It is clearly only a matter of time before in-depth space exploration becomes an achievable realityFlickr / Beatrice Murch

As technological advancements push us towards increasingly realistic and achievable space exploration goals, start-ups such as Mars One, which had planned to establish the first human colony on Mars by 2025, have begun to emerge at an accelerating pace, each with aims more ambitious than before. Countries are striving towards expanding their presence and funding local businesses in a competitive race to bring humans to space. As India lands Chandrayaan-3 successfully on the far side of the moon, achieving a historic milestone for being the first country to do so, it is clearly only a matter of time before in-depth space exploration becomes an achievable reality.

The University of Cambridge has been no stranger to participating in the human effort of exploring space. As a leading university in engineering, natural sciences and mathematics, Cambridge has already played a huge role in the future of the space race.

Professor Nicholas Tosca from the Department of Earth Sciences is part of a team of scientists in search of past life forms on the planet of Mars: Perseverance, the 2020 Mars rover, has uncovered volcanic rock, affirming the past existence of flowing lava, as well as organic carbon-bearing materials. The measurement of the organic carbon helps researchers understand how much material is available as feedstock for prebiotic chemistry and potentially biology. Notably, the mission has found further evidence of water on the planet, a necessary requirement for life. Meanwhile, Ryan MacDonald, an ex-Cambridge professor at Gonville and Caius, was shortlisted as one of the final 100 candidates for the Mars One mission. An avid lover of space exploration and renowned in his field for astrophysics research, he has expressed much excitement towards the prospect of settling down on the red planet in 10 years’ time.

“It is clearly only a matter of time before in-depth space exploration becomes an achievable reality”

However, Mars One was later dissolved amid funding issues and increasing public scepticism. Many schools and organisations had doubted whether these missions were even achievable. Nonetheless, with these seemingly insurmountable physical challenges to our settlement on these planets, the University only has further opportunities to get involved through utilising its innate strengths in scientific research and development.

Cambridge researchers are already part of a European project that aims to test the ability of graphene, a strong material consisting of a single sheet of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal pattern, to protect spacecraft against the conditions on the moon, a longstanding challenge for lunar missions since the Apollo era. On the surface of the moon, there are sharp, tiny and sticky grains that cause both mechanical and electrostatic damage to space equipment, posing a huge safety hazard for astronauts. The researchers have produced special graphene composites to reduce adhesion to the surface, with the hopes that these new materials have the potential to be “game changers” in the future of human space exploration.

Researchers are not the only people within Cambridge making an impact. The Cambridge University Spaceflight society was founded in 2006 by students with the aim to “launch a rocket to space, built entirely by students”. They dedicate every Sunday morning during term time to their plans of launching their 10-metre-tall Griffin I rocket past the Karman line, the 100km boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space.

“If exploration is the prerequisite for space colonisation, then the University ought to think carefully about how to justify its involvement”

The University’s dedication to spaceflight and space exploration is nothing short of inspiring. With bold goals, an innovative spirit, and incredibly sharp minds, members of the University are bound to make important contributions to the future of humans in space. As the University heads in this promising direction, the inevitable question arises: does the University recognise and discuss the deeper ethical issues of space exploration?


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The line between space exploration and space colonisation is, and has always been, heavily blurred. Mars One itself had marketed itself as a champion of space exploration. Upon closer look, their plans of settling four men and women on the planet strike more as a move to populate and eventually colonise Mars. While space exploration is said to sit on the foundation of expanding human understanding of the universe around us, how can we distinguish exploration from colonisation?

The ethical justifications for such missions that we aspire towards are unsettlingly murky, lacking crucial dialogue from industry experts and academics well versed in fields such as law, politics, and social sciences. Meaningful conversations ought to be had beyond the science industry as this field continues to develop – space exploration and its growing feasibility no longer only concern scientific questions, but intersect deeply with the subject of ethics and philosophy.

If exploration is the prerequisite for space colonisation, then the University ought to think carefully about how to justify its involvement. Involving particular members of the University (who can mostly be found at the Sidgwick site) in this potent discussion would be a helpful and important step forward.