When we think of the space race, what comes to mind is generally the strenuous Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, striving to be the first to get a satellite into orbit, or to put a man on the moon. Since those heady days, the space race is often thought of as being over, with the sole remaining superpower ratcheting down NASA’s budget and concentrating on things a little closer to home. But there’s still an appetite for research and the commercial exploitation of space travel, so while the stakes have changed somewhat, the race is most definitely still on!
Of course, the number one contributor to space-based research and technology is still the USA. Despite funding cuts, NASA remains a powerful presence on the scene, and is a major contributor to the International Space Station. The ISS is a springboard to NASA’s next great leap in exploration, allowing technological research and development in a microgravity laboratory. Of course, NASA is also responsible for many research missions to the solar system and beyond, and particularly to Mars, with the Curiosity rover still providing viable data. Future missions include manned expeditions to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars by 2030. Exciting stuff.
NASA isn’t the only game in town in the States these days. Elon Musk’s company SpaceX has been in the news in the last little while as it attempts to develop commercially viable private space travel. Its major focus is reusable rockets, which will be both cost-effective and avoid littering the upper atmosphere with space junk (a real problem). The company, sister to Tesla whose drive to produce electric cars is similarly forward-looking, has had a few problems ensuring that its rockets can safely take off and land, and the encroachment of other start-ups into the business will likely only galvanize them.
And, not to be outdone, Canada’s space program is ticking along as well – focused in the areas of earth observation, space science and exploration, satellite communications, and space awareness. Probably the country’s best-known contributions are the Canadarm on the ISS, and astronaut Chris Hadfield who captured imaginations worldwide with his web broadcasts direct from the station.
UK, Europe and Russia
Determined not to be left behind, the UK, Europe and Russia have their own plans for space. UKSpace is the UK’s Space Trade Association, and its partners focus on the research into and production of space-based technology that can lead to jobs and growth. For example, every piece of hardware that goes into space is custom-built, and making sure that there is no interference between pieces of equipment is hugely important – so one crucial area of work is electromagnetic interference testing and design, using near field measurement to enforce EMI compliance. With this and other necessary areas of work, UKSpace hopes to quadruple the size of the UK space sector by 2030.
It’s not all commercial technology development of course, though that is a prime factor. The SpaceLab at Imperial College London, which comprises 140 researchers across all three faculties and the Business School. Research includes health issues like glaucoma and osteoporosis, which can be studied in microgravity for a deeper understanding of how they might work on Earth. And analysis methods used on the huge data sets obtained from supernovas can even be adapted to the data sets generated by the consumer banking industry, allowing faster and more precise detection of fraud.
Most recently, Europe and Russia have made tentative plans for a joint lunar mission that could lead to a permanent Moon settlement. Russia plans to land cosmonauts on the Moon by 2030, and Europe wants a piece of the action – and with international collaboration, Russia might be able to achieve its goal. In terms of moon bases, the Luna 27 mission will launch in 5 years’ time, and will touch down to look for a good site for future settlements. It will assess whether there is water, and raw materials to make fuel and oxygen, crucial components for any kind of permanent human presence.
All in all, there’s still plenty of scope for interesting space-based competition, but this time it’s between not only countries but industries as well. The next few decades are certainly going to be interesting – and might just unleash a new space age.