There is a new order emerging in space – a race between America and China. But with the demands of space exploration, even these great superpowers won’t be able to do it alone.
Hugely technically challenging and costly goals have been touted, not least the aim of people living and working on other worlds, possibly within ten years – but in a divided world where international good will is scarce, are they realistic?
Nasa’s return to the Moon has begun with its Artemis programme. The first of three missions has been successfully launched. This uncrewed flight tested that the rockets and technology worked. The second mission will take humans further in space than they have ever gone before and the third launch will put astronauts on the Moon for a week, where they will carry out experiments. The long-term goal is to use the Moon as a jumping off point to get to Mars.
But the programme is estimated to cost $93bn (£76bn), a heavy price tag for the American taxpayer, who is already feeling the economic squeeze.
In a report to Congress last year, the US Auditor General’s office warned of an “unrealistic development schedule” and likely overruns, adding that Nasa needed to make cost estimates “more reliable and transparent”.
Yet although Nasa will get less overall funding than it asked for in 2023, Congress, at the moment, still supports its human space exploration ventures.
China has achieved its own fully operational space station, Tiangong, in orbit on schedule. The Chinese space programme has launched probes to the Moon and Mars. It plans to establish an unmanned research station on the Moon by 2025 and then land astronauts on its surface by 2030.
Pallab Ghosh and Kate Stephens look at the rapid expansion in space exploration which will lead to people living and working on other worlds.
Putting an astronaut on the Moon has been done before but the next step, to Mars, is much more difficult. It is 250 times further away than the Moon and there is no spacecraft currently capable of sending humans to the red planet.
Even if scientists can find a safe way to launch a fuel-heavy rocket and land it on a planet with such a thin atmosphere, there is the further challenge of returning the astronauts safely home after months in space.
Historically superpowers have jostled for supremacy above the Earth. America and Russia vied for dominance in the 1950s and 1960s. The Russians put the first man in orbit. The Americans landed a man and planted their flag on the Moon a few years later.
In the 1970s a golden era of cooperation was forged culminating in the construction of the International Space Station (ISS), which began in 1998.
Along with 13 other partner nations, the two superpowers built what is now the largest structure in space. It is not owned by any one nation, and each depends on the other to operate.
It was a symbol of what humanity could achieve if nations put aside their differences and worked together.
But the reality was somewhat different. Notably America prevented China from becoming a partner in the ISS, so the Chinese went their own way.
More recently, within weeks of the invasion of Ukraine, nations stopped working with Russia. Two joint Moon missions between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia have been cancelled, as has a joint Mars Rover project to search for signs of life on the red planet.
Yet scratch the surface and collaboration continues on the ISS, where Western countries have to work with Russia to maintain it in orbit. Americans and Europeans even still train in the centre of Moscow at Russia’s Space HQ, Star City.
But what happens once the ISS comes to the end of its lifetime in 2030?
Juliana Suess, a space policy analyst at the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London says Russia has much less to offer partner nations than it once did because its technology is outdated. She raises the possibility that the first nation into space could be the first one out.
“If the Russians haven’t figured out an alternative by the time the ISS is decommissioned or develops its own space station, which given the current circumstances and sanctions is quite unlikely, it might not have any human spaceflight,” she says.
Russia’s plight comes at a time when China’s space programme is advancing rapidly. In the last ten years it has launched more than 200 rockets, even though America’s spending on space still makes China’s look small.
China is mindful that partnerships offer technical know-how and money. It has invited other nations prohibited from access to the ISS to join them and has made a call for proposals for scientific experiments.
Seventy-two countries now have their own space programmes because they can’t afford to be left behind in what has become a new space race.
The billionaire spacefarers
Space is a vital part of our everyday lives. We depend on satellites for weather forecasts, communications, bank transitions, not to mention valuable surveillance tools for nation states. And it’s getting busy out there. In 2021 about 5,000 satellites were launched. Going back 20 years, about 800 were launched annually.
Space is an expensive and technically difficult business. No one country can do it alone. New partnerships are being forged, notably with the new brash billionaires on the block.
Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, is already taking passengers into orbit. The billionaire entrepreneur is bringing down costs with a reusable rocket. Not to be outdone, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos wants to build a commercial orbiting station, called Orbital Reef.
Helen Sharman, who was the UK’s first astronaut, on a mission to the Soviet Space Station Mir in 1991, believes that current international rivalries could be put in the shade by the pragmatism of the private sector.
“It really is going to be commercialisation that brings companies together worldwide,” she told the BBC. “We don’t care where they are registered, what matters is what they do for the benefit of the world.”
The prospect of financial gain and scientific discovery drives collaboration. Private companies may help to bring a new cooperation in space but they have to obey the laws of their home country. When nations imposed sanctions on Russia in 2022 firms were obliged to withdraw from contracts with Russia.
Dr Josef Aschbacher, who is head of the European Space Agency, is determined to keep Europe in the new space race. He has recently had a £2bn ($2.4bn) increase in funding, despite the financial squeeze facing governments.
