Space Nationalism or Multilateralism?

Both Russia and China, among the world’s premier space powers, are now aiming for their own space stations, with the latter having already launched the first of several modules.

After the U.S., Russia is the biggest contributor to the International Space Station, which by some measures the most successful and fruitful space project, and among the most expensive scientific endeavors ever.

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Half the ISS—which involves five space agencies and fifteen countries—is Russian-built and operated, and to this day Russia does most of the legwork in launching both crew and cargo. It was a rare and enduring example of cooperation between two erstwhile rivals, an interesting if fragile antidote to the petty politics on the ground. (Scientists and astronauts from both countries get along pretty well and have consistently collaborated even through the worst flareups of tensions and hostility.)

China was never part of the ISS—a notable absence given its hefty financial resources and technical knowledge—due to a controversial NASA policy implemented by Congress in 2011 that excludes any form of cooperation with any Chinese institution or organization. So I imagine its ambitious attempt at a national space station, like so many of its actions abroad, clearly has a triumphalist “We’ll show you!” aspect to it.

But China’s Tiangong, or “Heavenly Palace”, which is set for completion in just a year, will have only one-sixth the mass of the ISS, and roughly a quarter of its habitable space. This isn’t to say it won’t be an impressive feat—especially for a developing country that remains a byword for cheap consumer goods—but its full potential is likely limited given the sheer costs and complexity of building (and regularly maintaining) a human habitat in space.

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Source: South China Morning Post

Meanwhile, Russia’s plans are less clear: Though it holds many records in space stations—including launching the first one, having the most in total, and having the most experience with space walks and the like—it no longer has the financial resources to back this knowhow. (That’s what made the ISS so successful: What Russia lacked in America’s vast resources it made up for with its proven expertise, and visa versa.)

Even the otherwise prideful U.S.—albeit namely its pragmatic scientists at NASA—has now seemingly realized that space is too big, costly, and complex an endeavor for even superpowers to handle.

Aside from being a key founder of the ISS, which was created to replace a planned U.S. station that would have been too costly, NASA plans to return to humans to the moon for the first time in fifty years through the Artemis Program—a decidedly international effort.

While it will be led primarily by NASA and its mostly American commercial contractors, it will include personnel, tech, and resources from Europe, Japan, Canada, Italy, Australia, the United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, and Brazil. (Believe it or not, those last three do carry a lot of technological heft in space; the UAE has a probe orbiting Mars as we speak, and India is notable for accomplishing many difficult space ventures at fairly low cost.) More countries have been invited and are are expected to join.

The Artemis Program not only aims to put humans (including the first woman) on the Moon by 2024, but has the long-term goal of establishing a lunar base that will be a launchpad for crewed missions to Mars.

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Surprisingly, all this was promulgated during the tenure of a Trump-appointed, former Oklahoma congressman as NASA Administrator, who explicitly modeled the “Artemis Accords”, which broaden international participation in the program, on the United Nations Outer Space Treaty of 1967 (on which most space law is grounded).

To be sure, neither the Artemis Program, nor the Accords that essentially “internationalize” it, are without their criticisms. Many international legal scholars see them as a way for America to apply its own self-interested interpretation of space law that permits commercial exploitation of celestial bodies; as The Verge reports:

[The] Outer Space Treaty is pretty vague — purposefully so — which means there is a lot of room for interpretation on various clauses. The goal of the Artemis Accords is to provide a little more clarity on how the US wants to explore the Moon without going through the slow treaty-making process. “We are doing this in keeping with the Outer Space Treaty,” said Bridenstine, adding that NASA is trying to “create a dynamic where the Outer Space Treaty can actually be enforced.”

