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UMass Lowell looks ahead to our future in space

The future of space exploration and technology is a hot topic these days, fueling blockbuster movies and heightening attention about travel to Mars and other planets one day.

On Friday and Saturday, the University of Massachusetts Lowell is convening scientists, former astronauts, and industry leaders for two days of talks on the topic. The symposium — Space Exploration in the Upcoming Decade: The Domestication of Space— is presented by the college’s Center for Space, Science, and Technology.

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Much has changed since the center held an event 10 years ago to mark the 50-year anniversary of the start of the “Space Age,” a period begun by the famous 1957 launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, said the center’s director, Supriya Chakrabarti.

“When we first met 10 years ago, we didn’t predict how accessible space would become,” Chakrabarti said. “The rise of private companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and others operating in space and taking people up into space, it’s a big change.

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“These talks and panels are going to touch on the way space has changed and the new areas that have opened up,” he said.

Speakers include: James Abrahamson, former designated astronaut and former associate director of NASA; Robert Cabana, former astronaut and current director of the Kennedy Space Center; and John Connolly, leader of NASA’s Mars Study Capability Team.

The subject of sending humans to Mars is topical, as nations and private companies explore the possibility of missions, Chakrabarti said. The United Arab Emirates is planning to launch a satellite in 2020 and SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk is asking for volunteers for a potential one-way trip.

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Getting someone to Mars is feasible, Chakrabarti said. It’s the getting them back that poses much of the problem.

“To get to Mars, there are two main things to keep in mind — the launching and the landing. To get someone back, you need to do even more planning and pack the required fuel,” he said.

In spite of all the challenges that face humanity in space, Chakrabarti said, he remains hopeful that a bright future awaits.

“We’re doing things that we couldn’t have even imagined 10 years ago,’’ he said. “The tools are so much more sophisticated and my students are so good at using them. They’re so passionate.

“I was 4 when Sputnik launched and now I’ve built instruments that are now on the International Space Station,’’ he added. “It’s great fun.”

Andrew Grant can be reached at andrew.grant@globe.com.
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