Space exploration was sparked by an intense rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 60s to be the first to land a manned mission on the Moon. Several decades later, the U.S, Russia, Japan, Canada and Europe now work together on the International Space Station, a research post in low-Earth orbit. Hundreds of experiments have been conducted on the station, benefiting a range of scientific disciplines including the biological, physical and materials sciences. Beyond Earth orbit, the world’s space agencies have a fleet of robotic satellites exploring all corners of the Solar System, within both independent and collaborative missions.

The desire to step foot on another world has been romanticized in literature, poetry and art for centuries, and fills the daydreams of many, but it has its roots buried firmly in the harsh reality of war. As World War Two ended the Cold War began, and a fierce competition ensued between the U.S and Soviet Union with the aim of developing systems capable of delivering long-range missiles with trajectories around the planet.

The Soviet Union announced their capabilities to the world by launching the very first space satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. In 1961 the Soviet Union defeated the US again, this time by launching the first human into space, Yuri Gagarin. Just three weeks later, Alan Shepard would become the first American in space. To regain lost national pride, US President Kennedy announced the ambitious goal of landing a man on the Moon before the end of the decade. The space race was well and truly on, and was only settled in July 1969 when the late Neil Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin stepped onto lunar soil and planted the American flag. It would be something that that to this day, no other nation would ever achieve. Six more manned lunar missions followed but, as funds and public interest waned, the last footprint on the Moon was made in 1972.

Countries are still competing for supremacy in space exploration

While the US and Soviet Union stole the limelight for the great race to the Moon other countries were busy establishing their own space programs and launching rockets. During the 1960s the foundations were laid for the formal creation of the European Space Agency in 1975. Meanwhile Japan and China both independently launched their own first satellites in 1970, with India following in 1975. Even today, countries are still competing for supremacy in space exploration. This is especially important for developing countries where it carries the symbol of technological superiority and contributes to national pride.

In 2003 China became – and still is – only the third nation to independently launch a human into space. The country has also demonstrated success in launching and docking its own space station modules, including two short-stay manned missions. The last, which concluded in June 2013, saw three Chinese astronauts spend 15 days in space, testing technology and conducting scientific research. Having achieved this milestone, China is now looking ahead to its next spacelab for which it will begin launching modules in 2015.

Meanwhile, the International Space Station (ISS) takes centre stage. Orbiting the Earth at an altitude of around 330-430 km, this habitable research station is the most ambitious global space project in history, but comes with a hefty price tag of over 100 billion euros. Five space agencies worked together to conceive, plan, construct and now operate the working space laboratory – a collaboration far removed from the tensions that existed during the Cold War era. Working together, the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and Europe are represented by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Russia’s space agency Roscosmos (RSA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and the European Space Agency (ESA) respectively. From ESA’s 20 member states, 10 contribute to the ISS including Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Spain, Denmark, The Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. The first space station module was deployed in 1998, and the entire station is approximately the size of a football pitch. This orbiting outpost serves a range of functions, including living quarters, science laboratories and storage facilities. It has been occupied continually since November 2000, typically with between three and six astronauts living on board in six monthly cycles.

International Science in Space

Some 700 experiments have been conducted onboardin the last decade, covering biological sciences, physical sciences, materials sciences, technology and nanotechnology, and astronomy, space and Earth sciences. Many of these experiments have direct implications for future long-term space exploration, particularly concerning the human body’s reaction to long-term exposure to micro-gravity, and to an environment with greater levels of radiation. Studies have already found that, despite daily exercise, bone mass is reduced by 1-2 percent for every month spent in space – a finding which, for example, has significant implications for possible year-long or longer missions to Mars.

The microgravity environment of the ISS has also allowed unique discoveries to be made in the medical field, such as spaceflight increasing the virulence of some bacteria, providing a new route into vaccine development for viruses including salmonella, pneumonia, meningitis and MRSA. Stem cells also respond differently in space, reducing an astronaut’s immune system defences and wound-healing abilities. This research has also opened new doors into the study of traumatic wound-healing from military injuries. Other areas of scientific research such as light technology – used to support plant growth on the ISS – have been developed into a novel method in the treatment of paediatric brain tumours.

There are also numerous space technology spin-off applications, such as an astronauts’ handheld pressure altitude warning system that is now also being used in aviation, scuba diving, mountaineering and meteorology. Similarly, technology used by astronauts to recycle their urine, sweat and respiration into drinking water has had applications in water purification for areas of contaminated water on Earth.

