Trump Takes on the Universe: The 45th President’s Plans for the US Space Program

As Donald Trump takes office as President, there are several big questions to be asked about what direction his policies will take. As yet, we haven’t heard much about what the new administration plans for the US’ efforts in space. We explore what the Trump administration may mean for NASA

“We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the Earth from the miseries of disease, and to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow.”

So said the freshly inaugurated President Donald Trump during his speech on Friday, sending a perhaps surprisingly pro-science, if somewhat vague, message to those listening. And while the categorisation of a new millennium is somewhat off, it’s interesting that Trump seems determined to push for advancements in space. Given the big goals NASA is in the midst of trying to accomplish, it is promising that there is at least an overtone of presidential support.

That support will be necessary given the ambition of programmes such as the Mars mission. NASA are currently building the necessary rocket in-house, but it is possible Trump’s administration, given their business-friendly nature, may instead choose to have NASA make use of SpaceX’s in-development heavy-lift rocket.

“The next president is inheriting a space program that has this nascent ambition to go to Mars but doesn’t have hardware actually flying yet,” Casey Dreier, director of space policy at The Planetary Society, told Space.com in November. “

So there’s a lot of opportunity for the next administration to say, ‘Should we continue these [programs]? What will the direction be? Do we want to commit to supporting these programs as is? Do we change them? Do we cancel them?’ … So it’s a big question mark.”

An Expansionist Outlook

There is a certain space race vibe to Trump’s approach to the future of the US in space; a combination of nationalism and a belief in industry that could see the administration funnel cash and support into NASA programmes. It is possible this may come about through private-public partnerships, such as with SpaceX, but either way should result in a more robust space programme.

Image courtesy of Andrew Cline / Shutterstock.com. Featured image courtesy of JStone / Shutterstock.com

The fear, however, is that the efforts of NASA to explore space may be boosted at the expense of their programmes on our own planet. Given the incoming administration’s at times flat-out denial of climate change, there is a strong chance that NASA’s Earth Sciences Mission Directorate could have its $2bn funding stripped to be directed towards expanding space programmes.  

“NASA should be focused primarily on deep-space activities rather than Earth-centric work that is better handled by other agencies,” Robert S Walker and Peter Navarro, both senior advisers to the Trump campaign, wrote in an opinion piece published in SpaceNews before the election.

“Human exploration of our entire solar system by the end of this century should be NASA’s focus and goal.”

As for the President himself, outside of his inaugural speech, his view is slightly less clear. He has previously expressed excitement for the idea of privatisation in the space industry and critiqued President Obama’s approach to NASA.

“It is very sad to see what @BarackObama has done with NASA. He has gutted the program and made us dependent on the Russians,” he tweeted in August 2012. but at the same time seems reluctant to commit to a huge investment in the space agency. When questioned on NASA’s budget, Trump said “our first priority is to restore a strong economic base to this country. Then, we can have a discussion about spending.”

Capitalising the Cosmos

A primary Trump policy is putting America first. That means American business and American workers fueling the American economy over any outsourcing or importation of foreign talent. Given that the foremost private space efforts are primarily American (Space X, Blue Origin), and Trump is notoriously business-first, it makes sense that the idea of private industry leading the way into the next generation of space exploration would be exciting to the new President.

Image courtesy of SpaceX.

During a town hall in New Hampshire, Trump said that he “likes that maybe even better” when discussing the prospect of a private space programme as opposed to a public one and though he couched it in wanting to first prioritise infrastructure, he did also call the idea of a manned mission to Mars “wonderful”. Given that privatising such efforts allows him to push off the responsibility, and certain costs, from the government, it also allows him to boast of a combined cost cut and American industry boost.

Perhaps most notably, Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, made two trips to Trump Tower during the transition period. According to the Washington Post, it seems that Musk discussed how private-public partnerships could help prime NASA for manned missions to Mars. Having probably the most prominent private space entrepreneur meeting with Trump one-on-one certainly suggests that the announcement of a NASA/SpaceX partnership may be on the cards for the administration.  

Into the Unknown

There are still a lot of decisions to be made in the coming months as the new administration settles into its role, and there’s a strong chance that NASA won’t be at the top of the list of priorities.

It’s not exactly a new problem, given the problems on our own soil; it’s often hard to convince people that billions should be spent firing probes into space. However, it’s hard to argue that the world isn’t better off for having a robust and well-funded NASA, whether it be for its exploration programmes or any of its other diverse efforts.

It certainly seems that there is an enthusiasm for the idea of buoying American interests in space but it may be that this is done so more via the promotion of private companies than public agencies.

