Cooperation needed in space exploration
- With the United States leading the way, the foundation is being laid for a manned mission to Mars
- Such efforts can show what humans can achieve when they work together
For many people, the new year comes with many risks, from global capital markets to geopolitics. But for space scientists, it’s been an auspicious start. That’s because the New Horizons probe, sent by the American space agency Nasa more than a decade ago, has flown by and explored an icy small world called Ultima Thule that is also the most distant place ever visited by a man-made craft.
The 33km-by-15km object orbits on the Kuiper Belt disc at the outer edge of our solar system. How far is it from Earth? A whopping 6.4 billion kilometres. New Horizons is already sending data back to Earth, including close-up images of Ultima Thule. By studying its origin, scientists expect to gain insights into how planets and the solar system were formed.
In 2015, New Horizons made a similar fly-by to explore Pluto, the first spacecraft to have done so. The project is perhaps the best kind of American technological ingenuity and leadership. Quite a few countries have active space agencies, but none has been as successful as Nasa, which has, as the Star Trek saying goes, boldly gone where no man has gone before. Nasa is also freely sharing valuable data with anyone or any country that takes an interest in the mission.
The next few years will be busy ones for Nasa and other space agencies, including China’s. The moon is about to get busy with visitors. The Chinese Chang’e 4 landed on Thursday on the moon’s far side – the side that always faces away from Earth. It may be followed by more landing craft from Israel and India.
Chang’e 5 is already scheduled for another visit late this year to collect lunar samples and possibly return them to Earth.
Meanwhile, the US, China, India, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and the European Union are all planning their own missions to Mars in 2020. They follow the arrival of Nasa’s InSight lander on the red planet last month.
Such missions are laying the foundation for planetary travels. It seems only a matter of time, perhaps decades, for humans to land on Mars. Led by America, such efforts should be cooperative and show what humans could achieve when they work together. This is the kind of leadership the world can and will admire about the US.