you have, and then what you can also do is depending how close the grains are you can tune it to what colour light it reflects. You want visible, you want radio, you want ultraviolet? That's the granular imager. Now, that's an advanced concept, but yes.

Robyn Williams: How does it stay stable?

Randii Wessen: We just use photon pressure, just lights from these lasers working in concert to shape it and hold it in place.

Robyn Williams: For how long?

Randii Wessen: It's still simulation so we don't even have a mission concept yet. Right now we are working on the technology, but you would want to do this for years.

Robyn Williams: Of course. That would be extraordinary because then you don't have to get all this gear up there, you just point and shape it like you are making a sand castle on the beach.

Randii Wessen: Yes, but this thing is 30, 40 years out, so I'm giving you a glimpse of tomorrow.

Robyn Williams: What a wonderful concept. Give me another one.

Randii Wessen: Another one…oh, this is a weird one; we want to go 10 times faster than Voyager. The Voyager spacecraft is going at 1.6 million kilometres every day, we want to go 10 times faster. One idea of how to do it that we don't have all the technology to do would be mimicking hypervelocity stars, stars that get kicked out of our galaxy at a fraction of the speed of light. And what we think they do is they have two stars in pairs, they come too close to the centre of a galaxy, one of the stars gets gobbled by the black hole, the other one gets kicked out at this large speed. Well, we don't have a black hole but our idea was let's go take a spacecraft and orbit an asteroid. Miracle one is to take that pair and go around Jupiter and make a U-turn. Once you go into a U-turn you now want to send it within one solar radii of the Sun, that's miracle two, and then finally you want to pull off the asteroid, not the spacecraft, right at perihelion, the closest to the Sun, imparting all the momentum on the spacecraft to shoot it out. We're not there yet, but that's one of the ideas we're looking at.

Robyn Williams: Let me give you a more prosaic one, a very simple idea, and that is for not only people on Earth but young people on Earth and poor young people on Earth…I have a friend called Katherine Blundell who is a Professor of Astrophysics at Oxford, and she helps schoolkids, mainly girls, around the world in five continents to run robotically the telescopes so that they can then see the space that they want to see by remote control. This is a wonderfully exciting thing. And she describes their excitement at doing this. They are not only shown these machines, they can help run the machines at the age of 15, 16 and 17. Do you have anything to do with that at all, something like it?

Randii Wessen: We do a lot of educational outreach and we have robotics situations where we can have schoolkids operate radio antennas, and on a lot of our spacecraft we will actually give individuals in the United States the opportunity to send in requests of what they want to look at, and if it's judged reasonable we will actually send those commands up to the spacecraft and we will actually do that, what the students want us to do. So yes, we do do that.

Robyn Williams: Isn't it exciting. Are you seeing more and more the exploration of space being robotically like that, with people very, very rarely going up?

Randii Wessen: No, there is both. You have to use the right tool for the right job. So if you're doing reconnaissance, you're going to deep space, places that are just too difficult for humans, that's robotic. If you want humans, you want to do research, you want to do something that requires the brain, then you want to send people. But sending up what we call wetware is much more difficult than hardware. So right now we are in a pause between the end of the space shuttle period and the space launch system and the Orion capsule. But the Orion capsule should allow us to go up to deep space, much further than the Moon, it's just not online yet. So we kind of work in fits and starts but you need both capabilities, and I believe we are going to actually start sending people up. I think we are probably 20 years away from hotels in space. And what I tell my kids is that they are the last generation of human beings to be able to say, 'I remember looking up at the Moon and remembering when there were no city lights on it.'

Robyn Williams: City lights on the Moon!

Randii Wessen: Here's a fantasy for you, can you picture moving all heavy industry to the Moon and leaving Earth as a biosphere?

Robyn Williams: I can. It's hard.

Randii Wessen: This is not supposed to be happening tomorrow, but we are trying to push the envelope.

Robyn Williams: Well, I have heard of there being an international space station from the Moon so that you can have the Moon as a base from which you then explore the rest of space.

Randii Wessen: Well, one of the things we are thinking about, when space station ends in 2025 timeframe, is the next thing to send humans to Mars or would you put a lunar outpost on the Moon and make it basically like Antarctica, a research facility on the Moon? Which way do you go?

Robyn Williams: Well, we've already pioneered growing potatoes from human excrement on Mars.

Randii Wessen: You saw that too, okay.

Robyn Williams: Yes, the Martian movie. It worked rather well. Isn't that interesting. Now, going back to Australia's role in all this, Australia should have a space industry because if you look at the size of the continent and our dependence on satellites and remote imaging, really borrowing everyone else's instruments is one thing. What do you think Australia could do in the best of all possible worlds to rejig its space efforts, that during Apollo, the famous dish which carried the messages and Tidbinbilla tracking station and things like that, so what would you like to see us do in the best of all possible worlds?

Randii Wessen: So if Australia doesn't want to invest in space exploration…I'm a little sad because that's my profession, but as long as Australia funds fundamental research into areas that have not been done before, you are pushing the ball forward and you're helping the human race. I personally would love you to work in the space program, and we do do international missions, to contribute to actually exploring the place where we live.

Robyn Williams: I think we're sending up a few mini satellites, about this big.

Randii Wessen: There's cube sats but you have a wonderful program on high flight in terms of scramjet engines. That's a future technology we'd love because the trick is we need to figure how to get off of the Earth cheaply and reliably.

Robyn Williams: Yes, scramjet started in Queensland and now it's I think run by the Department of Defence in Canberra.

Randii Wessen: So that's all really good stuff.

Robyn Williams: A final vision before we finish?

Randii Wessen: Those others weren't final enough? Okay! One of the more important things that is going to happen and that is going to happen relatively soon, we believe that we're within 10 to 20 years of actually finding evidence of life on other worlds.

Robyn Williams: 10 to 20 years? Wow.

Randii Wessen: And that doesn't count the stuff that we think that might be living in our solar system because we are finding that Earth is the oddball. It's got the oceans on the outside. We're finding a bunch of worlds that have oceans on the inside. Enceladus around Saturn, Titan around Saturn, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto around Jupiter, these are all called ocean worlds where they have liquid water underneath. And if they have liquid water, it means they've got energy and organics everywhere. Why wouldn't they have life?

Robyn Williams: It's extraordinary isn't it. We've found glycine on the comet.

Randii Wessen: Sure. And we've heard researchers, not at NASA but it's just a fun story… you know how DNA is made of four base pairs? These researchers said could we make DNA with six base pairs? What's so special about four? And they could make DNA with six base pairs. And they said could it replicate, and could you introduce mutation? And they could. They laughingly call it alien DNA but they are making different types of bases for the structures of life.

Robyn Williams: You must have wonderful nightmares.

Randii Wessen: It's wild, yes it is!

Robyn Williams: Thank you so much.

Randii Wessen: My pleasure.

Robyn Williams: Some wild but real ideas from Randii Wessen with NASA at the jet propulsion labs in Pasadena, where he's lead study architect.