A lot of people are talking about the movie “Mu Lan” and the supposed work NASA is doing with the Chinese to put an unmanned probe on Mars. One of my favorite movies of all time “Gidget” features a character saying NASA is making a balloon trip to Mars in 4 years. That sounds like an awfully long time for something that could only be used once. If it was going to be used a lot of people might not want to go on the trip at all, or they might want to stay home and watch the TV in anticipation of the balloon flight.
I was watching this movie with my children earlier this year and the very next day the Chinese Manned Mission (MLM) was launched from Jiuquan, China. The Chinese called the mission the Peace Establishing Area in Mars orbit, or MAAM. I was curious to see if the Chinese were actually planning to use the MAAM as a manned space craft. Would they use it as a dummy object, to practice for a more robust, manned mission in the future? Is this whole “space race” a bunch of nonsense?
Well, no, the fact of the matter is that the Chinese are practicing for eventual manned space missions to the moon, and eventually to Mars. They have also been practicing for an unmanned probe to explore those two spacefaring bodies. And they have the right object for such a mission, the Longangle-1A, which was designed and built by China’s Jiangling University. It is quite small, about half the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, so even if it is unmanned, they will have plenty of time to practice putting it into orbit, and moving it around the moon, and on to Mars. This would be a huge step forward for manned space flight.
The object itself is not quite what you would think. It looks somewhat like a big jellybean; long, wide, and flat, with several ridges along its surface. There are no solar panels, or electrical components visible, and there is no indication of whether or not the object could travel through space. There is no solidfuel rocket engine, and no way to steer the object towards its intended landing site. All that it has is a strong, unmanned space capsule, which is not designed for that purpose.
In fact, it is just a simple satellite. It appears to be nothing more than a piece of aluminum and polycarbonate, attached to a strap which is attached to a much larger piece of hardware. The object is not piloted, or maneuvered in any way. It simply moves in an orbit around the Earth at the speed of radio signal, and it sends back data to Earth every time it does so.
That tiny satellite will be studying all kinds of data as it moves about the moon, and on to Mars. It will be sending back pictures, images and radar signals, all of which it gathers and transmits to the NASA centers where it is analyzed. Once it completes one orbit around the Earth, it will begin the process of being shot away into space itself, to explore other celestial bodies. It could fly by a asteroid, or hit a comet, or even collide with another manned space craft – all of which could be extremely dangerous.
So how did this small, almost invisible object cause all this destruction? Well, the object is thrashed around by other space debris, as it zooms by at incredible speeds. Its highly volatile materials – its atmosphere – make it a very powerful irritant. In fact, the sheer amount of space debris which whips around the fast-moving object causes it to vibrate to the extent that solar panels can be affected. That’s why the object is hurtling towards Earth.
There are many space debris online which have become extremely dangerous to our fragile space environment. Even small pieces of space debris have the potential to threaten our satellites, damage delicate space craft, or worse. So we need to keep track of all these objects and their orbit around the Earth to take appropriate action. You can help us with this by reporting any suspicious or interesting space debris online.