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Forum:Space Places
Topic:American Museum of Natural History: Beyond Planet Earth: Future Of Space Exploration
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"Humanity's fascination with space travel is, at its core, part of our larger instinct to explore the natural world," said Ellen V. Futter, President of the American Museum of Natural History. "This year, with groundbreaking discoveries of hundreds of exoplanets and the upcoming launch of the most scientifically advanced Mars rover to date, has already ushered us into the next phase of space exploration. The scientific questions and discoveries that await us are thrilling to consider, and we are pleased to explore some of these issues in this exhibition."

This year marks the 50th anniversary of human space travel. To recognize the impressive milestones over the past five decades, Beyond Planet Earth opens with a retrospective of important space missions, with authentic equipment and models of historic spacecraft including Sputnik, the first manmade satellite, the Apollo lunar module, and the Hubble Space Telescope. Visitors can also glimpse the possible future of commercial space travel thanks to a scale model of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, designed to ferry passengers into outer space in the near future.

Beyond Planet Earth then moves into sections of immersive environments that offer a glimpse at what the next 50 to 100 years may bring. Informed by the latest scientific research, the exhibition transports visitors to faraway destinations, from Mars to Europa and beyond.

  • Lunar colonies: The exhibition presents a diorama of a proposed lunar base. Along with a one-third full-size expandable habitat that can house up to four astronauts, the exhibition also highlights some cutting-edge technologies for future human activity: a space elevator to transport mined materials (such as helium-3) as well as an interactive spinning model of a liquid mirror telescope.

  • Asteroids: This section features a large 3-D re-creation of the near-Earth asteroid Itokawa along with the Japanese Hayabusa spacecraft that rendezvoused with it and collected samples in 2005. An interactive station explores the most plausible scientific scenarios for deflecting the path of a "doomsday" asteroid.

  • Mars: Beyond Planet Earth features a full-sized walk-through diorama of the Martian landscape as well as an interactive simulation that allows visitors to fly over the surface of the red planet. Visitors come face-to-face with a full-scale, 9-foot-long facsimile of the Mars Science Laboratory Rover, called Curiosity, scheduled to launch in late 2011, as well as a prototype of a sleek new space suit, designed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), that astronauts could wear on Mars. This section also speculates about the possibility of transforming Mars into a more Earth-like planet — a hypothetical process known as terraforming — by warming Mars, creating an atmosphere, and gradually introducing lifeforms.

  • Europa and the Search for Life: Humans have long wondered whether life exists elsewhere in our solar system. The final section of the exhibition gives visitors a glimpse into the future of space exploration with a replica of a proposed robotic submersible that could one day dive through the icy layers of Europa, the sixth closest moon of Jupiter, and search its vast oceans for any evidence of life. The exhibition ends with a breathtaking look at the hundreds of exoplanets discovered in just one small portion of the Milky Way, prompting visitors to consider the tantalizing possibility of life on planets orbiting other stars. Will humans eventually find a way to venture out beyond our solar system? Will we discover evidence of life on another planet?

Visions of Exploring Space From Science Fiction

Many scenarios presented in Beyond Planet Earth may seem familiar. That's because several of the predictions explored in the exhibition — from lunar colonies to the search for extraterrestrial life — have been at the heart of science fiction for the last 50 years.

Even before Neil Armstrong set foot on Tranquility Base on July 20, 1969, the prospect of living on the Moon had captured the popular imagination. From Cyrano de Bergerac's satiric L'autre monde (1657), to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and director Duncan Jones' Moon, released in 2009, the lure of a permanent lunar base has been a mainstay of science fiction.

Mining asteroids has been a persistent theme in sci-fi stories beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, including, most famously, Isaac Asimov's Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids (1953). Asteroids have also played a major role in fiction as instruments of destruction. Earth has been targeted time and again in A Torrent of Faces (1967) by James Blish and Norman L. Knight, Lucifer's Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (1977), and in films such as Deep Impact and Armageddon (1998).

The terraforming of alien worlds into an Earth 2 paradise has been a sci-fi staple since the term was first coined in 1942 by Jack Williamson in his Seetee Ship stories. Kim Stanley Robinson's trilogy of novels — Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars — described the hypothetical processes needed to accomplish this metamorphosis.

Finally, the possibility of finding life on other planets has captivated the public like no other sci-fi theme, from Carl Sagan's Contact to dozens of episodes of Star Trek and Doctor Who. And speculation about humans traveling to the stars and populating distant exoplanets may remind visitors of the galaxy-spanning civilization of Asimov's Foundation series or Alfred Bester's 1956 classic Stars My Destination.

Although they echo fantastic imaginings of science-fiction writers, the scenarios presented in Beyond Planet Earth are all the more amazing because they are firmly based in the realm of scientific and technological possibility — visions of a true future for space travel.

Robert PearlmanThe New York Times previews Beyond Planet Earth, complete with a photo gallery.
The idea of the space program as a museum show seemed wildly and gloomily appropriate when I first heard about it. We think of museums as being for old dead things, and the space program, at least the American space program, seems ready for its own diorama as the space shuttle shuts down, the Moon landings recede into ancient history, and space science is slowly dismantled by a prairie fire of budget cutting and wild cost overruns in the few programs that are left.

Luckily we don't have to relive that. The idea of the exhibition is to look forward 50 or 100 years, not back, said Michael Shara, the curator of the show. "We're at a crossroads," he said. "We have to decide what to do when we grow up. Where is the vision?"

In this case, the vision is solely Dr. Shara's, he admitted, arrived at by picking the brains of space experts. Lest you get too excited, it does not yet represent the official agenda of NASA or any other agency.

music_spaceFeatured in Beyond Planet Earth is something which could be a Soviet Sharik (meant for either manned or unmanned missions).

Anyone know something about this?

The exhibit also features this Soviet helmet which I don't recognize. What is it?

onesmallstepI attended the AMNH members' preview of the exhibit last night.

The 'Sharik' (or 'Little Ball' in Russian) capsule is actually a fiberglass/wood/metal replica, covered by a dummy hatch and basically hollow inside. It was built by the museum exhibits shop, like the impressive full-size Curiousity Mars rover and other models in the exhibit.

I also had a chance to inspect the helmet. The description under it said it came from the collection of Michael and Susan Rich of Los Angeles, and it was a prototype of a helmet to be used by cosmonauts to walk on the moon. Not having photos to compare, it may be similar to the ones used in the Soyuz 4/5 transfer EVA in 1969.

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