The ISS also acts as a powerful tool for education. Onboard astronauts regularly engage in educational activities by inviting schools to communicate with them via amateur radio. On some occasions students have participated in research being conducted in space, typicallyby comparing the results of simple experiments performed in the classroom with the same experiment carried out by an astronaut on the space station. In this way, space can be used as a means to encourage school children to pursue careers in science and engineering topics.

Furthermore, the presence of European astronauts on board the ISS opens up a link between space and the general public in their country of origin. In 2015, the UK’s Timothy Peake will spend a six-month sojourn on board the station. Peake is the first official, government-backed UK astronaut; previous UK-born astronauts, such as the recently retired Michael Foale, have had to become American citizens and have flown as NASA astronauts, while Helen Sharman won a Russian competition to get her ticket into space.

British space activity received a boost earlier this year when ESA inaugurated its first technical base in the UK, in Oxfordshire, following Britain’s increase in its subscription to ESA last year. While a significant proportion of the subscription is dedicated to telecommunications, it is imagined that Peake’s upcoming mission may boost the UK’s desire to increase its participation in human spaceflight. Britain recently became a member of ESA’s European Life and Physical Sciences in Space programme, which focuses on research conducted on the ISS, and will inevitably see Peake working on microgravity experiments during his mission. Furthermore, while British companies already play a key role in space technologies – Reaction Engines Ltd. Skylon spaceplane concept, for example – it is anticipated that Peake’s mission will provide an economic boost to the growth and development of the space sector, thus providing British school pupils with a greater exposure to possible career paths in the fields of science and technology.

Space Station Supply Ships

Peake will depart for the ISS on a Russian Soyuz. Since NASA retired its space shuttle in July 2011, the ISS’s human occupants have relied exclusively on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to make the journey. Commercial companies are currently taking steps to fill the gap in this niche market. SpaceX made history in 2012 when it became the first commercial company to deliver cargo to the ISS in its unmanned Dragon capsule, and safely return cargo back to Earth; the company is working towards the first manned test flight.

SpaceX made history in 2012 when it became the first commercial company to deliver cargo to the ISS

Meanwhile, the ISS continues to support the docking of a mixed fleet of supply ships to deliver experiments, provisions and spare parts to the space station. ESA has visited the station four times with its Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), which can deliver up to 8 tonnes of cargo as well as bring back waste at the end of its mission – it safely burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere on the return journey. The latest ATV 4 docked with the station in June and will depart in late October of this year.

Japan has also sent four supply ships to the space station; its most recent H-2 Transfer Vehicle docked on 9 August 2013 to deliver 3.6 tonnes of food, water and clothing, as well as technical equipment including a freezer to store experiment samples, oxygen tanks for spacesuits, and life science experiments. Russia’s expendable Progress spacecraft also ferries supplies to the ISS – the latest ship docked at the end of July.

Private companies, such as Deep Space Industries based in US, are planning missions to exploit resources from asteroids from 2016. NASA/ Denise Watt
Private companies, such as Deep Space Industries based in US, are planning missions to exploit resources from asteroids from 2016. (Credits:NASA/ Denise Watt)

Earth from Above

Orbiting the Earth once every 90 minutes, ISS astronauts have an ever-changing view of their home planet. But there is also an armada of dedicated Earth observation satellites looking down on us from altitudes of up to 36,000 km, recording aspects of daily life from weather and climate trends, to land use, natural disasters, and resource management. Satellites are also in place to facilitate communications, for example your daily mobile phone calls, acquiring GPS (Global Positioning Service) locations for your car’s satellite navigation, and for relaying TV broadcasts.

Although providing telecommunication and positioning services are typically peaceful activities, there has been a move in recent years for both well-established space agencies and developing nations to provide independent services, with a somewhat more sinister undertone. While many GPS systems are true to their name of being globally accessible ultimately, they are run by individual countries. The US operates the primary GPS service, but Russia recently completed its GLONASS fleet of satellites that offer the same level of precision as GPS. China and Europe are both on their way to developing their own systems, and India recently launched the first satellite for its new fleet too.

Navigation and positioning services are vital during military conflicts – to provide accurate data for ground and air manoeuvres, for missile guidance, and for emergency services. But the use of foreign GPS systems may not necessarily be guaranteed during these situations because their operators can deliberately reduce the accuracy of signals. The ability to operate independently therefore provides additional security for military operations, and with many nations taking this step forward there are some similarities to the political undertones that drove the Cold War of the last century.

