Long-term thinking is a continuing preoccupation in these precincts. For if we lack the ability now to mount human expeditions to the outer planets and to push probes into the Oort Cloud and beyond, the building of our mission concepts is still vital. We go experiment by experiment, paper by paper, creating a foundation for that future. Ad astra incrementis — you get to the stars one step at a time, and as you go up those steps, you realize that each one has taken you that much farther than the last.
It can be hard to make that case heard in a culture obsessed with consumerism and immediate satisfaction, but we can shape an argument for results in the long-term that may catch the most jaded eye. Ponder that we are on the verge of nanotechnology and computing capabilities that may resolve key issues of propulsion and instrumentation. By the end of the century, we may be sending intelligent robotic probes to destinations now thought impossible. If, that is, we take the needed steps now.
At Kyushu University in Japan, Tetsuo Yasaka and colleagues are developing a fifty-year plan for building an outpost on or near Callisto, one that would control laboratories on other Galilean satellites and send probes into the Jovian atmosphere. Primarily robotic, the outpost might include human crews under the Europan ice, where Jupiter’s intense radiation would pose far less of a threat. It would exploit the potential of this environment to produce propellants and study the ocean for life.
Yasaka’s thinking is to move beyond what isolated probes can do to create a permanent human presence that can be self-sustaining and aimed at systematized exploration of the entire Jovian system. Early priorities, after creating the central node at the Callisto L2 point, would be a geophysics laboratory on Io (robotic, to be sure) and the Europan sub-surface outpost, with a station on Ganymede to follow.
An idle daydream? Projects like this will always seem so without intelligent planning, but this exercise in long-term thinking, which may eventually bear fruit in one form or another, relies on a sound methodology. Ten major items of technological development are targeted, each to be undertaken in a five-year plan that could produce near-term benefits for spinoff to other space projects and industry.
The challenges of such a project are immense. To maximize payload and minimize travel time to Jupiter, aerobraking and aerocapture methods must be used. For power, nuclear energy seems to be the first candidate, but huge deployable solar arrays may be an option even though Jupiter’s orbit is at the outer limit of solar energy use. Intelligent robotics is also crucial, and here we look to machines that are supremely adaptable to their environment. The radiation hazard must be studied as well, identifying candidate technologies for dealing with it. And so far we are only in the first five-year phase of study.
Why put intensive effort into creating a fifty year plan for a series of missions that may never happen? This is how Tetsuo Yasaka explains the project, relying on collaborations between technology developers, government agencies and academia:
The project basically is, at present, a technology project that mainly contains items related to transportation, energy and environment driven technologies, that are identiﬁed as crucial to outer planet explorations. The explorations will not be carried out by the University alone. Planetary explorations will be carried out under government agency initiative, with close collaborations with academia. In case of the Jovian outpost, it will no doubt be an international project. Missions are likely proposed by academic community, which Kyushu University has strong alliance with.
You see why I bring this up. What I’m after here is a methodology that looks at goals that are not presently attainable, and sets up step-by-step methods to define and investigate the technologies that can reach those goals. This is something like the ‘horizon mission methodology’ that NASA sometimes employs to stimulate new thinking in its seminars and conferences. Present a problem that is at present impossible to solve. Then define the breakthroughs needed to make this future possible.
You wind up targeting the key gaps in our knowledge. You look at ideas on the edge and try to distinguish the viable ones from the far more numerous dead-ends. You aim at provoking discussion that leads to insight. And one day something flows from all this. I suspect Tetsuo Yasaka would be surprised if we end up with a Jovian outpost that looks like this one. But that there will be a human presence in Jupiter space — and by this I mean people or intelligent AI — seems overwhelmingly likely.
And when that happens, it will be because projects like this one at Kyushu University have started early, worked hard, and thought long-term. For more, see Yasaka, “Outpost in Jovian system—a stepwise long-term undertaking,” Acta Astronautica 59 (2006), pp. 638–643.