One big thing NASA wanted to make clear in the accords is that countries can own and use resources that are derived from the Moon. As part of the Artemis program, NASA hopes to extract lunar materials, such as the Moon’s dirt or water ice that’s thought to be lurking in the shadows of lunar craters. The Outer Space Treaty forbids nations from staking claim to another planetary body, but the policy of the US is that countries and companies can own the materials they extract from other worlds. “Article II of the Outer Space Treaty says that you cannot appropriate the Moon for national sovereignty,” Bridenstine said. “We fully agree with that and embrace it. We also believe that, just like in the ocean, you can extract resources from the ocean. But that doesn’t mean you own the ocean. You should be able to extract resources from the Moon. Own the resources but not own the Moon.”

It’s an interpretation of the Outer Space Treaty that not everyone may agree on. A pair of researchers writing in the journal Science last week have called on countries to speak up about their objections to this interpretation, and that the United States should go through the United Nations treaty process in order to negotiate on space mining. “NASA’s actions must be seen for what they are—a concerted, strategic effort to redirect international space cooperation in favor of short-term U.S. commercial interests, with little regard for the risks involved,” the researchers wrote in Science.

Still, the overall substance and spirit of the Accords — which at just seven pages, makes for an easy read) — seems like the sensible way forward. I know, I know count on the internationalist to reach that conclusion! But really, if we want to maximize humanity’s potential in space, we must do so as, well, humans: unified in our resources, knowhow, innovation, and vision. Given how much has been accomplished by just a handful of nations on their ow — and the number of countries joining the space club grows annually — imagine what a united front can offer?

Given that China and Russia have lunar aspirations of their own—including a joint lunar base that sort of speaks to my point—it will be interesting to see which vision will play out successfully: The Star Trek-style pan-humanist approach, or the more familiar competitiveness and nationalism that characterized the Cold War or even the colonial era.

What are your thoughts?

Happy Birthday to Mir

On this day in 1986, the Soviet Union launched Mir, the first modular space station, the largest spacecraft by mass at that time, and the largest artificial satellite until the International Space Station (ISS) in 1998.

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Assembled in orbit from 1986 to 1996, the station was the result of efforts to improve upon the Soviet Salyut program, which produced history’s first space station. It served as a microgravity research laboratory where crews conducted experiments in biology, human biology, physics, astronomy, meteorology, and spacecraft systems, all with the ultimate goal of preparing humanity for the permanent occupation of space.

Through the “Intercosmos” program, Mir also helped train and host cosmonauts from other countries, including Syria, Bulgaria, Afghanistan, France, Germany, and Canada.

Mir was the first continuously inhabited long-term research station in orbit and held the record for the longest continuous human presence in space at 3,644 days (roughly 10 years), until it was surpassed by the ISS in 2010. It also holds the record for the longest single human spaceflight, with Valeri Polyakov spending 437 days and 18 hours on the station between 1994 and 1995.

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This is all the more remarkable considering that Mir lasted three times longer than planned, and even survived the Soviet Union itself, which collapsed just years after it was launched. The fact that Russia managed to keep it afloat despite its tumultuous post-Soviet transition speaks to both ingenuity and the goodwill of global partners like NASA.

In fact, the U.S. had planned to launch its own rival station, Freedom, while the Soviets were working on Mir-2 as a successor. But both countries faced budget constraints and a lack of political will that ultimately quashed these projects. Instead, the erstwhile rivals came together through the Shuttle–Mir, an 11-mission space program that involved American Space Shuttles visiting Mir, Russian cosmonauts flying on the Shuttle, and an American astronaut flying aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft for long range expeditions aboard Mir.

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With various other nations, from Canada to Japan, also cancelling their own space station programs due to budget constraints, Russia and the U.S. soon brought them into the fold to create a new international space station—today the ISS we all know and love.

Thus, by the time the aging Mir was finally cut loose and allowed to deorbit in 2001, the ISS had already begun taking occupants, building upon the old station’s technical, scientific, and political legacy. (In fact, Russia has contributed most portions of the ISS after the U.S., and both its spaceport and its spacecraft serve as the primary—and for many years, only—source of crew and supplies.)

