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Infinity and beyond: the global rebirth of outer space

Infinity and beyond: the global rebirth of outer space

The topic of ‘outer space’ has recently roared back to life. The two- nation space race of the 1960s is no more and has been replaced with a multitude of countries and private companies. From the United States, China, and India, to Musk, Branson and others, the list appears to grow monthly. We see headlines of celebrities booking tickets on sub-orbital flights, promises of colonies on the Moon and Mars and missions to deep space asteroids, all with relatively nearby dates. SCOTT FIRSING tries to summarise the headlines and compile one detailed but relatively concise overview of who is doing what in space, where are they going, when and why.

Standing in the queue at the local Spar a few weeks ago, I glanced over at the magazine rack, as one does, and noticed the January edition of Popular Mechanics: “The New Space Age: America roars back into orbit and beyond.” I had to buy it, being the aerospace fanatic that I am.

This purchase was preceded by a meeting at the Richard Branson Centre for Entrepreneurship in downtown Jo’burg, where I was informed of Virgin Galactic’s plans for a two-hour sub-orbital flight from the Mojave Desert in New Mexico, USA aka Spaceport America, to Dubai in the UAE.

These two events were combined with my finally watching the new Hollywood blockbuster Gravity and reading numerous headlines on Twitter. China’s Moon landing, the International Space Station’s (ISS) life extended and one lucky South African youngster wins a trip to space; I thought to myself, “I just have to wrap my head around this and make sense of it all.”

In the movie Gravity, for those who haven’t seen it (spoiler alert, but due out on DVD on 25 February), Sandra Bullock makes a daring escape from the ISS about to blow up due to space debris after Russia has used a ballistic missile to shoot down one of their satellites which started a subsequent fire and other major problems. Ms Bullock heads towards the Chinese space station in order to hijack one of their vessels capable of entering Earth’s atmosphere without being incinerated upon re-entry.

Back to real life, the ISS has not been destroyed (it is amazing how it’s always the Russians fault in American movies). The space station is still floating above our heads at an incredible speed and is still the third brightest object in the sky, easy to see if you know when to look ( In fact on 8 January 2014, the Obama administration approved NASA’s request for an extension of ISS operations for an additional four years to 2024.

China is not part of the ISS’ United States, Japan, Russia, Canada, and European collaboration. What China is hoping for is to have its own space station in orbit by 2020. It is an ambitious goal but its space programme has made giant strides in recent years. China most recently became the first country to “soft-land” on the moon in 37 years when the unmanned Chang’e-3 spacecraft successfully landed on the lunar surface in December last year.

The ‘big bad’ Russians, a key partner in the ISS, are also looking to take their space programme to a new level, and they are putting their money where their mouth is. Russia has more than doubled spending on space in the last three years to more than US$5 billion in 2013. Russia is still the world leader in space launches but Moscow wants more. It is focusing on the moon to help rebuild its planetary programme. It wants to land a man on the moon and is contemplating constructing a space station around the giant hunk of cheese by 2030. It is hoped these lunar missions will help improve its domestic space capabilities. It is also looking towards partnerships to achieve the increased capacity goal as well.

Russia has built a partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA) to explore Mars and there are talks of partnership with NASA for Venus missions. The United States and the ESA had planned cooperation on Mars exploration, but America backed out and now ExoMars is a joint EU/Russian mission instead.

Mars is the real deal and most ‘space gossip’ revolves around exploring the red planet. In December, India launched its Mars Orbiter Mission, a probe expected to reach Mars on 24 September 2014. This mission has showed the technological capability of the Indian Space Research Organisation. On a more practical level, the Indian probe will carry out experiments such as searching for methane gas in Mars atmosphere. NASA recently launched its own Mars probe called MAVEN, which is expected to arrive just three days after India’s on 27 September.

Despite all the other countries’ accomplishments, America’s NASA is still seen as the ‘space’ leader. Its partnership with the other countries via the ISS has proved useful in understanding minuet but very important aspects of life in space such as using the toilet. It has also provided the time and data necessary to better understand larger components like damage caused by radiation and extreme temperature changes.

Further afield, NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity continues to beam back images and data from 160 million miles or 257.5 million kilometres away. The US Space Agency is also focused on a manned Mars mission but first wants a bridge mission in order for astronauts to get used to longer-term missions. The particular mission NASA has in mind is to capture an asteroid and build a small temporary station to get a better sense of the challenges and pure strength needed to survive for long periods of time in space.

The opening of Gravity states, “Life in space is impossible.” Not literally impossible, but extremely difficult, which the movie clearly shows over and over. The movie further highlights the importance of communicating with Mission Control, and missions to a nearby asteroid will test the astronauts and their ability to adjust when they are not in almost minute to minute contact with very knowledgeable people down on Earth assisting their every move.

Various private companies are now working with NASA to achieve some of these objectives. Last year the global aeronautical giant Boeing revealed its Crew Space Transporation-100 space capsule, its first own full-size spacecraft designed to take seven astronauts to and from space. South Africa’s Elon Musk’s company Space X is also currently assisting NASA by sending commercial shipments to the ISS and likely American astronauts into space in the near future. The Pretoria-raised Musk is reportedly obsessed with Mars and wants to develop a colony in the early 2020s.

The company Mars One is planning on sending people on a one-way ticket in 2022, giving them a great and unique view of Venus in 2021. They plan to announce a Big Brother-style reality show to help narrow down the 1,058 candidates and to raise funds.