Beyond Earth Orbit

Elsewhere in the Solar System, far beyond Earth orbit, the world’s space agencies also have a fleet of international robotic satellites exploring our cosmic neighbourhood for peaceful purposes such as learning more about the Universe in which we live. NASA and ESA missions have drawn much of the attention so far this year: NASA’s Curiosity rover is currently exploring the surface of Mars and returning new images of the Red Planet on a near-daily basis, while ESA’s Planck mission recently unveiled the most detailed picture of relic radiation from the big bang yet seen.

But rising space powers, notably Japan, China, Russia and India are also exploring beyond Earth orbit with an armada of robotic satellites, boosting prestige and driving socio-economic uplift of the country. Like the US, Russia and Europe, China, Japan and India have all led orbiting missions to the Moon. NASA, Russia and ESA have also demonstrated successes on Mars, but in November of this year, India plans to launch its own Mars satellite in its most ambitious mission yet. The orbiter will primarily demonstrate the technological capabilities of the nation, but it is also tasked with scientific research, in particular the detection of methane. This is also the goal of the upcoming joint ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars mission. Detecting methane and identifying its source will lay to rest one of the key questions in Mars research; on Earth methane is produced primarily by biological activity and, to a lesser extent, volcanic activity. Detecting it on Mars could therefore imply that living organisms may be present on the Red Planet.

The commercial mining company Planetary Resources announced its goal to prospect near-Earth asteroids for water and minerals

Before the first ExoMars mission launches – the orbiting mission is planned for 2016, while a follow-up rover mission will launch in 2018 – ESA has two big milestones in space science ahead. The first is the launch of the Gaia mission, anticipated for autumn 2013. Over five years Gaia will map the precise locations of over a billion stars, allowing scientists to create a 3D map of the Milky Way, and to learn more about the origin, evolution and future of our home Galaxy.

In 2014, ESA will attempt the first landing on a comet. The Rosetta mission, which launched in 2004, will be woken up from deep space hibernation in January, a few months ahead of its rendezvous with Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It will then follow the comet as it loops around the Sun, studying the effects of solar heating on a comet from close quarters – also for the first time. Then in November 2014 it will deploy its Philae lander to the surface. Comets are thought to have played a role in seeding the Earth with ingredients for life – by directly analysing the surface of such a primitive body, scientists will get one step closer to unlocking what could be the ‘Rosetta stone’ of the Solar System.

Meanwhile NASA has designs on capturing an asteroid a few metres wide and bringing it to a safe distance from Earth for further study by astronauts in a quest to learn more about the threats that these rocky objects pose to the Earth should they be on a collision course with our planet. The initiative would also accelerate technology development in areas such as solar-electric propulsion.

Space Solutions

Asteroids are also the subject of another debate, that is, the role they could play in solving the problem of the growing shortage of strategic mineral resources on Earth. In April 2012 the commercial mining company Planetary Resources – founded by American entrepreneurs Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis – announced its goal to prospect near-Earth asteroids for water and minerals, including rare earth elements such as platinum, which are typically found in higher concentration on asteroids than on Earth.

Planetary Resources’ vision is to bring the natural resources of space that are bound up in asteroids within humanity’s economic sphere of influence. The advantages of prospecting asteroids include their small fields of gravity rendering them easy to approach and leave. In addition, their heaviest metals, such as iron and nickel, are distributed throughout rather than closer to a central core facilitating their extraction process.

Planetary Resources first plan to launch low cost commercial robotic spacecraft to determine the best asteroid candidates, taking into account their location and the accessibility of mineral resources. Eventually, mining outposts would be set up, and the precious metals returned to Earth, in theory increasing the global GDP. Even further into the future the company envisions the utilization of extracted water for rocket fuel, and fuelling stations could be built in space to open up space exploration to more distant destinations within the Solar System. Technology and engineering is continually pushed to its limits to allow us to explore the Solar System and beyond, uncovering a bounty of scientific discoveries, while simultaneously driving industry back on Earth.

Space exploration has certainly come a long way since the Space Race of the 1960s, even though humans have not ventured further than the Moon since 1972. But with plenty of new and exciting missions being launched before the end of this decade, there is plenty for the next generation of scientists and engineers to draw inspiration from. In the meantime, there is also a new space race unfolding, with an underlying sense of competition between developing nations; China, Japan and India in particular are continually stepping up their efforts to reach the same technological achievements in space as leading organisations such as NASA, ESA and Roscosmos. While in the 21st century the International Space Station, along with countless space exploration missions, demonstrated the benefits of peaceful scientific collaboration, there has been a turn towards developing independent navigation and location satellites. Will this result in new conflicts or will international collaborations continue to lead the way?