In its detailed tribute to Mir, NASA notes its importance to all of humanity as a milestone for human space exploration:

“The Russian Space Station Mir endured 15 years in orbit, three times its planned lifetime. It outlasted the Soviet Union, that launched it into space. It hosted scores of crewmembers and international visitors. It raised the first crop of wheat to be grown from seed to seed in outer space. It was the scene of joyous reunions, feats of courage, moments of panic, and months of grim determination. It suffered dangerous fires, a nearly catastrophic collision, and darkened periods of out-of-control tumbling.

Mir soared as a symbol of Russia’s past space glories and her potential future as a leader in space. And it served as the stage—history’s highest stage—for the first large-scale, technical partnership between Russia and the United States after a half-century of mutual antagonism.”

Despite all the geopolitical rivalry and grandstanding that motivated incredible breakthroughs like Mir (and for that matter the Moon landing), the value and legacy of these achievements go far beyond whatever small-mindedness spurred them. Wrapped up in all this brinkmanship was—and still is—a vision of progress for all of humanity.

A fun note about the name: The word mir is Russian for “peace”, “world”, or “village”, and has historical significance: When Tsar Alexander II abolished serfdom (virtual slavery) in 1861, freeing over 23 million people, mir was used to describe peasant communities that thereafter managed to actually own their land, rather than being tied to the land of their lord.

Photos courtesy of Wikimedia.

The Groundbreaking But Largely Forgotten Apollo 8 Mission

On this day in 1969, the U.S. launched Apollo 8, the second manned spaceflight mission in the Apollo space program and the first crewed launch of the Saturn V rocket. Astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders became the first humans to travel beyond low Earth orbit, see all of Earth, orbit another celestial body, see the far side of the Moon, witness and photograph an “Earthrise” (first photo), escape the gravity of another celestial body (the Moon), and reenter Earth’s gravitational well. Apollo 8 was also the first human spaceflight from the Kennedy Space Center, located adjacent to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Originally planned as a test of the Apollo Lunar Module, since the module was not yet ready for its first flight, the mission profile was abruptly changed in August 1968 to a more ambitious flight to be flown in December. Thus, the crew led by Jim McDivitt crew, who were training Apollo Lunar Module, instead became the crew for Apollo 9, while Borman and his men were moved to the Apollo 8 mission. This meant the new Apollo 8 crew had two to three months’ less training and preparation than originally planned, not to mention having to take up translunar navigation training. The crew themselves believed there was only a 50% chance of the mission succeeding.

Fortunately, things went off without a hitch: after almost three days, Apollo 8 reached the Moon. The crew orbited the Moon ten times in 20 hours, during which they made a Christmas Eve television broadcast in which they read the first ten verses from the Book of Genesis—at the time the most watched TV program ever. (In fact, it is estimated that one out of four people alive at the time saw it either live or shortly after.) Even the Chairman of the Soviet Interkosmos program was quoted describing the flight as an “outstanding achievement of American space sciences and technology”.

Although largely forgotten today, Apollo 8 was seen as the joyful culmination of a tumultuous year, rife with political assassinations, instability, and other tragedies worldwide. For a moment, humanity received a well needed morale boost. the success of the mission paved the way for Apollo 11 to fulfill America’s goal of landing a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960s. The Apollo 8 astronauts returned to Earth on December 27, 1968, when their spacecraft splashed down in the northern Pacific Ocean. They were later named TIME’s “Men of the Year” for 1968.

The iconic Earthrise photo has been credited as one of the inspirations of the first Earth Day in 1970; it was selected as the first of Life magazine’s 100 Photographs That Changed the World.

Photos courtesy of Wikimedia.

The International Space Station

One of Wikipedia’s latest featured photos: the International Space Station (ISS), taken in 2011 by Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli from a departing Russian Soyuz spacecraft, while the ISS was docked Space Shuttle Endeavor. It is the largest human-made body in low Earth orbit and can often be seen with the naked eye from Earth, making close to sixteen rotations around Earth daily.