“Space is one of those sectors which is expanding very fast and much faster now than in the last few decades. We cannot lose out,” he told the BBC. “We really need to participate strongly in this sector because I want to create new business opportunities for companies in our member states to participate in.”
It will be nations that lead space exploration of the future. But the challenges will require them coming together as a single group or “bloc” of countries to share information and to compete with other blocs. The European Space Agency has been doing this successfully for years.
New laws for space
But what is potentially going to hold back the next big push to other worlds is the set of international laws governing space. The marvellously named “Outer Space Treaty” has not been updated since it was signed in 1967, when 31 nations, including the US and the Soviet Union, pledged not to have nuclear weapons in space.
According to Juliana Suess of the Royal United Services Institute, it is not fit for purpose.
“It doesn’t talk about companies; it doesn’t talk about billionaires,” she said. “Space is entirely different to what it was like in 1967.”
New rules to regulate the commercial exploitation of the Moon, Mars and beyond were introduced by the UN in 1979 but the US, China and Russia have all refused to sign it.
ESA’s Josef Aschbacher believes the new space race will be hampered until a new outer space treaty is hammered out.
“In space we are using the same orbits for satellites, using the same Moon surface for China, the US, Europe,” he said. “We need a way to work together to establish rules of engagement and establish rules of how we work there.”
Rare ‘big fuzzy green ball’ comet visible in B.C. skies, a 50000-year sight
In the night sky, a comet is flying by Earth for the first time in 50,000 years.
Steve Coleopy, of the South Cariboo Astronomy Club, is offering some tips on how to see it before it disappears.
The green-coloured comet, named C/2022 E3 (ZTF), is not readily visible to the naked eye, although someone with good eyesight in really dark skies might be able to see it, he said. The only problem is it’s getting less visible by the day.
“Right now the comet is the closest to earth and is travelling rapidly away,” Coleopy said, noting it is easily seen through binoculars and small telescopes. “I have not been very successful in taking a picture of it yet, because it’s so faint, but will keep trying, weather permitting.”
At the moment, the comet is located between the bowl of the Big Dipper and the North Star but will be moving toward the Planet Mars – a steady orange-coloured point of light- in the night sky over the next couple of weeks, according to Coleopy.
“I have found it best to view the comet after 3:30 in the morning, after the moon sets,” he said. “It is still visible in binoculars even with the moon still up, but the view is more washed out because of the moonlight.”
He noted the comet looks like a “big fuzzy green ball,” as opposed to the bright pinpoint light of the stars.
“There’s not much of a tail, but if you can look through the binoculars for a short period of time, enough for your eyes to acclimatize to the image, it’s quite spectacular.”
To know its more precise location on a particular evening, an internet search will produce drawings and pictures of the comet with dates of where and when the comet will be in each daily location.
Coleopy notes the comet will only be visible for a few more weeks, and then it won’t return for about 50,000 years.
Extreme species deficit of nitrogen-converting microbes in European lakes
Sampling of Lake Constance water from 85 m depth, in which ammonia-oxidizing archaea make up as much as 40% of all microorganisms
An international team of researchers led by microbiologists from the Leibniz Institute DSMZ-German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures GmbH in Braunschweig, Germany, shows that in the depths of European lakes, the detoxification of ammonium is ensured by an extremely low biodiversity of archaea. The researchers recently published their findings in the prestigious international journal Science Advances. The team led by environmental microbiologists from the Leibniz Institute DSMZ has now shown that the species diversity of these archaea in lakes around the world ranges from 1 to 15 species. This is of particularly concern in the context of global biodiversity loss and the UN Biodiversity Conference held in Montreal, Canada, in December 2022. Lakes play an important role in providing freshwater for drinking, inland fisheries, and recreation. These ecosystem services would be at danger from ammonium enrichment. Ammonium is an essential component of agricultural fertilizers and contributes to its remarkable increase in environmental concentrations and the overall im-balance of the global nitrogen cycle. Nutrient-poor lakes with large water masses (such as Lake Constance and many other pre-alpine lakes) harbor enormously large populations of archaea, a unique class of microorganisms. In sediments and other low-oxygen environments, these archaea convert ammonium to nitrate, which is then converted to inert dinitrogen gas, an essential component of the air. In this way, they contribute to the detoxification of ammonium in the aquatic environment. In fact, the species predominant in European lakes is even clonal and shows low genetic microdiversity between different lakes. This low species diversity contrasts with marine ecosystems where this group of microorganisms predominates with much greater species richness, making the stability of ecosystem function provided by these nitrogen-converting archaea potentially vulnerable to environmental change.
