Countries around the globe are launching successful missions. The question is whether they will compete or collaborateby Philip Ball / January 8, 2019 / Leave a comment
I can’t remember a year that kicked off with quite as much excitement about space as this one, which partly explains why I found myself sitting in the BBC studios at an absurd hour on the morning of New Year’s Day to talk about it. The Chinese space programme was about to land its mission Chang’e 4 on the far side (don’t say the dark side) of the Moon, while NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft was fast closing in on a bizarre object in the outer reaches of the solar system called Ultima Thule, revealing with unnerving seasonality that it resembles nothing so much as a giant snowman. And all in the year that marks the 50th anniversary of the first Apollo moon landings.
There’s more on the way, though not so imminently. The BepiColombo mission, a collaboration between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), is currently hurtling towards Mercury, the smallest and least explored of our neighbouring planets. But it won’t arrive there until 2025, because, ESA’s adviser for space exploration Mark McCaughrean explained to me as we munched soggy toast at the BBC, it must take a circuitous route to shed all the speed it gathers as it travels inwards towards the Sun, allowing it to enter orbit around the planet. ESA should also this autumn launch a space telescope called CHEOPS to investigate the known planets around other stars, while NASA’s Mars InSight lander, which touched down on the red planet last November, will be getting down to work drilling into the surface and sensing seismic vibrations to better understand the planet’s interior. And JAXA’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft and rovers are currently busy investigating the asteroid 162173 Ryugu, on which the first two rovers touched down last September.
Humankind is, then, currently studying the solar system from its innermost to outermost regions. And with both the Moon and Mars under renewed scrutiny while we remember Neil Armstrong’s first footprint in the lunar dust, there is bound to be discussion of the prospect of getting a human presence once again beyond earth orbit—perhaps first on the Moon, then Mars.
Chang’e 4 landed safely on the Moon on 3rd January—the first time a spacecraft has touched down on the far side, which…