“Each Voyager is itself a message. In their exploratory intent, in the lofty ambition of their objectives, in their utter lack of intent to do harm, and in the brilliance of their design and performance, these robots speak eloquently for us.”
― Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot:
A Vision of the Human Future in Space
Space exploration has numerous benefits that extend beyond the realm of scientific discovery. Space exploration gives us a new perspective to study Earth and the solar system. We advance new technologies that improve our daily lives and inspire a new generation of artists, thinkers, tinkerers, engineers, and scientists. Space exploration unites the world to inspire the next generation, make ground-breaking discoveries, and create new opportunities.
The Future of Geography: How Power and Politics in Space Will Change Our World, Tim Marshall analyses the geopolitical dynamics and consequences of space exploration. Marshall asserts that space is rapidly becoming an extension of Earth, representing the latest arena for intense human competition.
It would not be rhetorical to say that the next 50 years of space exploration will change the face of global politics. Soon, what happens in space will shape human history as much as mountains, rivers and seas have on earth.
Technologies and missions we develop for human spaceflight have thousands of applications on earth, boosting the economy, creating new career paths, and advancing everyday technologies all around us. Space exploration allows scientists to learn more about our universe, including the origins of celestial bodies, the nature of space, and the potential for life beyond Earth.
This knowledge contributes to our understanding of fundamental scientific principles. Space exploration drives the development of new technologies. Many of the technological advancements made for space missions find applications on Earth, leading to innovations in various fields such as medicine, telecommunications, materials science, and computing.
Innovative technology attracts investments not only by governments but also by private enterprises which can stimulate economic growth. It creates jobs in various sectors, from aerospace engineering to manufacturing and research, contributing to a skilled workforce and fostering technological advancements that can be applied in other industries.
Many technologies initially developed for space exploration have practical applications on Earth. Examples include advancements in water purification, medical imaging, and lightweight materials.
Space exploration often involves collaboration between different countries and international space agencies. This promotes peaceful cooperation and helps build diplomatic relationships between nations. Satellites and space-based instruments are used to monitor Earth’s climate, weather patterns, natural disasters, and environmental changes.
This information is crucial for understanding and addressing global challenges, including climate change and disaster management. Space missions can identify potential resources on other celestial bodies, such as asteroids or the Moon. This information is valuable for future plans involving optimum and sustainable resource utilization beyond Earth, potentially addressing resource scarcity issues.
Space exploration inspires people to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Educational programs and initiatives related to space exploration help engage and motivate students to pursue careers in these critical areas.
Studying the effects of space travel on the human body provides insights into human physiology and health. This knowledge is beneficial for improving healthcare on Earth and developing countermeasures for conditions such as osteoporosis and muscle atrophy.
By exploring and potentially colonizing other celestial bodies, humanity can increase the chances of long-term survival. This is especially important considering potential threats to Earth, such as asteroid impacts or other catastrophic events. Laurence van Cott Niven, an American science fiction writer, wrote that “the dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don’t have a space program, it’ll serve us right!”.
The New Space-Race
Admittedly, the world has realised the importance of space exploration and its potential to make our Earth a better place to live. This realisation has triggered not only international cooperation but also another round of unhealthy competition. The Cold War space race was all about getting up and out; now we’re claiming what’s there. Space has already changed much in our everyday lives. It is central to communication, economics and military strategy, and increasingly important to international relations.
That will inevitably mean ‘spheres of influence’ and even claims on territory as the rivalries, alliances and conflicts on Earth spill out into space. But what we’ve failed to establish so far is a set of universally agreed-upon rules to regulate this competition; without laws governing human activity in space, the stage is set for disagreements on an astronomical level.
The new space race is characterized by a more diverse set of participants, increased collaboration, a prominent role for the private sector, and a focus on practical applications such as lunar exploration, resource utilization, and space tourism. The costs of space travel have come down.
The expenses associated with space travel have seen a decline, with Elon Musk’s SpaceX and its reusable rockets playing a significant role, along with the miniaturization of satellites. This reduction in costs facilitates more economical launches, enabling the deployment of multiple satellites simultaneously.
Recent discoveries of rare metals and water on the Moon, substantial cost reductions by private companies for penetrating the Earth’s atmosphere, and major powers conducting missile tests by deliberately destroying their own satellites are all integral elements contributing to a larger narrative unfolding in the realm of space exploration.
In this new space race, the USA, China and Russia are the clear front-runners, but the race is very different this time. More than 100 nation-states and private enterprises are competing in this field now. An increasing array of nations and enterprises are striving to carve out a presence in the evolving landscape of space exploration. Jeff Bezos has established Blue Origin, Richard Branson leads Virgin Galactic, and Elon Musk is at the helm of SpaceX. While all three companies share a desire to explore and conquer space, their approaches and goals differ significantly. Blue Origin is focused on sustainable space development, Virgin Galactic on tourism in space, and SpaceX on advancing space technology. Furthermore, numerous countries, such as France, Germany, Japan, Australia, India, the UK, Israel, Iran, and the UAE, are actively competing for opportunities, collaborations, and recognition in an expanding and competitive marketplace.