Maintenance of drinking water quality
Although there is a lot of water on our planet, only 2.5% of it is fresh water. Since much of this fresh water is stored in glaciers and polar ice caps, only about 80% of it is even accessible to us humans. About 36% of drinking water in the European Union is obtained from surface waters. It is therefore crucial to understand how environmental processes such as microbial nitrification maintain this ecosystem service. The rate-determining phase of nitrification is the oxidation of ammonia, which prevents the accumulation of ammonium and converts it to nitrate via nitrite. In this way, ammonium is prevented from contaminating water sources and is necessary for its final conversion to the harmless dinitrogen gas. In this study, deep lakes on five different continents were investigated to assess the richness and evolutionary history of ammonia-oxidizing archaea. Organisms from marine habitats have traditionally colonized freshwater ecosystems. However, these archaea have had to make significant changes in their cell composition, possible only a few times during evolution, when they moved from marine habitats to freshwaters with much lower salt concentrations. The researchers identified this selection pressure as the major barrier to greater diversity of ammonia-oxidizing archaea colonizing freshwaters. The researchers were also able to determine when the few freshwater archaea first appeared. Ac-cording to the study, the dominant archaeal species in European lakes emerged only about 13 million years ago, which is quite consistent with the evolutionary history of the European lakes studied.
Slowed evolution of freshwater archaea
The major freshwater species in Europe changed relatively little over the 13 million years and spread almost clonally across Europe and Asia, which puzzled the researchers. Currently, there are not many examples of such an evolutionary break over such long time periods and over large intercontinental ranges. The authors suggest that the main factor slowing the rapid growth rates and associated evolutionary changes is the low temperatures (4 °C) at the bottom of the lakes studied. As a result, these archaea are restricted to a state of low genetic diversity. It is unclear how the extremely species-poor and evolutionarily static freshwater archaea will respond to changes induced by global climate warming and eutrophication of nearby agricultur-al lands, as the effects of climate change are more pronounced in freshwater than in marine habitats, which is associated with a loss of biodiversity.
Publication: Ngugi DK, Salcher MM, Andre A-S, Ghai R., Klotz F, Chiriac M-C, Ionescu D, Büsing P, Grossart H-S, Xing P, Priscu JC, Alymkulov S, Pester M. 2022. Postglacial adaptations enabled coloniza-tion and quasi-clonal dispersal of ammonia oxidizing archaea in modern European large lakes. Science Advances: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.adc9392
PhDr. Sven-David Müller, Head of Public Relations, Leibniz Institute DSMZ-German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures GmbH
Phone: ++49 (0)531/2616-300
About the Leibniz Institute DSMZ
The Leibniz Institute DSMZ-German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures is the world’s most diverse collection of biological resources (bacteria, archaea, protists, yeasts, fungi, bacteriophages, plant viruses, genomic bacterial DNA as well as human and animal cell lines). Microorganisms and cell cultures are collected, investigated and archived at the DSMZ. As an institution of the Leibniz Association, the DSMZ with its extensive scientific services and biological resources has been a global partner for research, science and industry since 1969. The DSMZ was the first registered collection in Europe (Regulation (EU) No. 511/2014) and is certified according to the quality standard ISO 9001:2015. As a patent depository, it offers the only possibility in Germany to deposit biological material in accordance with the requirements of the Budapest Treaty. In addition to scientific services, research is the second pillar of the DSMZ. The institute, located on the Science Campus Braunschweig-Süd, accommodates more than 82,000 cultures and biomaterials and has around 200 employees. www.dsmz.de
Scientists are closing in on why the universe exists
Particle astrophysicist Benjamin Tam hopes his work will help us understand a question. A very big one.
“The big question that we are trying to answer with this research is how the universe was formed,” said Tam, who is finishing his PhD at Queen’s University.
“What is the origin of the universe?”
And to answer that question, he and dozens of fellow scientists and engineers are conducting a multi-million dollar experiment two kilometres below the surface of the Canadian Shield in a repurposed mine near Sudbury, Ontario.
The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNOLAB) is already famous for an earlier experiment that revealed how neutrinos ‘oscillate’ between different versions of themselves as they travel here from the sun.
This finding proved a vital point: the mass of a neutrino cannot be zero. The experiment’s lead scientist, Arthur McDonald, shared the Nobel Prize in 2015 for this discovery.
The neutrino is commonly known as the ‘ghost particle.’ Trillions upon trillions of them emanate from the sun every second. To humans, they are imperceptible except through highly specialized detection technology that alerts us to their presence.
Neutrinos were first hypothesized in the early 20th century to explain why certain important physics equations consistently produced what looked like the wrong answers. In 1956, they were proven to exist.
Tam and his fellow researchers are now homing in on the biggest remaining mystery about these tiny particles.
Nobody knows what happens when two neutrinos collide. If it can be shown that they sometimes zap each other out of existence, scientists could conclude that a neutrino acts as its own ‘antiparticle’.
Such a conclusion would explain how an imbalance arose between matter and anti-matter, thus clarifying the current existence of all the matter in the universe.
It would also offer some relief to those hoping to describe the physical world using a model that does not imply none of us should be here.
Guests in this episode (in order of appearance):
Benjamin Tam is a PhD student in Particle Astrophysics at Queen’s University.
Eve Vavagiakis is a National Science Foundation Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow in the Physics Department at Cornell University. She’s the author of a children’s book, I’m A Neutrino: Tiny Particles in a Big Universe.
Erica Caden is a research scientist at SNOLAB. Among her duties she is the detector manager for SNO+, responsible for keeping things running day to day.
*This episode was produced by Nicola Luksic and Tom Howell. It is part of an on-going series, IDEAS from the Trenches, some stories are below.
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