Those behind NASA’s programmes should certainly feel concerned as to where they will be headed under Trump, it seems likely that even if they gain support in some areas it will be at great cost in others.  

Soviet report detailing lunar rover Lunokhod-2 released for first time

Russian space agency Roskosmos has released an unprecedented scientific report into the lunar rover Lunokhod-2 for the first time, revealing previously unknown details about the rover and how it was controlled back on Earth.

The report, written entirely in Russian, was originally penned in 1973 following the Lunokhod-2 mission, which was embarked upon in January of the same year. It had remained accessible to only a handful of experts at the space agency prior to its release today, to mark the 45th anniversary of the mission.

Bearing the names of some 55 engineers and scientists, the report details the systems that were used to both remotely control the lunar rover from a base on Earth, and capture images and data about the Moon’s surface and Lunokhod-2’s place on it. This information, and in particularly the carefully documented issues and solutions that the report carries, went on to be used in many later unmanned missions to other parts of the solar system.

As a result, it provides a unique insight into this era of space exploration and the technical challenges that scientists faced, such as the low-frame television system that functioned as the ‘eyes’ of the Earth-based rover operators.

A NASA depiction of the Lunokhod mission. Above: an image of the rover, courtesy of NASA, overlaid onto a panorama of the Moon taken by Lunokhod-2, courtesy of Ruslan Kasmin.

One detail that main be of particular interest to space enthusiasts and experts is the operation of a unique system called Seismas, which was tested for the first time in the world during the mission.

Designed to determine the precise location of the rover at any given time, the system involved transmitting information over lasers from ground-based telescopes, which was received by a photodetector onboard the lunar rover. When the laser was detected, this triggered the emission of a radio signal back to the Earth, which provided the rover’s coordinates.

Other details, while technical, also give some insight into the culture of the mission, such as the careful work to eliminate issues in the long-range radio communication system. One issue, for example, was worked on with such thoroughness that it resulted in one of the devices using more resources than it was allocated, a problem that was outlined in the report.

The document also provides insight into on-Earth technological capabilities of the time. While it is mostly typed, certain mathematical symbols have had to be written in by hand, and the report also features a number of diagrams and graphs that have been painstakingly hand-drawn.

A hand-drawn graph from the report, showing temperature changes during one of the monitoring sessions during the mission

Lunokhod-2 was the second of two unmanned lunar rovers to be landed on the Moon by the Soviet Union within the Lunokhod programme, having been delivered via a soft landing by the unmanned Luna 21 spacecraft in January 1973.

In operation between January and June of that year, the robot covered a distance of 39km, meaning it still holds the lunar distance record to this day.

One of only four rovers to be deployed on the lunar surface, Lunokhod-2 was the last rover to visit the Moon until December 2013, when Chinese lunar rover Yutu made its maiden visit.

Robot takes first steps towards building artificial lifeforms

A robot equipped with sophisticated AI has successfully simulated the creation of artificial lifeforms, in a key first step towards the eventual goal of creating true artificial life.

The robot, which was developed by scientists at the University of Glasgow, was able to model the creation of artificial lifeforms using unstable oil-in-water droplets. These droplets effectively played the role of living cells, demonstrating the potential of future research to develop living cells based on building blocks that cannot be found in nature.

Significantly, the robot also successfully predicted their properties before they were created, even though this could not be achieved using conventional physical models.

The robot, which was designed by Glasgow University’s Regius Chair of Chemistry, Professor Lee Cronin, is driven by machine learning and the principles of evolution.

It has been developed to autonomously create oil-in-water droplets with a host of different chemical makeups and then use image recognition to assess their behaviour.

Using this information, the robot was able to engineer droplets to have different properties­. Those which were found to be desirable could then be recreated at any time, using a specific digital code.

“This work is exciting as it shows that we are able to use machine learning and a novel robotic platform to understand the system in ways that cannot be done using conventional laboratory methods, including the discovery of ‘swarm’ like group behaviour of the droplets, akin to flocking birds,” said Cronin.

“Achieving lifelike behaviours such as this are important in our mission to make new lifeforms, and these droplets may be considered ‘protocells’ – simplified models of living cells.”

One of the oil droplets created by the robot

The research, which is published today in the journal PNAS, is one of several research projects being undertaken by Cronin and his team within the field of artificial lifeforms.

While the overarching goal is moving towards the creation of lifeforms using new and unprecedented building blocks, the research may also have more immediate potential applications.

The team believes that their work could also have applications in several practical areas, including the development of new methods for drug delivery or even innovative materials with functional properties.