First sent into low Earth orbit in 1998, the space station has been continuously inhabited since 2000; though the last component was fitted in 2011, the station continues to be expanded and developed, with more additions planned for next year. The ISS operated jointly by the American, Russian, Japanese, European, and Canadian space agencies, and has been visited by personnel from seventeen nations. Its ownership and use is governed by various treaties and agreements.

The station is divided primarily between the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS) and the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS). It also consists of pressurized modules, external trusses, solar arrays, and a microgravity and space environment research lab where crew members conduct experiments in biology, physics, astronomy, meteorology, and many other fields. It is also suited for testing spacecraft and equipment required for lunar and Martian missions.

The ISS has been serviced by a variety of spacecraft, including the Russian Soyuz and Progress, the American Dragon and Cygnus, the Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle, and formerly the American Space Shuttle and the European Automated Transfer Vehicle. Since 2011, the Soyuz has been the sole means to transfer personnel, while the Dragon is the only provider of bulk cargo return to Earth.

The ISS is the ninth space station to be inhabited by crews, and only the second not to be Russian, following the Soviet / Russian Salyut, Almaz, and Mir stations and the American Skylab. It also surpassed the record for longest continuous human presence in low Earth orbit, having surpassed Mir’s record of nine years and 357 days.

The station is expected to operate until at least 2028, with the American portion being funded until 2025 and the Russian portion until 2024. Both Russia and America have discussed developing an ISS replacement, although NASA has yet to confirm for certain if this will happen; for their part, the Russians have proposed using elements of their section for a new Russian space station, OPSEK.

The ISS is an enduring, if limited, demonstration of the fruits of global cooperation in space exploration. Various other rising space powers, including Brazil, China, and India have also discussed joining the project, or devising their own space stations.

The World’s Largest Radio Telescope

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Credit: NPR/STR/AFP/Getty Images

Pictured above is the  largest radio telescope in the world, which officially opened this past Sunday and is based Pingtang County in southwest China. The Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST, is, as the name suggests, 500 meters in diameters, which is 40 percent larger than its predecessor and now runner up, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

FAST will be utilized primarily to observe pulsars, the imploded, highly magnetic cores of old stars that emit intense radiation. Locating and understanding pulsars can yield a lot of important information about the universe. FAST is reportedly sensitive enough to detect radio waves from a pulsar 1,351 light-years away; for a point of reference, a single light-year is 9 trillion kilometers, or 6 trillion miles. So, needless to say, this is an impressive display of technological ingenuity, especially from a country that only relatively recently joined the exclusive (though ever-expanding) club of space exploring nations.

As NPR reports, FAST’s incredible capabilities will be applied to more than just pulsar:

Like radio telescopes in other parts of the world, FAST will study interstellar molecules related to how galaxies evolve. For example, this summer a team using data from the Very Large Array, a collection of radio antennas in the New Mexico desert, picked up what scientists describe as “faint radio emission from atomic hydrogen … in a galaxy nearly 5 billion light-years from Earth.” In the paper describing their findings, the team writes that the “next generation of radio telescopes,” like FAST, will build on their findings about how gases behave in galaxies.

As for FAST’s final use, studying interstellar communication signals, it could be more simply referred to as searching for intelligent extraterrestrial life. “In theory, if there is civilization in outer space, the radio signal it sends will be similar to the signal we can receive when a pulsar … is approaching us,” Qian told Chinese state media, according to the science news website Phys.org.

[…]

In an interview with the BBC, the deputy project manager for the new Chinese telescope, Peng Bo, said the project was exciting for Chinese scientists. “For many years, we have had to go outside of China to make observations — and now we have the largest telescope,” he told the BBC.

FAST is only the latest demonstration of China’s scientific prowess in astronomy. In addition to being able to launch its own satellites via domestically designed and build rockets, it is only the third country to send a human into orbit and is also third in independently developing and launching a space station (the second of which was recently and successfully launched). China also has plans for another, more permanent space station by 2020; a manned mission to the Moon, which is to be followed by a permanent lunar base; and  a rover expedition of Mars, to name but a few projects.

