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The New Space Race: Navigating the Stars in the 21st Century

Published on 31 January 2024
Updated on 05 February 2024

In January 2024, Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) achieved a significant milestone by successfully landing their Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) on the lunar surface. This mission made Japan the fifth country to achieve a soft landing on the Moon.

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In August 2023, India marked a significant achievement by successfully landing on the Moon’s surface, joining the ranks of space-exploring nations. This feat, along with NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, which returned samples from the Bennu asteroid, signifies the rejuvenation among traditional space powerhouses and the emergence of new players in space exploration. These developments prompt the question: are we witnessing a pivotal era in the history of space research, characterised by both legacy space powers reasserting themselves and new nations stepping onto the cosmic stage?

From the days of the Cold War to the present, space exploration has shifted from a competition between superpowers to a multifaceted endeavour involving a myriad of countries and private entities. The technological leaps are staggering, with advancements in rocket design, satellite technology, and exploration methods.

The modern space race has welcomed new players aiming for Mars and beyond, and private companies like SpaceX have revolutionised space travel with developments such as reusable rockets. India’s ISRO amazed the world with its cost-effective Mars mission (as well as its Lunar mission), emphasising the accessibility of space.

In the mid-20th century, the space race was defined by the geopolitical rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Fast forward to the 21st century, and the landscape of space exploration has transformed dramatically.

The motivations propelling this new era of space exploration are diverse and multifaceted. At its heart remains the enduring scientific curiosity, a legacy of the Apollo era, driving the quest to unravel the mysteries of the cosmos, from the formation of planets to the search for life on Mars.

Significantly, the space domain has evolved into a burgeoning commercial frontier. Companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are pioneering efforts in satellite internet and space tourism, indicating a shift towards economic ventures in space, including the nascent field of space mining.

National prestige and security also play crucial roles, with countries like China and India leveraging their space programmes to cement their status as global powers. This includes the strategic military aspects of space.

Contrasting with past endeavours, the current space race is characterised by an unprecedented level of global collaboration, epitomised by projects such as the International Space Station, symbolising the collective human pursuit of space exploration.

JAXA Mission to the Moon

The Japanese SLIM mission to the Moon was notable for its precise landing capabilities, targeting a specific area on the Moon with high accuracy. This precision landing was a proof of concept for a lightweight and accurate lunar landing spacecraft, utilising advanced navigation systems and image processing algorithms. The mission aimed to demonstrate capabilities for future scientific lunar exploration and targeted the rim of the Shioli crater for its scientific potential, specifically to study the mineral olivine that could provide insights into the Moon’s formation and evolution.

Space Mining: The Next Frontier

One of the key aspects of the modern space race that is gaining attention is the concept of space mining. With advancements in space technology, this initiative, once considered purely science fiction, is now a real possibility. As Earth’s natural resources become increasingly scarce, space offers a virtually untapped wellspring of valuable minerals and metals. Asteroids, moons, and planets are repositories of elements like platinum, rare earth metals, and even water, which is crucial for extended space missions.

The economic implications of space mining are enormous. The value of minerals and metals in a single asteroid can potentially run into trillions of dollars. This provides a compelling incentive for companies and governments to invest in space mining technologies. Space mining could lead to significant advancements in mining technology, possibly offering more sustainable and efficient ways to extract resources. These technologies might even find applications back on Earth, contributing to more environmentally friendly mining practices.

Despite its potential, space mining faces several challenges. Extracting resources in the harsh environment of space, with extreme temperatures and microgravity, requires highly advanced technology. More importantly, there is an ongoing debate about the legal framework governing the extraction of space resources. The Outer Space Treaty, for example, stipulates that no nation can claim sovereignty over celestial bodies, which raises questions about ownership and profit sharing.

Incorporating space mining into our future space endeavours could redefine our approach to resource utilisation, both in space and on Earth.

However, as space exploration intensifies and the number of launches and satellites increases, the space industry will need to tackle the environmental impact. Addressing environmental concerns will become paramount, necessitating cleaner rocket technologies and improved methods for managing space debris.

The Future and Beyond

Looking to the future, the space race is set to enter a dynamic new phase. Plans are in place for establishing sustainable lunar bases and launching the first human mission to Mars, pushing the boundaries of our knowledge and testing our ability to inhabit extraterrestrial environments.

Concurrently, space tourism and commercial activities in orbit are becoming tangible realities, thanks to the efforts of companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin.

This era will also witness significant technological innovations in propulsion, life support, and space habitats, potentially enabling deeper space exploration, including journeys to the outer planets.

However, as space exploration intensifies and the number of launches and satellites increases, the space industry will need to tackle the environmental impact. Addressing environmental concerns will become paramount, necessitating cleaner rocket technologies and improved methods for managing space debris.

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The modern space race transcends its historical roots of competition, embodying the spirit of collaboration, innovation, and a unified vision for humanity’s future. It signals an era where space exploration and research are increasingly viewed as a common good, demanding robust international governance to ensure the equitable and sustainable use of space resources. As we venture into these new frontiers, space exploration becomes integral to our daily lives, not merely a distant pursuit. This evolution reflects a shift towards recognising space as a shared domain, requiring cooperative management to unlock its full potential for all of humanity.

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