Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Nasa dominates as rivals play catch-up

Engineers opened the hatch of the Mars 500 space capsule this week and six "cosmonauts" emerged from a simulated three-month interplanetary flight. Next year, the Russian and European space agencies will send another crew on a longer simulated mission to Mars and back, lasting a year and a half.

The cosmonauts - four from Russia and two from western Europe - live in isolation in a mock spacecraft outside Moscow, experiencing conditions as close as possible to a real flight. There is, for instance, a communication delay of up to 20 minutes each way, to reflect the time taken for radio signals to travel between Mars and Earth.

But the very fact that the two agencies are spending millions to assess the psychological and medical effects of interplanetary travel is a statement of long-term intent.

dreaming of mars
dreaming of mars

"I hope that the scientific data we have provided over the last two months will help to make a mission to Mars possible," said Oliver Knickel, a German army engineer, after emerging from the Mars 500 capsule.

No one is likely to go to Mars before the 2030s - and space agencies have little idea what type of spacecraft will be used or what type of international collaboration might support the mission.

The European Space Agency made a more immediate statement of intent this summer when it unveiled six new recruits to its astronaut corps - chosen from 8,400 valid applicants.

"These young men and women are the next generation of European space explorers," said Simonetta Di Pippo, Esa director of human spaceflight. "They have a fantastic career ahead, which will put them right at top of one of the ultimate challenges of our time: going back to the Moon and beyond as part of the global exploration efforts."

Even the Moon will have to wait, though. For the next few years the only destination for astronauts from Europe, or anywhere else, is the $100bn (Euro71bn, Pfund61bn) International Space Station, in orbit 340km (213miles) above the Earth. After its scheduled completion next year, the US will retire the Shuttle fleet and the world will depend on Russia's ever-reliable Soyuz craft for all travel to the ISS.

The space station has a crew of six, changed every three to six months. This summer, for the first time since its construction started in 1998, the staffing has been truly international, with two Russians, an American, a Japanese, a Canadian and a Belgian on board.

While Nasa plans to reintroduce a manned space system, based on Ares rockets and Orion crew vessels, soon after 2015, the prospect of Esa developing its own crew-carrying spacecraft remains uncertain. (Ariane, Europe's workhorse rocket, is proving an excellent launcher for commercial satellites and scientific probes.)

Esa recently signed a study contract with EADS Astrium to design an Advanced Re-entry Vehicle that would convey first goods and later astronauts to and from the ISS but the agency's 18 member states are not committed to building the ARV.

Asian ambitions

Asia, however, has the world's fastest-moving space programmes - with China racing ahead of its regional neighbours. In 2003 China became the third country after the US and Russia to have an independent manned space system and last year it sent three taikonauts - based on the Chinese word taikong, meaning space - into orbit.

Although official Chinese pronouncements about the country's space ambitions can be opaque, observers say it is aiming both to have its own orbiting space laboratory - a miniature version of the ISS - and to land taikonauts on the moon by 2020. An unmanned lunar rover could be launched as soon as 2012.

India has an enviable record for launching satellites, particularly for "remote sensing" of the environment on Earth. Last October the first Indian Moon mission put Chandrayaan-1 into lunar orbit, where it remains today, making scientific observations. India, too, has ambitions to develop a manned programme, though it has made no commitments about timing.

Japan outspends its Asian neighbours on space. But its homegrown rockets have proved surprisingly unreliable over the years and the country shows little sign of wanting to build its own manned spacecraft. Instead, it has concentrated on scientific missions and on contributing to the ISS.

The current Shuttle mission, launched on Wednesday night, aims to finish assembling the bus-sized Japanese Kibo research complex by installing a 4,000kg "porch" to be used for experiments needing exposure to space. Kibo is the largest single laboratory within the ISS.

However, the fact remains that, 40 years after the triumph of Apollo 11, Nasa still has more financial and technological resources than the rest of the world's space agencies put together.

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