Contested Space: The International Race to Study the Unknown
In a fireball of light, sound, and smoke at 6:58 AM Tokyo time, the first mission to Mars by a Middle Eastern nation leaped into the sky on a Japanese rocket near the island of Kyushu, breaking the sound barrier and pushing the deep space probe out of the atmosphere. While the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) Space Agency was only founded in 2014, it has made satellites and likewise technologies since then, and believes that they can do what only four other nations have done: orbit Mars. The probe, called Amal, or Hope in Arabic, is meant to arrive at Mars in early 2021, and use its sensors to detect changes in the Martian atmosphere, as well as learn more about how the planet has changed over time. Roughly four days later in China, a Long March 5 rocket carrying the Tianwen-1 mission to land a rover on Mars was launched, hoping to become only the second nation to land a rover on Mars. Once on the surface, the rover will take pictures of the surrounding landscape and study the chemical makeup of the surrounding soil. This would be a major scientific achievement for China, who is trying to grow its space program to rival that of other world powers. A week later the United States launched their rover called Perseverance to Mars, along with a small automated helicopter to help study a wider area. This would be the first time an aircraft has flown on a different planet. The new rover will look for past signs of life in an ancient river delta and collect samples that will eventually be sent back to Earth by a separate mission.
The number of missions to Mars this summer is relatively unprecedented and is the result of a combination of factors. The first is that Mars is making one of its closest approaches to Earth, which only occurs in two-year cycles. By launching missions during these periods, less fuel is needed, which decreases costs, and also decreases the travel time needed to reach the planet. The secondary reason for this is that more and more nations are becoming interested in space. Though space may seem like a scientific realm reserved for superpowers, the increasing privatization of rocket programs has allowed for access to space to become relatively cheaper. It is also a growing market for communication technologies, and nations may see it as a way to grow financially in the somewhat near future, such as mining rare materials on the Moon or on asteroids to bring back to Earth. As of 2018, seventy-two nations had their own space agencies, and while not all of them have launch capabilities, buying rides on other nations' rockets are a good financial option. Since 2012, more than thirty nations such as Guatemala, Sudan, Bangladesh, New Zealand, Costa Rica, and Nepal have begun to operate their first satellites, while Brazil, Pakistan, and Turkey look to build their own rockets to launch satellites with. Space technologies also create a sense of national pride, can be used as propaganda, and may reflect a nation’s power and prestige. Manned spaceflight is at the pinnacle of this idea, and was the basis for the Space Race of the 1960s. Since then, the only nation to gain a manned spaceflight capability has been China. However, as space becomes more obtainable, more countries are throwing their hats in the ring. India has begun designing its spacecraft that will carry humans by 2022. Others, including Iran, Japan, North Korea, and Turkey, as well as companies and groups in Romania, Denmark, and Ecuador, have all expressed desires to pursue manned spaceflight. While it is likely that only a few of these projects will succeed, the increased interest in spaceflight has made space tourism a possible market, and this investment may allow more groups to pursue such projects.
As this century continues, the world will likely see an ever-expanding number of space-faring nations and businesses, as economics and prestige push humanity farther into the cosmos. Whether space will be an area of cooperation or competition in the future is yet to be seen, but its outcome will have large implications in geopolitics at home.