Space missions: the frontier spirit

Last year saw the final mission of the American space shuttle programme. But just as the US winds down its space operations, other nations around the world are enthusiastically gearing up to voyage to other galaxies…

One year after the last United States space shuttle, Atlantis, landed back from its mission to the International Space Station, international space exploration activity is hotter than ever. The United Arab Emirates is training the next generation of space engineers by sending students to Nasa facilities where they are taking part in planning missions to orbit Earth and even the planets. And Nasa’s US$2.5bn Curiosity rover is currently on a two-year ‘Red Planet’ mission to hunt for signs of life on Mars. Several other nations are getting into the action too. Vision highlights five countries to watch in space….

China

China has been enhancing its reputation for space exploration in recent times. It is hard to believe that it was only in 2003 that the Asian nation had its first manned spaceflight. Less than a decade later, on 24 June this year, the three-person Shenzhou-9 docked with space station Tiangong-1. The mission was the first time the Chinese have attached two spacecraft. To boot, China had another first on the crew itself: the first Chinese woman in space, Liu Yang. “Tiangong-1, our home in space, was comfortable and pleasant. We’re very proud of our nation,” Yang said in reports from state broadcaster CCTV.

More crewed missions are in the works, with the next one expected to follow in just a few months. Additionally, China is planning to put together a 60-tonne space station by 2020.

United Arab Emirates

The UAE is taking its first steps into space through satellite technology and working with agencies such as Nasa to train the next generation of engineers. This will serve it well in the years to come.

Emirati youth are getting regular access to space and Nasa through initiatives run by regional agencies. In a programme organised by the Arab Youth Venture Foundation, the first all-female group of interns recently returned from training at Silicon Valley’s Nasa Lunar Science Institute – the body responsible for the software design, sensor integration and wind tunnel testing that went into building the Mars Curiosity rover. The students worked on spacesuit design and Mars rovers.

The Middle East is continually upgrading its mobile phone and internet communications as nations recognise the business opportunity of sending satellites into space.

One example is the satellite Y1B, launched in April. Built by Abu Dhabi’s Yahsat (Al Yah Satellite Communications), the satellite will offer a high-speed internet service across the Middle East, Africa and Southwest Asia. Elsewhere, DubaiSat-1, a joint satellite initiative between the UAE and South Korea, is returning valuable images of the Earth some three years after it was launched, most recently snapping a picture of the pyramids. A successor mission, DubaiSat-2, is expected to launch in 2013.

United Kingdom

Entrepreneur Richard Branson’s attempts to break world records in skydiving, ballooning across the Pacific and sailing across the Atlantic have attracted much media attention. The space arm of his Virgin businesses, Virgin Galactic, says it is close to launching SpaceShipTwo, a private spacecraft that already has a line-up of about 530 future astronauts wanting to taste sub-orbital travel at US$200,000 apiece. The company plans to fly passengers in 2013. SpaceShipTwo is under development with Scaled Composites, a Californian company.

On the government side of space, the European Space Agency (with participation from the UK) successfully launched the Vega rocket on its first flight in February. Vega, which can send up light satellites into Earth’s orbit, complements its existing medium- and heavy-sized launchers already operating from French Guiana.

United States

The United States shuttle programme is at an end, and the Americans are under immense budgetary pressure as the country dances with the limit of allowed national debt. This is forcing policymakers to reconsider many programmes, including those of its venerable space agency Nasa. Earlier this year, the US pulled out of the ExoMars joint programme with the Europeans, citing budgetary concerns. Several planetary science programmes were also cut or reduced. It is not an easy time for the Americans, but there are several rays of light in this tumultuous time. The US$2.5bn Mars Science Laboratory’s Curiosity rover mission touched down on the red planet in August. It will roam Gale Crater in search of signs of habitable conditions such as water.

Nasa and its private partners are also hard at work on successive human space missions. SpaceX launched Dragon, a privately created spacecraft that carried supplies to the International Space Station, in May. Also, ATK’s Liberty rocket and spacecraft passed key approvals in July and is due to launch astronauts in 2015.

Canada

Although the Canadian Space Agency is undergoing budgetary cuts due to overall government spending measures, Canada is becoming a hotbed of commercial activity as companies look to other nations to drum up business.

Large space company MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, best known for maintaining robotic arm Canadarm and the Radarsat satellites, recently bought an American company, Space Systems/Loral, for US$875m. The acquisition will provide the firm with access to more US customers and increase its commercial business.

A small company called exactEarth is also making waves in the ship tracking business. A subsidiary of the larger satellite component manufacturer Com Dev, it has a constellation of satellites watching the movements of ships below. Each of these ships is required by law to send out signals broadcasting items such as destination and nationality, and exactEarth has a proprietary technology that filters and identifies these signals from space. After four years of tracking ships and selling data on those movements, exactEarth expects to break even next year.

The Canadian Space Agency is also trying to help companies break into new markets. A 2012 trade mission to Russia saw several companies tagging along. No new deals were signed, but more business is expected to come out soon.