China’s contributions towards advancing our understanding of the universe is a welcomed one. As I have noted before, we should set aside nationalist sentiments — however much they are motivating such endeavors — and welcome as many different participants in space exploration as possible, if not for higher ideals of human cooperation than out of a sober acceptance that such efforts require all the resources, capital, and knowledge humanity can pool together.

The Newest and Largest Map of the Milky Way

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Scientific American has announced that the European Space Agency (ESA) just released the largest and most detailed map of our home galaxy (image pictured above).

Catalogued by the agency’s Gaia space observatory, which was launched into Earth orbit in 2013, it pinpoints the position of up to 1.1 billion stars, of which 400 million are newly discovered. Continue reading

Space Law

When it comes to space exploration, law is probably furthest consideration from anyone’s mind. But an article in Foreign Policy examines the importance of developing a more sophisticated, comprehensive legal framework to govern human activities beyond Earth. A rather obscure U.N. agency, joined by similarly lesser known experts and institutions, recently convened a special session on this matter. Continue reading

Our Unimaginably Large Universe

A team of scientists from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and its Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey have created a 3D map that plots 1.2 million galaxies. The end result can be seen below.

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Daniel Eisenstein / SDSS-III Collaboration

This image contains 48,741 galaxies, about 3 percent of the total data — so each dot represents one whole galaxy, which in turn contains millions of stars (for point of reference, our Milky Way Galaxy alone has approximately 100 million stars).

Moreover, all this only covers about 1/20th of the sky, or about 650 cubic billion light years, which is just a quarter of the known universe, which in total is 6 billion light-years wide, 4.5 billion light-years high, and 500 million light-years thick. It is an unfathomable scale to comprehend, and very humbling to reflect upon.

Source: The Verge

 

Ancient Babylonians Were Centuries Ahead of the World in Astronomy

Emerging nearly four thousand years ago in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), the Babylonians were one of humanity’s first civilizations. Indeed, they constituted a “cradle” of civilization — among the handful of societies that first developed urban centers, sophisticated forms of communication (i.e. writing), and complex sociopolitical systems.

Millennia later, the legacy of the Babylonians continues to impress. According to new research published in Science and reported in ScienceAlert, they had astronomy out long before telescopes even existed.  Continue reading

The 30th Anniversary of the Mir Space Station

Despite my love for all things space and history, it almost eluded me that last Saturday, February 20, was the 30th anniversary of the launching of Mir, humanity’s first continuously inhabited space station, and until recently the longest-lasting. In its heyday — which remarkably persisted for far longer than originally intended — Mir was the epitome of human ingenuity, curiosity, and perseverance. As Vice’s Motherboard column recounts, the venerable Russian space station was the unlikely watershed for humanity’s exploration of the stars.

This station outlived the Soviet regime that conceived and bore it, and died in the shadow of its successor and beneficiary, the International Space Station. It was home to 104 astronauts during its 15 year lifespan, and completed its projected mission duration three times over. It was a pivotal stepping stone in human spaceflight, a technological and geopolitical bridge between millennia, and an enduring symbol of peace on Earth and off it.

It was also a notorious dump that reeked of mould, mites, and astronaut BO. British astronaut Helen Sharman, who visited the station in 1991, recalled that “the lights kept going out because it had developed so many electrical problems”. British-American astronaut Michael Foale, who lived on Mir during for four months in 1997, said it was “a bit like a frat house, but more organized and better looked after.”

Like some of the most beloved fictional spaceships—the Millennium Falcon, Battlestar Galactica, or Serenity, for instance—Mir was simultaneously regarded as a resilient survivor and a derelict piece of junk.

Some skeptics were even less forgiving in their judgment of Mir’s repeated flirtations with catastrophe, calling the station a “lemon”, a “time bomb”, and even a “death trap”.