But come on, seriously, reality shows and trips to Mars? How realistic are human Mars missions and colonies? Easier said than done, according to the old saying.

However, space experts from the American public and private sector met in December 2013 in order to answer this very pertinent and valid question. Their answer came via six agreements. One, you need consistent money via partnerships. Two, it is technologically possible. Three, Mars needs to take precedence over everything else. Four, investments and activities in the human exploration of space must be prioritised in such a way to best achieve the objective of initial human missions to Mars beginning in the 2030s. Five, the ISS and its international partnerships are absolutely crucial for deep space missions. And six, robot missions to Mars need to continue into the 2020s.

Sounds realistic, but not everyone is focused on Mars. Other entrepreneurs and countries are looking a little closer to home when it comes to their space ambitions.

On 10 January 2014, Virgin Galactic, the world’s first commercial spaceline, owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments PJS, successfully completed the third rocket-powered supersonic flight of its passenger carrying reusable space vehicle, SpaceShipTwo (SS2). In command on the flight deck of SS2 for the first time under rocket power was Virgin Galactic’s Chief Pilot Dave Mackay. The craft reached an altitude of 71,000ft (21, 000m) – SS2’s highest altitude to date – and at a maximum speed of Mach 1.4.

Thanks to Branson and his Virgin Galactic team, it appears sub-orbital flight is the future of travel. And he will undoubtedly face some stiff competition in the near future.

One person who will soon be in sub-orbital flight for approximately one hour via the Lynx Mark II spaceship owned by the Space Exploration Corporation is Pretoria’s 25-year-old Mandla Maseko. He won a seat to fly 103kms into space in 2015, after winning a competition organised by a US-based space academy. Preceding Maseko as a South African in space is obviously Mark Shuttleworth, an entrepreneur, and space tourist who became the first citizen of an independent African country to accomplish such a feat.

Other South Africans are also involved in these large ‘space’ goals, including 42-year-old Liam Pedersen who is building NASA’s most advanced space exploration robots. Born in the Western Cape and educated at Rhodes, Pedersen is leading the development of a robot that can float on the exotic, gas oceans of Saturn’s moon Titan. SA’s own Dr Pedersen is also credited with developing the “brain” used in robotic rovers currently on Mars.

South Africa itself made recent history when it launched its first cube satellite, ZACUBE-1, into space from Russia late last year. The Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) runs the cubesat programme and this particular nano-satellite is only 10x10x10cm and 1.2kg. It is carrying out space weather experiments and follows in the footsteps of South Africa’s micro-satellites Sunsat and SumbandilaSat. These Cube satellites were originally developed in the US in 1999 by California Polytechnic State University and Stanford University to help universities worldwide perform space science and exploration.

In case you were wondering, America’s Space Surveillance Agencies tracks every object in orbit over 10 cm in diameter. There are approximately 3,000 satellites operating in Earth orbit, nearly 8,000 man-made objects in total. And since 1957, more than 24,500 space objects orbiting Earth have been tracked with most falling into unstable orbits and being turned to ash by our atmosphere. This monitoring is key to avoid collisions as well as to plan for future launches.

With these large numbers of new developments and the new addition of companies and countries into the ‘space market’, who actually governs or controls this activity?

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty provides the basic framework on international space law, in addition to the 1979 International Moon Treaty. They essentially say exploration of space is for peaceful purposes and you can’t own extra terrestrial objects. However, I am sure 40 and 50 years ago they didn’t envision space tourists, mining the moon, and missions to Mars or did they? Star Trek is such a classic.

I am no space law expert, but it is probably time for nations to sit down and revisit many of these international laws so they are relevant to the current and planned future of space.

Many ask the question of why space when there are so many problems here on Earth. Humanity’s curiosity, country prestige, science and environmental education learning a lot about our own planet in the process, future colonisation of the moon and Mars, natural resources, putting our self in perspective or simply to strive to accomplish such things and be first. The list can go on and one can talk about the spin offs and developments that have come about because of space programs.

Regardless of the pros and cons, there is no question we will soon see other countries and companies get more involved in space. When the prices drop on a good investment (financial or otherwise), there will be buyers. This includes Iran who has made strides in establishing its own space program, launching a monkey into orbit.

South Africa is another country that will undoubtedly continue to make space strides in the future. However, what one needs are young individuals like future SA astronaut Maseko driving to qualify as a space mission specialist and dreaming of planting the South African flag on the moon. Maseko wants to be on the same level as the Musks, Pedersons and others who are now the SA role models. But perhaps the real question is: are there any other young South Africans like Maseko who are planning to follow in the giant footsteps that South Africa’s space pioneers have already planted? DM

Summary of key upcoming dates

2015- SA’s Maseko in suborbital space

2016: ExoMars (Russia and ESA) orbiter to land on Mars to prepare for rover

2017: India plans first manned space mission

2017: China expected to return unmanned lunar mission to earth

2018:  ExoMars rover and science station

2019: Russias’ Luna-27 (Resurs) lander

2020: China’s own space station launch

2020: India aims to have astronauts land on Moon

2020: US$2 billion NASA Mars rover mission

2020s: Musk’s Mars Colony

2024: China aims to have astronauts land on Moon

2024: End of ISS? (likely to be extended to at least 2030)

Read more:

Photo: Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus commercial resupply craft is seen on its final approach before being captured as it docks at the International Space Station. (REUTERS/NASA)

Main Photo: Richard Branson with a model of the LauncherOne cargo spacecraft peering from a window of an actual size model of SpaceShipTwo. (REUTERS/Luke MacGregor)


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