Asian space race: Keep the kids interested
- October 24, 2008 4:55 PM |
- By Quirks
By Bob McDonald, host of the CBC science radio program Quirks & Quarks.
India reached for the moon this week with the launch of Chandrayaan-1, a two-year mission to map the entire surface of the moon in 3D. That brings to three the number of Asian countries exploring the moon: Japan and China already have probes in orbit there. All three missions go beyond studying the moon; they are demonstrations of national pride and an inspiration for young people to become interested in science and engineering.
The Indian satellite carries a suite of instruments that will make high-resolution contour maps of the moon’s mountains, valleys and plains, while radar will probe beneath the surface and a spectral analyzer will locate minerals such as iron, magnesium and titanium - believed to be in abundance on our closest neighbour. It will also search for the moon's equivalent of buried treasure: ice hidden in deep craters at the lunar South Pole. Ice is a source of water for future colonies, as well as rocket fuel.
You might be wondering why these countries are going back to the moon, when we’ve been there and done that in the 60s. True, the Apollo missions sent six pairs of astronauts to the surface, who brought back hundreds of kilograms of moon rocks that are still sitting in a climate-controlled vault in Houston. But those missions were all concentrated around the middle of the moon on the one side that faces the Earth. There is still a great deal we don’t know about the moon and if we plan to go back, we need to know the lay of the land.
But a most important reason Asian nations are aiming high is because reaching the moon is hard to do. It tells the rest of the world that countries, previously thought of as developing nations, are now on the front lines of science and technology.
India built its own rocket, made complicated calculations for precise aiming and celestial navigation tracking, built microelectronics, data management and analysis. To accomplish all that, the country had to cultivate its education in science and engineering. That education is vital to not only reaching another world, but figuring out how to survive on this one.
A lot of science over the past century has been devoted to pointing out the problems of climate change, species extinction, emerging diseases, over-population etc. And according to that work, the future looks pretty bleak. Now that we’ve pointed out the problem, it’s up to the engineers to figure out how to adapt to this new world, with cleaner, healthier technology.
Asian countries seem to get this. Walk down the corridors of most Canadian universities and you will see a large proportion, if not a majority of students, from Asia. According to one survey, the number of foreign students enrolling in science and engineering is increasing dramatically.
When you think about role models young people are exposed to in this part of the world, a lot of them are barely literate, substance-abusing felons from Hollywood. It seems strange that producers of educational programming have to struggle for funding, while millions of dollars are thrown towards “reality” TV shows or dance competitions.
Maybe we should try to send a probe to the moon.
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