Everyone’s going to the Moon
Following the historic mission of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in July 1969, enthusiasm and support for future human space flight diminished swiftly among the public and political spheres. Amidst the substantial financial commitments to the ongoing Vietnam War, the U.S. government chose to discontinue its Apollo program.
In recent times, however, things have changed. Kenneth Chang, a science reporter at The New York Times, in an article published on July 12, 2019, ‘Why Everyone Wants to Go Back to the Moon’, argues that ‘the discovery that there is water there, especially ice deep within polar craters where the sun never shines’ is the prime reason for the renewed international interest in Moon missions.
Bolstered by evidence of the presence of water and other natural resources, many more nations and private players are now seeking to get to the moon. Whoever can establish a significant lunar presence first could have big implications on Earth as well as the cosmos.
Asia leads the race to the Moon
Curiously, Asian countries are taking the lead in the new Space Race. Recently, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) achieved a notable milestone with its Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) spacecraft executing a soft landing on the moon. However, an issue arose as its solar panels were not generating power, necessitating a reliance on its batteries.
With this achievement, Japan became the fifth country to accomplish a soft landing with a robotic spacecraft on the lunar surface. Similar to India’s Chandrayaan-3, SLIM was designed for a lunar soft landing and rover deployment (including two small rovers), but its primary objective was pioneering in nature.
The United States, Russia, China, Japan, and India stand as the five nations that have successfully achieved a soft landing on the moon. The U.S. has committed to establishing lunar laboratories in the near future, and both Europe and Russia have disclosed plans for launching complex missions. China, on the other hand, has set the ambitious goal of landing astronauts on the Moon by 2030.
Other Space Missions
The sky is the limit only for those who aren’t afraid to fly! Space scientists have sent missions to every nook and corner of our solar system – from our next-door neighbour Moon to Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Mercury. NASA and other international space agencies monitor the Sun 24/7 with a fleet of solar observatories, studying everything from the Sun’s atmosphere to its surface.
Aditya-L1, India’s first solar observation mission reached its final destination on 6 January 2024. Posting on X, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “It is a testament to the relentless dedication of our scientists in realising among the most complex and intricate space missions.”
The new space race is, however, causing new pollution problems. The process of launching rockets into space involves the combustion of large amounts of rocket propellant, releasing various pollutants into the atmosphere. Solid rocket propellants, in particular, can produce chlorine-based compounds that may have ozone-depleting potential.
The increasing amount of space debris, consisting of defunct satellites, spent rocket stages, and fragments from collisions, poses a threat to both operational satellites and future space missions. While not atmospheric pollution, space debris can impact the long-term sustainability of space activities.
Space missions often involve the use of hazardous materials, including fuels, propellants, and spacecraft components that may contain toxic substances. Accidental releases or failures during launches could result in chemical contamination of the environment.
Communication signals from satellites and space probes can interfere with radio frequencies on Earth, affecting radio astronomy and communication systems. While not a form of pollution in the traditional sense, it can have environmental and societal implications. As interest grows in mining asteroids or extracting resources from celestial bodies, the environmental impact of these activities must be considered. The extraction and processing of resources in space could have environmental consequences.
Efforts are being made to mitigate these impacts through the development of greener propulsion technologies, responsible space debris management, and international agreements to minimize space-related pollution. Organizations like the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) and the Outer Space Treaty aim to establish guidelines for responsible and sustainable space exploration.
It’s worth noting that the pollution generated by space exploration is relatively small compared to other human activities on Earth. However, as space activities increase, it becomes crucial to address these environmental concerns and develop sustainable practices to ensure the responsible use of space.
In Hindu mythology, the cosmic dance of Natraj (Shiva) symbolises the interplay of dynamic and static divine energy flow, containing the five principles of eternal energy — creation, preservation, destruction, illusion and emancipation. In the vast expanse of our cosmic ambitions, each space mission propels humanity into the unknown, turning the mysteries of the cosmos into the triumphs of human ingenuity.
As we continue our journey among the stars, the final frontier beckons us with the promise of discovery, inspiring us to reach new heights and redefine the limits of what is possible. In the cosmic dance of exploration, our steps forward echo across the cosmos, leaving an indelible mark on the tapestry of the universe.”
By Arssh Kumar
Arssh Kumar is a student at JPIS, Jaipur. He can be followed on twitter - @arssh_kumar. He also administers www.astrohub007.blog