Among the numerous incidents mentioned in the article (and well worth reading for yourself) were three collisions, one of which led to the permanent, functional loss of an entire block; a massive fire hot enough to burn through metal, which persisted for fifteen minutes and blanketing the station in smoky debris; and basketball-sized globs of dirty water laden with microbes, which were floating freely around the station.

All this plus a host of other smaller threats, such as computer glitches, power outages, coolant leaks, corrosive mold, and still more.

Needless to say, Mir would hardly have seemed to be such a promising benchmark for human progress in space. Yet the station’s ability to endure all these never-before-faced challenges — due in no small part to the resourcefulness, courage, and tenacity of its cosmonauts — is precisely what makes it such an incredible step for our species.

Indeed, the scruffy nature of Mir has become one of its most defining—and endearing—qualities in retrospect. It is legitimately astonishing that nobody was killed or seriously injured on this accident-prone ragamuffin of a station, when you consider the all the wild cards that were in play. If astronauts had died, of course, we would construct a very different legacy around its tenure in space, tempered by that grim reality.

But because Mir managed to lackadaisically extricate itself out of every scrape it got into like some spacefaring Bugs Bunny, it’s now remembered as a plucky trailblazer that always beat the odds rather than the “death trap” some considered it to be at the time. We love lucky heroes, and Mir hit that archetype out of the park.

To add to that, Mir was a phenomenal success for the global spaceflight community despite all of its problems. Thousands of experiments were conducted during its stint in orbit, revealing valuable insights about the biomedical, technological, and political challenges of operating a long-term base in space.

Unsurprisingly, Mir would prove to be the ultimate testing ground for generations of spacefarers, subsequently producing some of the most experienced and accomplished cosmonauts in the world.

Valeri Vladimirovich Polyakov still maintains the record for the longest single spaceflight, having spent 437 consecutive days and 18 hours at the station from 1994 to 1995. While Polyakov did report mood fluctuations when he arrived at Mir and when he returned to Earth, he has not suffered any long term health effects as a consequence of his time in space.

Mir cosmonauts also hold down the second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth places on the single spaceflight leaderboard (fun fact: Polyakov comes in at both first and sixth place). To put that into perspective, the ISS One Year Crew, comprised of American astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko, is expected to arrive home next month after 342 days in orbit. But that achievement will only nudge them into fourth place behind the insane spaceflight records left by Mir cosmonauts.

Given all this, it is little wonder that Mir laid the technological groundwork for its spiritual successor, the International Space Station, for which the Russians have continued to play a leading role, from its construction to the supply of materials and staff.

But in addition to its technical legacy, Mir pioneered the idealism that has always, to some degree, imbued space exploration. It was the crucible in which international collaboration could be achieved, even in the midst of the Cold War.

This intent on behalf of the Soviets—then later, the Russians—to use the space station as a symbol of humanity’s noblest qualities was embedded right into the mission’s name. The Russian space program has always had a particular knack for coming up with concise yet semantically potent names for its programs from Sputnik, meaning “fellow traveler”, to Soyuz, meaning “union”.

Likewise, the word “mir” in Russian can be translated as “peace”, “world”, or “village”, and it apparently has many subtler historical shades as well. NASA astronaut Frank Culbertson, who managed the Shuttle-Mir program, laid out some of them in his 1996 essay on Mir, entitled “What’s in a Name?”

This was more than just propaganda: Mir would come to live up to its namesake by hosting several joint missions with the United States and various other nations. Thus the plucky, ramshackle marvel of human ingenuity (if not stubbornness) would prove that the divided nations of the world — for practical reasons as much as idealistic ones — can and would come together to achieve great things in space.

As Mir’s thirtieth birthday passes, here is hoping that its legacy can continue to spur the human race into pooling its resources, technology, and know-how into the next great endeavor of our species’ history. Given recent geopolitical events, it seems like an unlikely prospect; but if it could pulled off during the tense decades of the Cold War, whose to say we cannot transcend current Earthly squabbles once more?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons