Mathilde Minet

The Artemis Program Or The Return of Man On the Moon

The Artemis Program has the ambitious goal to land the first woman and the next man on the Moon by 2024.

Named after Artemis, the Greek goddess of the Moon and twin sister to Apollo, the program will lead humanity back to the Moon and prepare it for the exploration of Mars. In the NASA’s Lunar Exploration Program Overview, Jim Bridenstine stated that: “Pushing the boundaries of space exploration, science, and technology once again, America is on the verge of exploring more of the Moon than ever before“.

Almost 50 years have passed since astronauts last walked on the Moon. Since then the American space program was mainly focused on a robotic space exploration and on the mastery of low Earth orbit through the Space Shuttle program and collaboration with the Mir station and the International Space Station (ISS).

However the last decades have been rich in information and knowledge gained. Space probes sent through space and rovers sent to Mars have enabled us to recover an enormous amount of data on the planets of the Solar system. In 20 years of continuous occupation, the ISS has allowed us both to carry out a number of scientific experiments and to better understand how the human body reacts in micro gravity and to the radiations emitted for instance. All this with the ultimate goal in mind of preparing for the first manned mission to Mars.

On March 2019, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced that the White House asked NASA to accelerate its human space exploration programs and to fly astronauts to the Moon by 2024. Pence explained that the mission will be characterized by the fact that “The first woman and the next man on the Moon will both be American astronauts, launched by American rockets from American soil“.

Why Go Back To The Moon?

On December 2017, U.S President Donald Trump issued the Presidential Memorandum on Reinvigorating America’s Human Space Exploration Program, also known as the Space Policy Directive 1. Almost indistinguishable from Obama’s space policy, this memorandum reaffirmed the will of the United States to return to the Moon as soon as possible.

After a decade of operation, the Apollo program was stopped in 1972 for political and financial reasons. Those in charge of the program could no longer justify its high cost to a Congress and a public that had lost interest in the missions. Moreover the goal of this program, which was to beat the Soviet Union in the space race was completed in 1969, so why continue such an expensive program? Therefore, after several years of lack of interest why is the Moon once again the center of attention?

There are a multitude of reasons for this. First of all, the exploration and exploitation of the Moon are necessary if one wishes to send men to Mars. A manned mission on the red planet is a real challenge which requires of lot of data, knowledge and experience to design and optimize all aspects of such a mission i.e the propulsion system, the spaceship, the habitats, the space suits but also the fuel management, the management of vital resources, the human reaction etc. 400.000 kilometers away, the Moon is still hostile territory little known to humans that will have to be understood. Still the Moon will provide a safer ground to test the technologies that will take humans to Mars and beyond, as in case of an accident rescue could be quickly send.

Second, the return of man to the Moon is justified by the many scientific discoveries of recent years. The rovers sent to our natural satellite have discovered sources of frozen water that could potentially serve as drinkable water for humans in the future. But mostly at a chemical level, water can be broken down into oxygen and hydrogen atoms. Oxygen alone can be used as a breathable air for humans and oxygen combined with hydrogen can be used as rocket propellant.

Rare earths elements deposits were also discovered on the Moon, which are widely used in several industries such as new technologies and automobile but these resources on Earth are quite low and are running out.

Helium-3 in abundance was also detected. This element would provide a clean source of nuclear energy, whose supposed abundance would be sufficient to meet the energy needs of humanity over several millennia. Therefore the Moon could become the future gas station for space ships heading to Mars and beyond in the next decades.

As a result of all these scientific discoveries, the Moon could become the place of commerce in a near future. More and more private companies are entering the space activities market and hence the Moon represents a business opportunity: helium-3 or rare earth elements mining, launch of payload for scientific research etc.

Finally, this desire to return to the Moon can also be justified by a more human or philosophical reason. Indeed, of the twelve men who walked on the Moon, only 4 are still alive: Buzz Aldrin (90), David Scott (87), Charles Duke (83) and Harrison Schmitt (84). The risk is to soon find ourselves in a world where no man has walked on the Moon, which is an idea that runs counter to the progress of technology.

But why 2024? As explained in NASA’s Lunar Exploration Program Overview of September 2020, the United States are currently the leader of space exploration but more and more countries as well as private companies are starting to have the capacity to carry out complex missions such as sending rovers on the Moon and soon they will also be able to send men on it. So if the United States wants to maintain its leadership position in the field, the country must return to the Moon as soon as possible and 2024 is the earliest date possible to achieve this mission.

The Artemis Transportation System

NASA has decided to only use the Space Launch System as the launch vehicle for the Artemis missions. The Space Launch System (SLS) is a super heavy-lift launch vehicle developed by NASA since 2011. SLS represents the new generation of NASA’s launch vehicle and will be used for the agency deep space exploration plans. Currently SLS undergoes the final test of the Green Run test series which is a comprehensive assessment of the rocket’s core stage.

SLS will launch the Orion spacecraft, a partially reusable space capsule manufactured both by Lockheed Martin and Airbus Defense and Space. Orion is designed to serve in deep space exploration missions. The testing phase was over for Orion, but engineers recently discovered that one of its instruments had suffered a failure, which apparently will not affect Artemis I.

In parallel the Lunar Gateway is a project led by NASA but in cooperation with Canada, Europe and Japan, that consists of a small space station placed in lunar orbit. It will be used as a communication hub, a science laboratory, a short-term habitation module as well as well as an area for rovers and robots. The Lunar Gateway will be used in the Artemis program but is expected to fully serve future missions towards the Moon and Mars.

The Objectives Of Artemis

Science Goals, as defined by NASA, in its Artemis Plan are the following:

  • Understanding planetary processes;
  • Understanding volatile cycles;
  • Interpreting the impact history of the Earth-Moon system;
  • Revealing the record of the ancient Sun;
  • Observing the universe from a unique location;
  • Conduction experimental science in the lunar environment;
  • Investigating and Mitigating exploration risks to humans.

As explained by Sarah Noble, a lunar program scientist at NASA, humans will allow to perform more subtle experiments and investigations, something that currently impossible for rovers. She continued by saying that “We have opposable thumbs, which makes it easier to do more complicated things like drilling cores and digging trenches“. On top of that astronauts will react more quickly which will allow us to get through missions quicker.

The Artemis program is divided into three missions.

Firstly, on April 2021 Artemis I will take place. It is an uncrewed mission that will test the Space Launch System and the Orion module.

Then in late 2022 there will be Artemis II which will send a four astronauts crew to the lunar environment. The crew will fly the Orion module beyond the Moon, complete a lunar flyby and return to Earth. The 10 day mission will collect flight data and help confirm the communication and navigation systems.

And finally the third mission, the climax, Artemis III will send the first woman and the next man on the Moon, on the lunar south pole, by 2024.

Woman On The Moon

All the astronauts who walked on the Moon were men. The Artemis III mission will therefore send a woman to the Moon for the first time.

Recently eighteen astronauts have been selected to be part of the Artemis program, among them nine are women: Kayla Barron, Christina Koch, Nicole Mann, Anne McClain, Jessica Meir, Jasmin Moghbeli, Kate Rubins, Jessica Watkins and Stephanie Wilson.

Several women have marked the history of the conquest of space. Valentina Tereshkova became in 1963 the first woman in space. Astronaut Mae Jemison became the first African American woman to travel to space. But it was only in 2008 that for the first time a woman became commander of a mission, when Peggy Whitson was named commander of the International Space Station (ISS).

For a very long time, the milieu remained predominantly male oriented. But things have started to change for the past few years and new steps have recently been taken for women in space. The first all-women spacewalk was conduct on October 18, 2019 by Christina Koch and Jessica Meir.

Sending a woman to the Moon is therefore an important step, which will be highly symbolic.

The Artemis program is shaping up to be the next major step in the conquest of space and will surely inspire the new generation to pursue scientific careers. It will also revive the general public’s interest in space.

But the date of 2024 appears more and more as too short of a deadline. Remember that 2024 was also chosen because it coincided with the end date of a possible second term of Donald Trump. Due to the Covid-19 crisis and restrictive funding, the future Biden Administration may slow down Artemis program.

Understanding the UAE Space Vision through its Program and Law

Created in 2014, the United Arab Emirates Space Agency (UAESA) is the space agency of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a country composed of seven emirates: Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain.

The UAE Space Program

At first the UAE proposed in 2008 to create a civilian space agency common to several countries of the Arabian Peninsula, similar to the European Space Agency. The main interest of such an agency was to reduce the costs of launching satellites and to create a research center that would bring together researchers and scientists from all over the region.

However, few discussions followed this proposal and this project was therefore abandoned, probably due to other countries’ lack of interest in this field. In 2014, the UAE ended up founding their own space agency and establishing partnership with the French and British space agencies.

Having just entered the international scene, the UAE space agency has four main objectives: develop an internationally renowned space program, promote research and innovation in space sciences and technologies within the country, inspire young Emiratis to pursue careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and finally to create strong international cooperations with other space agencies.

Currently the UAESA revolves around two main missions. The first one is the Emirates Mars mission, led by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre. The Hope orbiter was launched during Mars’ last launch window on July 19, 2020. The mission of the Hope space probe will be to study the daily and seasonal weather cycles of Mars as well as the variations of the weather in the different regions of the planet. It will also collect data to try to understand how the Martian atmosphere has eroded and evaporated. The recovered data will be shared freely with more than 200 insistions worldwide.

The second mission is the Emirates Lunar Mission. On September 29, 2020, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum announced the first UAE uncrewed mission to the Moon for 2024. The mission will consist of sending a rover named Rashid (after the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum who is considered as the builder and the moderniser of Dubai) to explore unknown areas of the Moon. This program follows the worldwide trend of returning to the Moon, whether by sending rovers or by the soon to be return of man on our satellite.

Whereas the Hope Mars Mission was built in the US by both US and Emirati engineers, the lunar mission is entirely design, develop and conduct by the UAE. It will explore the lunar surface by studying the lunar soil, its formation, its components and its thermal properties. It will also allow the UAE Space Agency to test new robotic, navigation and communication technologies.

If the UAE can successfully complete this mission, it will demonstrate an important technical capacity to develop and conduct space missions on the Moon, as it is no easy thing. As of today, only three countries have successfully landed on the Moon: the United States, the Soviet Union and China. A lot of countries have tried but failed to do so, the latest being India Chandrayaan-2 mission in 2019.

Space Tourism: A New Economic Sector?

United Arab Emirates have seen their economy grow at an exponential rate these last decades thanks to three main economic sectors. Between 2000 and 2018, the country’s Gross Domestic Product grew by almost 4% every year.

The three pillars of UAE economy are: business and finance, oil and gas and tourism. The tourism sector keeps progressing in this country where everything is done to promote it and attract tourists. Dubai has been one of the most popular destinations for several years. But the oil and gas sector is starting to decline, and will no longer be seen as an attractive sector in a few years due to resource depletion. This decline has also been greatly accentuated with the Covid crisis.

The UAE are then looking for new promising sectors to diversify their economy in order to remain an economic power: space tourism could well be one of these new sectors. Thus in March 2019, UAESA signed a memorandum with the Abu Dhabi Airports Company to potentially use the Al Ain International Airport as a future space port.

Furthermore, as proof of the interest shown by the UAE in space tourism, the country is one of the principal investors and owners of Virgin Galactic, one of the most advanced private companies in the development of space tourism. Hence the memorandum of March 2019 represents a major opportunity for Virgin Galactic by providing it with a spaceport.

The UAE Space Law

Due to its growing space business sector, the UAE Space Agency announced on February 24, 2020, a new space law in order to create a legislative and regulatory environment for the national space sector.

The main goal of implementing a new space law is to build a strong and sustainable UAE space sector as well as to adhere to International treaties, a necessity especially if the UAE wants to expand its regional and international presence and leadership in space activities and exploration.

Dr. Ahmed Al Falasi explained that “The new law regulates space activities to facilitate the development of a prosperous and safe space sector in the UAE, which realises our wise leadership’s vision for the sector“. UAE space law is in line with the principles set by the UAE Visions 2021, which are to create a more diversified and sustainable economy based on knowledge and innovation.

To regulate the new space activities sector, the law is divided in 9 chapters and contains 54 articles. It lays down many rules, in particular on the issuing of space activity permits, for the registration of space objects and vehicles, but also rules about responsibility and insurance regulation, space accidents regulation, the utilisation of space resources and the management of space debris.

The National Space Policy asserts the UAE recognition of the right of all nations to explore and use space for peaceful purposes and for the benefit of humanity.

Despite a very recent space program, the United Arab Emirates is already starting to be one of the most serious and advanced countries in the field of space activities, at least in the region of the Arabian Peninsula. If the missions to Mars and the Moon prove to be successful, the country will surely be part of the closed club of space powers. What sets the country apart from the others is that it plans its space program in the very long term. Indeed, it was predicted that in the early 2100s, the UAE will establish a human colony on Mars.

In the short term, the 2020 decade already seems to be promising for the United Arab Emirates.

Galileo Constellation: The Independence of Europe

Named after the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei who first defined the notion of natural satellite, Galileo is Europe’s global navigation satellite system.

The system has been active since December 15, 2016 when the initial services became operational with the positioning of the first fifteen satellites. Subsequently, the number of satellites was gradually enlarged and it should be complete by the beginning of the 2020s when the 30 satellites of the constellation (including 24 operational and 6 spare) will be operational. As of March 4, 2020, 26 satellites have been launched and 22 are operational.

The idea of a European navigation system emerged in people’s minds during a forum in Brussels in 1998. Discussions revolved around a European positioning and navigation network. The project will finally be launched on May 26, 2003 with an agreement signed between the European Union and the European Space Agency. In 2005 and 2008, the GIOVE-A and GIOVE-B satellites were respectively placed in orbit. Their main objective was to test future technologies used by Galileo satellites but also to reserve the frequencies that will be utilized by the Galileo constellation. The first operational Galileo satellites were launched from 2011.

Galileo operational satellites use a dual frequency system and are positioned in three circular Medium Earth Orbit planes at an altitude of 23 222 kilometers and at an inclination of 56 degrees to the equator. Since each satellite has an atomic clock, the Galileo positioning system will have a precision between 1 and 2 meters while the precision of the American GPS is around 5 to 10 meters. Rescue services and professionals would even be able to benefit from a centimeter-precision if the conditions are ideal. However, with the exception of emergency services, this extraordinary precision will only be available for certain paid services.

The main objective of the Galileo positioning and navigation system is to offer Europe independence from the American GPS system. The GPS, or Global Positioning System, was developed by the American army, which in 1973 created the first satellite positioning system. Currently essential in our everyday life, this new technology was initially strictly reserved for the army before opening up to civilian applications in the 2000s.

The major problem is that the GPS system does not offer a guarantee of service. The United States may well decide to degrade or cut the signal to other countries. Used in many sectors, a deterioration or even a break in the service could have serious consequences.

Galileo is therefore a civil system whose funding is completely public: no private company was able to participate in the funding of the project. Consequently, the European Union is the sole owner of Galileo. Some countries, such as China, Norway and Switzerland, have contributed financially to the program while other countries have signed agreements with the European Union to be able to use Galileo.

The European Union is therefore gaining independence and sovereignty of the utmost importance, in the strategic areas of geo-tracking and time frames, particularly used for financial transactions and television. Galileo guarantees a quality threshold for critical applications in several sectors.

In reaction to this new independence and sovereignty of Europe, the United States attempted to have the project cancelled, both by preventing the use of Galileo by other countries and at the same time by directly preventing Europe to acquire its independence in the fields of satellites and telecommunications. In the end, the United States accepted the project and on June 26, 2004, the GPS-Galileo Agreement was signed. The agreement provides a framework for cooperation between the two entities and allows the coexistence of both GPS and Galileo.

Unlike the American GPS and Russian GLONASS systems, Galileo is under civilian control and provides extremely reliable positioning with high timing accuracy thanks to its new technology. Therefore Galileo will have many areas of application. The system is and will be used on a daily basis, with smartphones and connected cars for example. But the system will mainly be used by professionals. Indeed, it finds applications in emergency services, in the maritime, rail, air (to better control air traffic) and agricultural (used to maximize yields and optimize the use of fertilizers and herbicides) fields.

The European system seems set to become over the next few years the first navigation system used in the world, in particular thanks to the fact that chips used in new smartphones automatically choose the most precise positioning system. Currently, more than a billion smartphones are compatible with Galileo.

Given the success of Galileo, the European Commission has decided to accelerate the development of Galileo Next Generation whose second generation satellites are set to be launched in 2024. The renewal of the Galileo constellation will provide the services and capabilities offered by the current first generation but with a lot of improvements as well as new services and capabilities. Furthermore the second generation of Galileo satellites will be able to reconfigure its orbit to adapt to different needs.

The Galileo positioning and navigation system is a real success for the European Union, which shows its ability to be a leader in advanced technologies and that it does not have to depend on the United States. Through Galileo, we can observe the success of a precise and efficient positioning and navigation system resulting from public funding and collaboration of several countries.

Hayabusa 2: The Success Of A Unique Mission

Hayabusa 2 is a space probe from JAXA, the Japanese space agency. Launched on December 3, 2014, it achieved the feat of bringing back to Earth samples of an asteroid.

Hayabusa 2 was preceded by the Hayabusa mission, launched in 2003. The objective of this mission was to study the small asteroid Itokawa as well as to carry out several tests of robotic exploration techniques. The Hayabusa space probe had carried several scientific instruments for this purpose. After two years of travel, the Hayabusa space probe eventually reached the asteroid Itokawa in 2005. However and despite several attempts to land on the asteroid, no sampling was successful due to the very low gravity of Itokawa. On its return, a small sample of dust was still collected. The probe’s return trip to Earth did not go as planned, and the Hayabusa probe eventually landed on Earth in 2010, three years after the original arrival date.

The Hayabusa 2 Mission

Technically speaking, the Hayabusa 2 space probe is identical to its predecessor, except for the collection method used.

The objective of the Hayabusa 2 space probe is the study of the asteroid Ryugu, of type C. This category simply refers to carbonaceous asteroids that are C-shaped. This asteroid shape represents about 75% of known asteroids and contains potentially organic materials, a characteristic sought in order to better understand the development of the Solar system.

Two main objectives were assigned to Hayabusa 2. Initially the probe was to study the asteroid Ryugu as a whole and from distance using several scientific instruments such as a near infrared spectrometer, a laser altimeter or multispectral cameras. Then in a second step, the probe had to collect samples in order to study the Ryugu composition.

The Proceedings of The Mission

The first phase of the mission began on December 3rd, 2014 with the launch of the space probe from the Tanegashima launch base. After launch, the transit phase began, during which the space probe used its ionic propulsion (acceleration of ions at very high speed) to adjust its trajectory. The route plan of the Hayabusa 2 probe was determined so that in 2015 the probe would fly over the Earth and use gravity assistance to gain speed. Subsequently, several speed and trajectory adjustments were made between 2016 and 2017 before June 27, 2018, when Hayabusa 2 space probe arrived near the asteroid Ryugu.

The second phase could then begin. The first two months of the mission were purely dedicated to the remote analysis of Ryugu in order to better understand its physical characteristics and therefore to determine the most suitable landing sites. Performing a landing maneuver is never easy, but performing one on an asteroid is even harder. The landing site must meet several criteria: not be located more than 200 meters from the equator so that the teams can monitor operations, the inclination of the ground in relation to the Sun must not exceed 30° in order to receive sufficient lighting and the temperature must be below 97° Celsius. Hence the global study of Ryugu.

Once the data had been collected, the Japanese teams were able to choose the most suitable landing site. But before that, two rehearsals were organized to make sure that the automatic sequence of operations of the Hayabusa 2 probe was correct.

In parallel, the probe deposited on Ryugu, on September 22 and October 3, 2018, mini-rovers in addition to the MASCOT lander, which made it possible to send up-close photos of the asteroid. The MASCOT lander, developed by the German space agency in collaboration with the French space agency, also performed an in situ mineralogical analysis of the asteroid ground.

The third and most important phase of the mission, the sampling, was postponed until February 2019. Finally, after several years, on February 21, 2019 the Hayabusa 2 space probe began its descent towards the surface of Ryugu. This method is simple: the probe hits the ground of the asteroid, with enough pressure to create an impact. This impact raises a cloud of dust which then should penetrate into a cone before being stored in the compartments provided for this purpose.

As of April 2019, the goal for Hayabusa 2 is to dig a crater and collect a sample from the deeper layers of the asteroid. The aim is to obtain, among other data, the characteristics of the soil unaltered by the exposure of the space vacuum, to measure the degree of fragmentation of the rocks and to measure the size of a crater on Ryugu as a result of its impact.

To carry out this mission, the probe released an impactor, before quickly moving away to avoid any fallout. Then after a while, she dropped a camera to film the impact. Most of the models predicted that the diameter of the impact will be around 10 meters, the camera showed that it was actually 20 meters.

Then came the difficult question of a second sample. Sampling presents many risks for the space probe, and could damage it when the first sampling seemed to be a success. The Japanese teams wondered if they should be reasonable and not tempt the devil? Or should they be greedy and attempt a second sample at the risk of losing the first? The second option was chosen and on July 11, 2019, Hayabusa 2 obtained a second sampling.

Once its missions were completed, Hayabusa 2 returned to Earth on November 13, 2019. More than a year later, the capsule detached from the space probe and landed in the Woomera Desert in Australia on December 5, 2020.

What’s Next?

The mission control team was never 100% sure that Ryugu’s sample collection was successful. Their joy was great when they saw that Hayabusa 2 had indeed collected samples from Ryugu and that in addition the harvest was good: it seems that the probe recovered 1 gram of matter while the objective set was 100 milligrams.

The samples will be analyzed at the JAXA Extraterrestrial Sample Conservation Center, and the analysis will be carried out by an international team with French researchers.

There is a scientific consensus to say that this mission is exceptional and that its success is a real feat. The samples taken will allow us to learn more about the phases of formation of the solar system and the role of asteroids in the emergence of life on Earth.

The mission control team noticed that the Hayabusa 2 space probe was still in perfect working order and still had half of its fuel reserve. Hayabusa 2 was sent to study the asteroid 1998 KY26, and is expected to reach it in July 2031.

The Chang’e 5 Mission: Aims And Consequences

Named after the Chinese Moon goddess, Chang’e is a lunar sample return space probe. Chang’e 5 is part of the Chinese lunar exploration program, and was set up by the Chinese space agency (CNSA). The space probe was developed and then built by China Aerospace Science and Technology corporation (CASC), a Chinese state-owned company, founded in 1999, that brings together most of the country’s research, design and manufacturing centers in the space sector. CASC is, in particular, in charge of the development of Long March rockets.

Approved in 2011, the Chang’e program contains Chang’e 1 and 2 which are orbiters and Chang’e 3 and 4 which are landers. The mission really began in 2014 when Chang’e 5 T1 was launched in order to test the reentry capsule and the various maneuvers in lunar orbit.

The proceeding of the mission

Chang’e 5 was launched on November 23, 2020 on board of the Long March 5 rocket. Chang’e 5 unit was composed of four modules: the lander, the ascender, the orbiter and the returner.

Once the space probe reached the Moon orbit, Chang’e 5 unit split in two parts: on one hand the lander and ascender that landed together on the surface of the Moon to collect samples, while, on the other hand, the returner and orbiter stayed into orbit. The landing site chosen was near Mons Rümker in Oceanus Procellarum, located in the northwest region of the Moon’s near side.

Then the second step was for the lander to collect samples of the Moon surface. And then, on December 3rd 2020, once the samples have been collected, the ascender separated from the lander and performed an automatic ascent to the returner and orbiter part that stayed into orbit. After docking, the ascender transferred the samples to the returner before falling back to the surface of the Moon.

Afterwards, the orbiter and returner part started their return to Earth. Once they were in Earth orbit, the returner separated and landed on the surface of Earth on December 16, 2020 in Inner Mongolia. The samples were collected and transferred to specialized sites for analysis.

The Chang’e mission is a technical achievement in itself but one of the main achievement was the success of the Lunar orbit rendezvous (LOR). The Lunar orbit rendezvous was a concept developed by Yuri Kondratyuk in 1919 to send humans to the Moon and then bring them back to Earth in the most economical way possible.

LOR is based on the following proceeding: for a mission to the Moon, we would send a main ship with a lunar lander. Once in orbit of the Moon, the lander would descend to the surface while the main ship remained in orbit. When the mission would be accomplished, the lander would take off from the Moon to meet and re-dock with the spacecraft. The next step would be to transfer either the crew, if it’s a manned mission, or samples into the spacecraft before landing again on the Moon while the main spacecraft returned to Earth.

The main advantage of this procedure is to save spacecraft payload. Because the main spacecraft would stay into orbit, the weight of the propellant necessary to return to Earth wouldn’t have to be carried to the Moon. The Chang’e 5 mission succeeded in making the first automatic Lunar orbit rendezvous in history. Before this process was used for the Apollo program but the maneuvers were carried out by the astronauts.

The scientific aims of the mission

The samples collected are important for our understanding of the geological history of the Moon since they are supposed to be “only” 1.21 billion years old, while other samples recovered during the Apollo missions were between 3.1 and 4.4 billion years old. The study of these samples could strengthen the hypothesis that certain areas of the Moon have undergone volcanic activity. Currently scientists estimate that volcanic activity on the Moon stopped 3.8 billion years ago, but many believe it may have lasted up to 100 million years ago in this region.

But on top of that, it is believed that this site of the Moon would be home of a high concentration of what we call “rare Earths“. Rare Earths are elements between atomic number 57 (lanthanum) and number 71 (lutetium) of the periodic table of elements. Rare-Earths elements’ properties are highly sought after in the automobile, aeronautics, defense and new technologies sectors. However on Earth their quantity is limited. If this lunar site is indeed home to significant deposits of these elements, this could be of great interest to these sectors.

At the same time, the Moon is said to contain a lot of helium-3, an element that makes it possible to produce clean nuclear energy, fusion. If the estimations for this element are confirmed, the quantities present on the Moon will be sufficient to meet the energy needs of humanity for several millennia.

China is the country on Earth that holds almost all of the rare Earth resources. Hence a major part of its lunar exploration program is the detection and exploitation of the resources present on the Moon. In addition Chang’e 1 and 2 were also responsible for identifying the lunar regions likely to harbour rare Earths. And Chang’e 4, which landed on the far side of the Moon, was to determine the amount of helium-3 on the Moon.

What does international law say about the exploitation of extra-terrestrial resources?

The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and other Celestial bodies of 1967 states in its article 1: “The exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind. Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies“.

The article 3 also explained that any activity in the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out in accordance with international law. This treaty formally prohibited any military use of space, the Moon and other celestial bodies. China acceded the Treaty in 1984, which has the same legal effect as ratification.

The Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies took up almost the same ideas as the above treaty: activities in outer space must be carried out in accordance with international law, the Moon must only be used for peaceful purposes and any military use is prohibited. However, article 7 states that the States parties to the treaty must take all necessary measures to avoid disturbing the environmental balance of the Moon.

Space law treaties were written between the 1960s and 1970s, at a time when space and lunar exploration had just begun and only scientific goals were being considered. Treaties laid down rules to preserve the celestial bodies from war and territorial appropriation. Currently there is therefore uncertainty as to the potential right to exploit lunar resources.

Hence the following question: if, for example, the rare Earth and helium-3 resources are confirmed, will it be possible to exploit them commercially?

For the moment, and due to the current economy, the exploitation of resources will not be done for Earth activities but to support the installation of humans on the Moon and why not on Mars.

The consequences of the Chang’e 5 mission

Chang’e 5 was China’s first sample-return mission and the first lunar sample-return mission to be carried out since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976. Therefore China became the third country to successfully obtain samples returned from the Moon after the U.S. and Soviet Union.

The success of the mission showed that China has now mastered robotic and space techniques. In addition, China seems to be gradually opening the doors of its space program to the whole world. Whereas before it was very rare to get information, the Chang’e 5 mission was broadcast live to the whole world.

The European Space Agency also provided support the Chang’e 5 mission by providing tracking via ESA’s Kourou station, mainly during the launch and landing phases. Thanks to this collaboration with ESA, we can also notice that China seems to be more open to international collaboration, at least on certain parts of its space program.

The next step in the Chang’e program will be the launch in 2023 or 2024 of Chang’e 6, which will have the mission to land either on the far side of the Moon or at the south pole.

Understanding Transpace Carriers Inc. v. United States (1990)

Transpace Carriers, Inc. v. United States of 1990 is one of the most important space law cases regarding pre-contractual breach in contract law.

The Facts

In this case the defendant was NASA, which among various space programs, operated the launch of Expendable Launch Vehicles (ELVs). In 1982, U.S. President Ronald Reagan introduced a new policy explaining that the use of shuttles should be prioritized over ELVs for launches. It was also announced that the space activities sector was opened to private actors.

The plaintiff was Transpace Carriers Inc. (later referred as “Transpace” or “TCO“), a company that contacted NASA and proposed to acquire and commercially operate an ELV program, better known as the Delta program.

Therefore, NASA and Transpace entered into a Preliminary Agreement which set various terms. Among those were conditions that Transpace would have to meet in order to qualify to operate the Delta program. Thus, under the agreement, Transpace had to demonstrate that it had acquired the “technical, financial and contractual capability to conduct a viable commercial Delta ELV program“.

If Transpace met the requirements determined in the Preliminary Agreement on the date specified in it, NASA would then have to agree to negotiate a Definitive Commercialization Agreement to hand the program over to Transpace Carriers.

Both parties agreed that Transpace would have the exclusive right to market commercial Delta Launch services for the duration of the Preliminary Agreement.

Several extensions of the deadline have been granted for Transpace to meet the criteria set in the Preliminary Agreement, but the company kept failing to do so. The last amendment issued even altered a criteria which Transpace was to meet to ensure that the company succeeded in meeting the deadline. The last deadline was set on May 31, 1986 and no Definitive Commercialization Agreement was executed prior to this date.

In the end, as Transpace did not meet the requirements to operate the Delta program, NASA notified the company on October 10, 1986 that the program was transferred to another company. TCI claimed that negotiations continued after the deadline of May 31, 1986.

Three years later, on July 6, 1989, Transpace sued NASA and filed a complaint for breach of contract on several grounds.

First of all, Transpace argued that the Preliminary Agreement was still in effect, with regard to the conduct of the parties, when NASA transferred the program. Then TCI went on to explain that it was fully qualified to operate the Delta program, with the exception of the execution of the Definitive Commercialization Agreement, which was justified by saying that NASA unreasonably withheld it. Consequently Transpace demanded damages in the form of direct damages and lost profits.

As a result, NASA filed a motion on the basis of several arguments. NASA started by arguing that Transpace had fail to exhaust the administrative remedies required by the Preliminary Agreement. Then the U.S. space agency explained that the complaint filed by TCI failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted for several reasons. First the Preliminary Agreement had expired, therefore NASA could not have breached it. Then Transpace assumed all risks relating to any failure of the parties to enter into a definitive agreement. And finally Transpace’s demand for lost profits was precluded by the Preliminary Agreement.

Due to the defendant’s submission of materials outside of the pleading in support of its motion, a summary judgement was entered. A summary judgement is a legal process in which a court makes a decision based on the facts that have been provided, without ordering a trial.

The issue was to determined whether the disputes clause in the Preliminary Agreement mandated Transpace Carriers Inc. to exhaust certain administrative remedies prior to filing suit.

United States Claims Court Discussion

The debates mainly revolved around the article 9 of the Preliminary Agreement which provided that: “Any dispute, whether or not involving an alleged breach of this Agreement, concerning a question of fact or of law arising under this Agreement which is not disposed of by agreement, shall be reviewed by the NASA Associate Administrator for Space Flight, who shall attempt to resolve the dispute“.

It was required for Transpace to attempt to resolve this dispute first with NASA rather than directly file a complaint. In response Transpace did not deny the clause and its content but argued that it did not apply in this case. The company invoked the fact that the language contract is susceptible of determination by summary judgment in accordance with the Government Systems Advisors Inc. v. United States of 1988.

Concerning NASA, it was clear that the clause was intended to apply to any dispute as it was explicitly written “whether or not involving an alleged breach of this Agreement” which therefore would cover all disputes likely to arise.

However for Transpace, the terms “arising under the Agreement” restricted the scope of the dispute clause. It was claimed that the dispute clause covered only those disputes for which a remedy procedure is provided in the Agreement, meaning that it only covered non-breach dispute.

The case of Arizona v. United States of 1978 explained that a contract must be considered as a whole and interpreted so as to harmonize and give meaning to all of its provisions. And the ITT Arctic Services Inc. v. United States case of 1975 asserted that an interpretation which gives a reasonable meaning to all parts will be preferred to one which leaves a portion of its useless.

On the contrary the interpretation Transpace suggested would require the Court to ignore significant parts of the contract, and especially ignore this part: “whether or not involving an alleged breach of this Agreement“.

Besides it would also lead to ignore the article 6 of the Preliminary Agreement which stated that: “TCI shall not make any prior claim based on an expressed or implied provision of this Agreement, including a breach of this Agreement, against the U.S. Government… for the improper performance or nonperformance by the U.S. Government… of this… Agreement“.

Due to the notion of precedent, the United States Claims Court chose NASA’s contractual interpretation and held that the disputes clause in the Preliminary Agreement applied to all disputes, whether or not involving a breach.

Transpace argued that the administrative remedies provided in the clause were futile and so the Court should not force the plaintiff to submit to these procedures. But the case United States v. Grace & Sons: “A court may not require the parties to exhaust their administrative remedies when it’s clear evidences show that such procedure is inadequate or unavailable” and the Court also precised that: “the inadequacy or unavailability of administrative relief must clearly appear before a party is permitted to circumvent his own contractuel agreement“.

However it is clear from the facts of the case that the inadequacy or unavailability of administratif relief did not clearly appear. Thus the parties are not prevented from reaching a settlement of TCI’s breach claim.

Finally, Transpace requested the court not to dismiss the complaint but rather to stay the action pending in order to avoid any expenses of refiling a complaint. But the United States Claims Court dismissed the complaint.

To sum up, on November 21, 1990, the United States Claims Court held that the disputes clause in the Preliminary Agreement covered breach claims and that Transpace Carriers Inc. failed to exhaust the administrative remedies provided in the disputes clauses. The Court found that the administrative remedies were not unavailable or inadequate and therefore the defendant’s motion for summary judgment was granted. In conclusion the plaintiff’s complaint was dismissed.

We observe from this judgment, as well as other judgments rendered at the same time, that the opening of the space market to private actors necessarily leads to more contractual disputes.

Understanding the Mars Society

The Mars Society is a volunteer-driven non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the human exploration and settlement of the planet Mars. The Mars Society was founded by Robert Zubrin, an American aerospace engineer, on August 13, 1998.

After earning degrees in mathematics, nuclear engineering and aeronautics, Zubrin worked as an engineer at the Martin Marietta Astronautics company and then at Lockheed Martin, when the two companies merged. Robert Zubrin had written and developed many concepts related to spacecraft propulsion and space exploration. He was even part of the team responsible for developing space exploration strategies at Lockheed Martin. Tired of not seeing things move forward, he decided to found the Mars Society in order to support and encourage the progress of projects focused on the exploration of Mars.

The Mars Society is a worldwide non-profit organization which is divided into “chapters“. Chapters can be considered as the national branches of the organization. They are local groups organized by members. For instance, the Mars Society has chapters in many U.S. states and countries around the world.

The aims of the Mars Society is to demonstrate that the establishment of humans on Mars is achievable through series of technical projects. Therefore the organization oversees several projects:

  • The first and main project of the organization is Mars Direct. It was developed to demonstrate that it’s possible for a manned mission on Mars to be cost effective and to use current technology. Mars Direct is a proposal first developed in a research paper written by Robert Zubrin and David Baker in 1990 and then detailed in Zubrin’s book The Case for Mars in 1996. This project plans to organize a human mission to Mars in two phases. The first phase would be to send an Earth Return Vehicle to Mars with a supply of hydrogen, a chemical plant and a small nuclear reactor. Upon arrival on Mars, chemical reactions will take place to create up to 112 tonnes of methane and oxygen which would be used as the return propellant. The second phase will consist of sending the habitat unit and a crew of at least four people;
  • The organization also oversees the Mars Analog Research Station Program, which develops different types of Mars habitation units, the MarsVR Program and the Mars Gravity Biosatellite, a program designed to develop a satellite that would artificially provide partial gravity;
  • On top of that, the Mars Society organizes conferences and presentations both in educational and in public venues in order to raise awareness among the general public, for the promotion of the organization’s purposes. The Mars Society considers as very important to bring the topic of space exploration to a wider audience. They also made several investment campaigns, as well as campaigns to promote science. Another approach frequently used by the organization is the lobbying to encourage States and space agencies to develop their program towards Mars.

The Founding Declaration of the Mars Society is quite interesting and worthy of analysis. To reinforce the message it wants to spread to the world, the founding declaration used an anaphora to present each new idea.

We must go for the knowledge of Mars“. The first objective lies in the observation and analysis of the red planet to possibly confirm current scientific hypotheses and perhaps to better understand its past life.

We must go for the knowledge of Earth“. The second objective is based on the field of comparative planetology. It’s the idea that knowing Mars better will help us to know the Earth better, in particular regarding to climate change. Mars is the most Earth-like planet in the Solar system and can therefore help us better understand the future of the Earth and the long-term effects resulting from climate change.

We must go for the challenge“. The idea presented is that humanity has always moved forward thanks to the challenges either imposed on it or which it chose to meet. The founding declaration explains that humans must move forward together, guided by the same goal and that in the end humanity must be one.

We must go for the youth“. A human mission to Mars is seen by the Mars Society as a way to inspire the younger generations and to develop their adventurous spirit. This is a unique opportunity to create a new wave of innovation in the fields of industry, medicine, and science in general, that would ultimately benefit all of humanity and give it the means to evolve.

We must go for the opportunity“. This goal is described as the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for humanity to leave the worst behind and take the best of our heritage to set up a new “world” on Mars.

We must go for our humanity“. This objective concerns more the subject of religion or spirituality. Humans are considered as the life’s messenger and are considered to be the only creature on planet Earth who can continue the “work of creation by bringing life to Mars“.

We must go for the future“. Mars is described as the place that will welcome a new era of humanity, the technological society and a new branch of human civilization on Mars, the Martians. For the Mars Society, we must advance the Mars exploration program as far as possible to allow future generations to settle there in the best possible conditions.

Thus are described all the reasons why a mission to Mars would be the next fundamental step for mankind.

As of 2020, the Mars Society still actively promotes the exploration of Mars. In his end-of-year message, Robert Zubrin recalls that: “the Mars Society strongly believes that becoming multiplanetary is a critically important goal for our civilization, beginning with the human exploration and settlement of Mars“.

Understanding Hughes Communications Galaxy Inc. v. United States (2001)

Hughes Communications Galaxy Inc. v. United States case of 2001 is one of the most important decisions of contract law within space activities law.

The Facts

In December 1985, Hughes Communications Galaxy (referred thereafter as “Hughes“) and NASA agreed to enter into a Launch Services Agreement (LSA). It can be defined as the contract by which a telecommunications company entrusts the launching of its satellites into orbit to NASA, an entity capable of carrying out launches. One of the main clauses of such contract is that it required NASA to use its “best efforts” to launch ten of Hughes’ HS-393 satellites on space shuttles. NASA was to continue its “best efforts” either until it launched the ten HS-393 satellites or until September 30, 1994, when the contract ended, whichever was earlier.

In addition to its own launches, NASA has entered into several LSA with different companies. Regularly NASA issued manifests of all shuttle and commercial payloads scheduled for launch on shuttles. It was basically to plan and organize all its launches and to be able to inform a company of the launching date of its satellites. So, after the conclusion of the LSA between Hughes and NASA, Hughes’ satellites were assigned specific slots on a manifest.

Unfortunately, on January 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded and as a consequence of the accident, NASA decided to suspend all operation of the shuttles until September 1988. On top of that, U.S. President Ronald Reagan announced that NASA would no longer launch commercial satellites on shuttles. However, right before President Reagan’s announcement, NASA issued a manifest that had planned the launch of eight Hughes’ HS-393 satellites on shuttle by September 1994, before the end of the contract.

Despite the manifest’s projections, the agency had to comply with the President’s announcement and therefore issued a new manifest which did not list any of Hughes’ satellites. Furthermore, NASA informed the company that the probability of launching Hughes’ satellites on shuttles was very low, if not non existent.

Hughes Communications Galaxy still had to place its satellites into orbit. In order to fulfil its aim, the company had to use Expendable Launch Vehicles (ELV) which is a single use launch vehicle. After use, its components are either destroyed during reentry or discarded in space. It is the most widely used launch method as of today, whether you send satellites or crews into space, although the market is starting to change with the arrival of reusable launch systems, developed by private companies like SpaceX. But the major defect of this system is its cost since at each launch it’s necessary to rebuild the launcher.

Hughes launched three of its HS-393 satellites on ELVs but also six HS-601 satellites as they were more powerful and better suited for ELV launches. As a result the company saw its costs increased by launching satellites on ELVs rather than on shuttle.

Hence Hughes Communications Galaxy sued the U.S. Government for breach of contract and for taking its property without providing just compensation.

After several twists and turns, the Court of Federal Claims granted summary judgement for Hughes for breach of contract and a damages trial was held before the Court of Federal Claims.

The Court of Federal Claims

At the damages trial, Hughes wanted to prove the damage it had suffered by demonstrating that the increased costs were linked to the launch of satellites on ELVs. For this demonstration, Hughes used two main methods of calculating the costs.

The first method was to compare the costs of launching ten HS-393 satellites on shuttles, as foreseen by the LSA, with the costs of launching ten HS-393 satellites on ELVs. And as Hughes already launched three satellites on ELVs, it could base its calculations on real costs and not just on a hypothesis.

The second one was called the Primary method which was to compare Hughes’ actual costs of launching ten satellites on ELVs with the costs that Hughes would have had by launching ten satellites under the LSA. The ten satellites in question included the three HS-393 and the six HS-601 already launched plus one HS-376.

In its judgement, the Court of Federal Claims used the first method but modified it.

First of all, as the Court held that even under its “best efforts“, NASA would only have been able to launch five satellites under the LSA and not ten, the increased costs should be estimated only based on five satellites rather than ten. This reasoning was justified by the July 1986 manifest and a report made by Barrington Consulting Group.

To support its arguments, Hughes explained that if NASA prioritized commercial satellites launches over NASA satellites launches, then NASA could have effectively launched ten HS-393 satellites. But it was rejected by the Court of Federal Claims as it considered that Hughes could not have reasonably expected NASA to prioritize commercial satellites over its own.

Secondly, the Court of Federal Claims averaged the costs of launching three satellites on shuttles by using the costs of the three satellites actually launched on ELVs. The Court used this average to establish the costs of the fourth and fifth satellites. On the contrary, Hughes’ experts calculated the cost of launching each satellite individually.

Then the Court of Federal Claims refused to grant Hughes prejudgement interest on its damages. Prejudgement interest can be defined as additional money that a court can award to the prevailing party in a lawsuit as a compensation for loss of the use of money from the time it is determined at trial to be due to the time final judgement is entered.

And finally, the Court of Federal Claims refused to award the company reflight insurance costs and increased launch insurance costs for the five satellites.

In the end, the Court of Federal Claims awarded Hughes a total of 102,680,625 dollars in damages for its increased launch costs.

As a result of this decision, both Hughes Communications Galaxy and the U.S. Government appealed.

The Court of Appeals of the Federal Circuit

The trial then went on to the Court of Appeals of the Federal Circuit. The Court had to review damages determinations by the Court of Federal Claims for an abuse of discretion which can be defined as an error of judgement by a trial court in its ruling.

In the Hughes Communications Galaxy Inc. v. United States, the Court of Appeals recalled the conditions to characterize an abuse of discretion. According to the Massie v. United States case of 2000, it was held that a Court shall consider a trial court to have abused its discretion when: “the court’s decision is clearly unreasonable, arbitrary or fanciful; the decision is based on an erroneous construction of the law; the trial court’s factual findings are clearly erroneous; the record contains no evidence upon which the court rationally could have based its decision“.

The Court of Appeals also recalled some principles established by previous cases. Thus in San Carlos Irrigation & Drainage Dist v. United States case of 1997, it was held that: “the general rule in common law breach of contract cases is to award damages sufficient to place the injured party in as good a position as he or she would have been had the breaching party fully performed.” And that a “plaintiff must show that but for the breach, the damages alleged would not have been suffered“.

One of the arguments of the U.S. Government was that Hughes should only be able to recover damages for the three HS-393 satellites that were actually launched and that the hypothetical fourth and fifth should be excluded from the compensation calculations. However this argument was rejected by the Court.

Another point made in the case was that the LSA stated that damages “shall be limited to direct damages only and shall not include any loss of revenue, profits or other indirect or consequential damages“. But in its reasoning the Court did consider that the increased costs represented direct damages incurred by Hughes in obtaining substitute launch services. Moreover the calculations of the damages did not include any lost revenues or profits but only increased costs. The Court also held that the damages were not consequential.

In conclusion, the Court of Appeals held that the Court of Federal Claims did not abuse its discretion by awarding Hughes damages for its increased costs incurred by obtaining substitute launch services for two HS–601s in addition to the three HS–393s. Besides the Court of Federal Claims did not abuse its discretion by refusing to award Hughes prejudgement interest as Hughes did not present sufficient evidence before the trial court. Similarly the Court of Federal Claims also did not abuse its discretion in holding that the increased launch insurance costs are not recoverable under the LSA.

And finally, the Court of Federal Claims did not abuse its discretion in determining Hughes’ damages for the government breach of the LSA.

In a decision of November 13, 2001, the Court of Appeals upheld the judgement rendered by the Court of Federal Claims and awarded Hughes compensation, as calculated by the Court of Federal Claims, for the damage it suffered as a result of the increased costs.

The United Kingdom And Its Space Program

The United Kingdom Space Agency (UKSA) is the agency of the Government of the United Kingdom dedicated to the development of the civil space program. The agency was established on April 1, 2010 as a replacement of the British National Space Centre and concentrates all budgets and responsibilities intended for the UK space program.

Space activities carried out by the British government are framed by two legal frameworks. Firstly by the international treaties in which the United Kingdom took part, and secondly, by the Outer Space Act of 1986 which is a direct application of international principles in British law.

The 1986 Act is the way for the United Kingdom to regulate the use of outer space and the activities carried out in it by organisations or individuals from its territory. Therefore this act is inspired by the aims and principles set in the United Nations space treaties, like the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.

The Outer Space Act is of utmost importance to the United Kingdom as it allows the country to comply its activities with the principles established by international law. Moreover it establishes a safety net around public health and frames the issue of the UK government liability for damage.

Besides it also establishes a protocol to be followed. If you want to launch or operate a space objet or carry out any activity in outer space, you will need to apply for a OSA licence. The protocol instituted the Traffic Light System (TLS): by giving a certain color – red, amber or green – it will give the person or organization applying for the licence a way to know the probability of success of their application.

Once the licence is granted, the licensee must fulfil a number of obligations such as avoiding contaminating space, avoiding interfering with space activities carried out by others, avoiding any breach of the UK’s international obligations but also preserving the national security of the United Kingdom as well as insuring themselves against third-party liabilities.

The Outer Space Act of 1986 was amended by the Deregulation Act of 2015 which introduced a limit to the operator’s indemnity to the UK government for third-party claims brought against the United Kingdom. As explained by the official website of the government of the United Kingdom, “the licence delivered must specify the maximum amount of a licensee’s liability to indemnify the Government in respect of activities authorized by the licence“.

The Space Program

The UK space exploration program dates back to the 1950s with the development of the Skylark suborbital sounding rockets.

Then the following decades saw several types of programs succeed one another. Between the 1960s and 1970s, the UK’s first interest was to place satellites into orbit with the Ariel program. It launched six satellites, whose first – Ariel 1 launched on April 26, 1962 – made Britain the third country in the world to have a satellite orbiting the Earth.

The interest of satellites in military intelligence having been quickly understood, the Skynet military program was developed in the 1960s. As of today and after six generations of satellites, the Skynet program still continues with the replacement in 2018 of a fifth generation satellite by a sixth generation satellite. The construction of a Skynet 6A satellite whose launch will be planned for 2025 is on its way.

Let’s not forget the development of British rockets which was quite substantial between 1950 and 1985, before it came to an end due to insufficient funds and global competition.

In recent decades, British interest has turned more towards financial participation in European programs and even was one of the largest financial contributor to the budget of the Aurora program whose purpose was to design a plan establishing a long-term European presence in the exploration of the Solar system.

However, after several decades of active participation in the development of space activities, the United Kingdom seemed to have lost its interest and motivation. The country did not participate in the financing of the International Space Station (ISS) as it was not considered a good investment. As a consequence of this non-participation, the first British astronaut to fly aboard the international space station as a European astronaut was Tim Peake in 2015. Before that, British astronauts took part in missions as astronauts from NASA.

Nevertheless the British government seems to have a new enthusiasm to develop its program of space activities. As such, in recent years, the UKSA funded various space missions and programmes such as the Earth Observation mission, the LaunchUK and spaceports program, the Space Exploration program and the ESA Technology Harmonisation program.

But Brexit raises some doubts. The consequences of Brexit on British participation in European space programs are still unknown. However it is very likely that the country will continue to participate, in particular because it has already invested several funds in it and the competition in the market is fierce.

But we can already note that, on certain programs affecting sensitive areas of national security, the United Kingdom will move away from Europe, as evidenced by its announcement in 2018 to withdraw its participation in the European satellite system Galileo and that it will use an independent system.

Everything About The Spacelab Program

The Spacelab program was developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) as part of Europe’s participation to the Space Shuttle program. The concept was to create a small reusable space station that would be designed to fit in the Space Shuttle’s cargo bay.

Developed by Europe but operated by the United States of America, it was the first program in U.S. space history which entrusted to a foreign entity the construction of a station intended to receive a crew in space.

The Spacelab program is one of the consequences of the space fever that gripped the West in the 1970s. The 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were a time of constant innovation in the conquest of space, a time when the limits were constantly being pushed back. Following the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, sending man into space was a technological feat, but a feat that only lasted a few days at most. This seemed insufficient, especially since the goal was to explore space and establish a human presence there. The idea then developed of creating a station for men in space.

The Spacelab program was the result of a reflection that matured over several years, both by American and European teams. Prior to the 1973 agreement, the reflection was indeed articulated around different station ideas, around the design of modules, around scientific experiments but also around cooperation between the two sides of the Atlantic. Germany was the first to give the impetus for Europe to take part in the program developing a space station.

The cooperation agreement between the two agencies, ESRO (now ESA) and NASA, was framed by two legal instruments. One the one hand, an agreement between the two space agencies and on the other hand a government agreement between the United States of America and European governments wishing to participate in the project, thus strengthening political cooperation. On the European side, the difficulty was for the participating countries to agree on the same terms of the agreement when all did not necessarily have the same interests. In the end the European countries smoothed out their disagreements and ended up agreeing on the position to adopt.

It was possible for the different states to sign the agreement between August 14 and September 24, 1973. It was on this date, September 24, that NASA and ESRO signed the Memorandum of Understanding as the final agreement. The construction of the first components of the station started in 1974 in Germany by the company ERNO-VFW Fokker.

For its time Spacelab was a very innovative concept and was considered as the first true scientific research station in orbit.

The station was developed on a modular basis and was composed of different elements: the pressurised modules, the unpressurised platforms and others such as pallet. The Spacelab pallet is a U-shaped platform which allowed different instruments to be installed on it and to be exposed to the vacuum of space. Indeed some experiments require direct exposure to space but also certain instruments such as telescopes which need the widest possible field of view. One of the main assets of this station was that we could assemble and disassemble the different modules and platforms in order to create a tailor-made laboratory for each specific mission. This versatile system in which different modules can be arranged almost as desired for unique purposes, gave incredible flexibility to the way space missions were organized.

The first Spacelab mission was on November 28, 1983 and flew on board of STS-9. The primary objective of this flight was to verify its system performance capability, its structures, command and electrical power distribution among many other. And the secondary objective was to obtain scientific and technology data in order to demonstrate the scientific utility of the station.

During the first Spacelab mission, seventy-two experiments were carried out over the course of ten days. For instance, the first protein crystals were grown in space, the energy output of the sun was measured and the effects of radiation and weightlessness were studied.

Fulfilling both its first objective of demonstrating the functioning of its systems and its second objective of proving its usefulness and effectiveness with regard to scientific experiments in space, Spacelab 1 was considered as a highly successful mission.

The program did not stop at a strictly American-European collaboration and the Spacelab research missions carried dozens of international experiments in various fields. It also flew different modules such as the International Microgravity Laboratory, the Atmospheric Laboratory for Applications and Science, the U.S. Microgravity Laboratory and the Microgravity Science Laboratory among many others.

In total, at the end of the program in 1998, twenty-two missions were carried out. It was decided that the program should be stopped since the experiments it was conducting could be performed on the ISS.

The Spacelab program was beneficial in several ways: it has helped develop science experiments onboard of the Space Shuttle and therefore in space; it has strengthened international cooperation between Europe and the U.S. and it has improved Europe’s knowledge and ability to develop manned space flight.

Like the Salyut and Mir programs, the Spacelab program has contributed to the development of the International Space Station.

The Use of Nuclear Powered Engines in Outer Space

On August 20, 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump issued a memorandum about research on a potential launch of spacecraft containing nuclear powered engines. He urged government entities to continue their research on this matter and he explained that “the United States of America shall develop and use space nuclear systems when such systems safely enable or enhance space exploration or operational capabilities“. His justification was that “the ability to use space nuclear systems safely and sustainably is vital to maintaining and advancing U.S dominance and strategic leadership in space“.

However it is not a technology like the others and it has been made clear in the memorandum that “all U.S. government entities involved in the launch of spacecraft containing space nuclear systems shall seek to ensure safe operation“.

Nuclear propulsion is a well-known technology which is already used in the military sector: submarines, aircraft carriers and cruisers already use this type of propulsion. But it is also used in the civilian maritime field on board of some Russian icebreakers and transport ships.

Furthermore on December 16, 2020, Donald Trump signed Space Policy Directive-6 on space nuclear power and propulsion, a roadmap for the responsible and effective development and use of space nuclear power and propulsion systems.

To support the development of such technology, the American congress released in 2018 and 2019 a special budget of 225 million American dollars.

In view of the exponential speed of the development of space nuclear power and propulsion, one can wonder how is the use of nuclear energy sources in space regulated.

International Regulation

Over the past century, many disasters have involved nuclear energy: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tchernobyl or Fukushima, to only name the best known. It is therefore not without surprise that the international community has taken up the subject to regulate the use of nuclear energy in space, especially in the context of the cold war.

As of today, international treaties formally prohibit objects carrying nuclear weapons, whether in orbit or on another planet. For instance, the treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and other Celestial bodies provides in article IV that: “States Parties to the Treaty undertake not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner“.

But the main treaty governing the use of nuclear energy in outer space is the 1992 Principles relevant to the Use of Nuclear Power Sources in Outer Space.

The first principle establishes that States do not have their sovereignty in this area: “activities involving the use of nuclear power sources in outer space shall be carried out in accordance with international law“.

Then guidelines and criteria for safe use are described in principle three. It is clearly explained that nuclear power sources shall only be used for “space missions which cannot be operated by non-nuclear energy sources in a reasonable way“, thus in order to minimize the quantity of radioactive material in space and the risks involved. Thus, engines using nuclear propulsion will be mainly used in the case of interplanetary missions or in orbits high enough to avoid any risk on Earth.

This third principle sets out in particular several safety objectives such as the protection of individuals, the community and the biosphere against the risks associated with radioactivity. It then established technical criteria. For instance, “nuclear reactors shall only use highly enriched uranium 235 as fuel” and “nuclear reactors shall not be made critical before they have reached their operating orbit or interplanetary trajectory“.

Then the fourth principle sets the condition for a thorough and detailed safety assessment before the launch of any device with a nuclear energy engine. The fifth principle set an obligation of information on behalf of States if the damaged object risks causing the return into the earth’s atmosphere of radioactive materials.

Eventually, principles eight and nine lay down the conditions for engaging State responsibility and liability as well as the compensation to which potential victims would be entitled in the event of damage. Accordingly, States have an obligation to ensure that national activities which result in the use of nuclear power sources in outer space are carried out in accordance with the treaty.

Another point is that any State which launches a space object or causes it to be launched and any State whose territory or facilities are used for the launching of a space object may be held liable if damage is caused by this space object or its constituent elements.

International law, aware of the risks associated with nuclear energy, has therefore provided a good framework for its use in space and has limited the field of action of States in this area.

As of today, almost all of the engines used are chemical reaction engines. This is a technology that is still used for projects under development.

For the development of its Space Launch System (SLS), NASA is using RS-25 liquid rocket engines which contain liquid hydrogen fuel and liquid oxygen oxidiser. SLS is set to be the primary launch vehicle of NASA’s deep space exploration program and that includes the Artemis program and probably a human mission to Mars.

Even Space X’s Raptor engines, intended to equip the lower and upper stages of Starship super heavy launcher, use engines powered by liquid methane and liquid oxygen.

The development of nuclear powered engines for heavier rockets is still in its early stages.

The Current Researches on Nuclear Powered Engines

Research on the development of this type of engine was first carried out by the United States of America in the 1950s with the Orion project. This project was about using pulsed nuclear propulsion, that is to say triggering small nuclear explosions outside the spacecraft near a thrust plate so that it recovers each shock wave and translates it into movement. However the project was abandoned mainly because of the Partial Test Ban Treaty that prohibited test of nuclear weapons, except if they were conducted underground.

At the same time, the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) program was developed from 1960 to 1972 as to study thermal nuclear propulsion. It is a technique which is based on the high speed ejection of hydrogen heated by a nuclear reactor. But again, the project had to be abandoned when NASA had to curtail its targets in the 1970s.

However, NASA did not abandon the idea of using nuclear propulsion and in 2003 the Prometheus project was launched to develop nuclear propulsion systems for long duration space missions. At the end this project was abandoned in 2005.

The space agency had to resolve not to work on this subject for a while. But it was still able to develop this type of engine on space probes. Thus, interstellar probes Voyager 1 an 2 and New Horizons Pluto spacecraft used radioisotope thermoelectric generators which convert to electricity the heat generated by the radioactive decay of plutonium-238.

Currently the aim would be to use a conventional chemical engine for the departure from Earth and then to use nuclear propulsion once in space. This represents a real technical challenge since it would be necessary to develop an engine capable of withstanding the extreme heat produced by nuclear fission and avoid any risk of contamination. It would be a question of real nuclear reactors where uranium-235 fuel blocks quiver, enter into a chain reaction and release a thermal power of approximately 500 million Watts.

Pros and Cons

There are many advantages and disadvantages, but let’s start with the pros of nuclear powered engines.

The main interest of the use of nuclear power in the exploration of space lies in the speed that spacecraft could reach, that would be very useful for missions to Mars and beyond. For exemple, even when you launch a mission to Mars at the moment when the two planets are the closest to each other, the trip would still take six to eight months. With a nuclear powered engine, it would be easy to halve this time and therefore reducing the trip to only three to four months.

This reduced travel time has significant benefits on radiation received by the human body: shorter transport time means less radiation exposure. Even if technologies are being developed to counter these effects as much as possible, the best solution is still to reduce the duration of the trip.

But a shorter travel time also means less stress on the astronauts’ minds and therefore less psychological stress, which is just as bad as radiation. NASA studied the effects of seclusion and promiscuity over long periods of time and observed that it could cause the crews to mentally crack.

Now let’s see the cons using nuclear powered engines.

The main drawback is the risk of a nuclear accident as a result of reactor failure. This would cause both the irradiation of the crew but also radioactive fallout on Earth if the explosion occurs at the start of the trip. Besides the development of this type of reactor is expensive. It requires very long certification deadlines and it produces toxic waste that we do not yet know how to manage.

Future Applications

As expected of what the Space Policy Directive-6 on space nuclear power and propulsion set, the priority of NASA is to design a fission surface power system of the Moon as to supply any permanent bases in order to meet all electrical needs: water purification, generation of oxygen, recharging of rovers, heating of habitats. It will also allow further testing of the system for a potential use on Mars.

Although nuclear-powered engines are in development, it is highly likely that the first human mission to Mars will be using liquid rocket engines. But this new impetus given to research offers us many perspectives.

The Voyager Program: History and Mission

The Voyager program is an American scientific program developed by NASA that launched in 1977 two robotic space probes: Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. The scope of the mission was to study the outer part of the Solar system and gain knowledge about the outer planets and their moons. At first the mission was quite simple: Voyager 1 had to study the planetary systems of Jupiter and Saturn and Voyager 2 had to study Uranus and Neptune.

Currently the Voyager space probes are exploring the outer boundary of the heliosphere in interstellar space. As a result of their success, the space probes mission has been extended three times as they continue to transmit useful scientific data. It was confirmed that on August 25, 2012, Voyager 1 had become the first man-made object to exit the Solar system and enter interstellar space. A few years later it was also confirmed that Voyager 2 also indicated its enter into the interstellar space in 2018.

The Voyager space probes are powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators, a type of nuclear battery. This is a type of battery that is perfect for missions needing energy over a long period of time – which would be too long for fuel cells or battery – and that can’t rely on solar energy. It allows us to organize very long missions to happen. As such it’s predicted that the batteries will no longer be functional from 2032 on, i.e 55 years after the launch of the space probes, which is quite remarkable. However as time passed by, various functions and systems of the probes had to be switched off to keep the main system in working order. Consequently they’ll be able to keep its current set of scientific instruments on until 2025.

The history of the Voyager space probes

The space probes were initially conceived as part of the Mariner program whose purpose was to launch various robotic interplanetary probes from 1962 to 1973 in order to investigate Mars, Venus and Mercury. But as their mission has been changed to go study Jupiter and Saturn, they were removed from the Mariner program. At first they kept their original name and were called the Mariner Jupiter-Saturn space probes. However due to their evolution from the Mariner space probes, their name was quickly changed to Voyager.

This new program took over many elements of the Grand Tour program. As indicated by his name, the Grand Tour program, developed by NASA, aimed to sent two groups of robotic probes to all the planets part of the outer Solar system: Jupiter, Saturn, Pluto, Uranus and Neptune. Yet this program was deemed too expensive, around 1 billion dollars. Consequently it was cancelled and replaced with the Voyager program.

For this reason the Grand Tour program had a major influence on the Voyager program, as it fulfilled a lot of the planned objectives for the Grand tour, with the exception of a visit to Pluto.

The missions of the Voyager program

The Voyager program used the favorable alignment of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune which occurs only once every 175 years and was set to happened in the late 1970s. The space probes used gravitational assists, namely the use of the relative movements and gravity of a planet or other astronomical object to alter the path and speed of a spacecraft and thus saving propellant and reducing expense. Through gravity assistance, it’s possible to either accelerate a spacecraft, decrease its speed or redirect its path.

While Voyager 2 was launched first, on August 20, 1977, Voyager 1 was launched on September 5, 1977, on a faster and shorter trajectory.

Originally, the Voyager space probes were to conduct closeup studies of Jupiter and Saturn, its rings and their larger moons. As this mission was a real success and as the probes were in good condition, scientists decided to go and explore Uranus and Neptune.

The Voyager space probes made it possible to recover a lot of data and photographs of the most distant planets, thus allowing us to have precise details, which were until then still unknown, about the four giant planets and their Moon.

For instance, we were able to observe Jupiter’s cloud forms, its wind and storm systems, as well as to discover the volcanic activity on its moon Io. It was the first time that active volcanoes had been seen on another body in the Solar system. It was also discovered that seven percent of the upper atmosphere of Saturn is helium and the rest is hydrogen. Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, was also studied in depth. Among the major discoveries was the discovery of a magnetic field around Uranus and ten of its moon, but also the discovery of three rings and six unknown moons of Neptune.

Furthermore Voyager 1 and 2 sent us a lot of close up photos of the giant planets. Among them is the Pale Blue Dot, taken in 1990 by Voyager 1, and popularised by Carl Sagan. This famous photography pictures planet Earth from a distance of about 6 billion kilometers. Planet Earth appears as very small blue dot, lost in the vastness and greatness of space. As Sagan described: “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena“.

As the main mission of the Voyager program was achieved in 1989 when Voyager 2 flew by Neptune, it was decided to extend their mission through the Voyager Interstellar Mission. The goal was to extend the exploration of the Solar system beyond the outer planets, and if possible, beyond the “limits” of the Solar system, beyond what we call the heliopause boundary. It can be defined as the limit where the solar wind from the Sun is stopped by the interstellar medium. Reaching after the heliopause will allow the space probes to make measurements of the interstellar fields, particles and waves which are unaffected by the solar wind and thus giving us major informations.

As part of the deep space exploration, both space probes carry a golden record that contains pictures and sound of Earth, as well as data detailing the location of Earth. At the same time it’s a time capsule and an interstellar message to any civilisation that may recover the space probes. The content of the record was selected for NASA by a committee. There are 115 images and sounds such as wind, thunder, animals but also songs from different cultures and eras, greeting in 55 languages but also the sound of laughter. The images depict mathematics, the Solar system, DNA, human anatomy, animals, insects, landscapes but also food, architecture. The goal was to depict Earth and humanity in the broadest range possible and represent the different cultures.

As of today, the probes continue to send important data to scientists. Currently they mainly study ultraviolet sources among the stars and they explore the boundary between the Sun’s influence and interstellar space.

Recently a published study showed that the space probes detected a new type of electron burst. Thus a new mechanism in the physics of cosmic radiation and solar shock waves has been discovered. In fact, solar flares cause violent shock waves which accelerate the particles. Although this idea is already known to scientists, the date collected by the space probes has shown that the particles seem to accelerate beyond the heliopause. But above all, they made it possible to concretely observe an interstellar shock wave in a new environment.

It is clear that the Voyager program is a real success. The program has made it possible to collect an enormous amount of data and images on our Solar system, which have allowed to gain a more precise knowledge of the deep space. But above all, Voyager space probes have now become the testament of humanity traveling through space.

The Molniya Orbit and Satellites

The Molniya orbit is a highly elliptical orbit that possesses an inclination of 63.4 degrees, an argument of perigee of 270 degrees and an orbital period of approximately half a sidereal day.

The name of this orbit comes from the Molniya satellites program which was a series of civilian and military communications satellites developed by the Soviet Union and then by Russia. Indeed these satellites have used this particular orbit since the mid-1960s, therefore giving its name to it. The Molniya satellites program was developed at the same time as the Soyuz and Voskhod programs.

Satellites placed in this orbit are used for different purposes: television broadcasting, telecommunications, military communications, weather monitoring as well as some classified purposes. Generally it is designed to provide communications and remote sensing coverage but over high latitudes.

Russia, part of the Soviet Union at the time, is located at high northern latitudes. And in order to broadcast, satellites had to be placed in a geostationary orbit.

A geostationary orbit, which can also be called a geosynchronous equatorial orbit, is a circular orbit above Earth’s equator that will follow the direction of Earth’s rotation. The point is that with a satellite placed in the geostationary orbit, the satellite antennas located on Earth will not have to rotate to track it but can be pointed permanently at the position where the satellites are located, since they are synchronised. Satellites placed in this orbit are often communications, weather and navigation satellites. Because of the risk of interference, it is mandatory to leave a certain distance between the satellites. Therefore there are only 180 positions available, which makes it a scarce resource.

However for countries located at high northern latitudes, placing a satellite on a geostationary orbit requires a lot of power due to the low elevation angles. For this reason, Energia, a Russian manufacturer of ballistic missile, spacecraft and space station components, had initiated research to find other orbits which would have the same properties as the geostationary orbit but without the high energy demanding launch. In the 1960s Soviet scientists found the Molniya orbit that perfectly fulfils the role using a highly elliptical orbit with an apsis over the Soviet Union territory.

On October 10, 1960, the first Molniya satellite was launched, but it failed because of the malfunction of Block 1, a stage of the Vostok rocket. The program was ultimately successful with the launch of Molniya 1-1 in 1965.

The average service life of the first models of this satellite was not very long: no more than a year and a half due to the fact that their orbit was disrupted by perturbations, like the gravitational effects of the Sun or the Moon.

Then the succeeding series, called the Molniya-2, was design to provide both military and civilian broadcasting and was used to create, in 1967, the Orbita television network, which is considered as the first national network of satellite television.

The last series was the Molniya-3 design before it was replaced by the Meridian satellites, launched from 2006. Just as the Molniya satellites, Meridian was designed to serve both civil and military purposes. Built by the main Russian satellite manufacturer, ISS Reshetnev, Meridian satellites seem to be technologically more advanced and apparently have a lifespan of seven years.

Even though the Soviets were the first to use this type of orbit, Americans did not wait long before using it in their turn. As soon as 1971, military satellites Jumpseat and Trumpet were launched into Molniya orbit, thus their precise mission and capabilities are classified. It was soon to be followed by the American SDS constellation, that used a combination of Molniya and geostationary orbits. Their purpose was to relay signals from lower flying satellites back to ground stations.

The Molniya program introduced the concept of satellite constellation, like the Starlink constellation developed by Space X. A constellation requires at least three spacecraft in Molniya orbits, and then each one will be active for a period of eight hours per orbit.

Even if the Molniya satellites are no longer produced and used currently, the orbit is still very much used. In 2015 and 2017, Russia launched two Tundra satellites into a Molniya orbit as part of the EKS warning system which can identify ballistic missile launches from outer space and thus give advance notice of a nuclear attack.

Almost forty years after its first launch, a Molniya satellite was last launched on February 18, 2004.

The Mir Space Station: History and Legacy

Mir was a space station that was operated in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) from 1986 to 2001 by the Soviet Union and then by Russia. Predecessor of the International Space Station, the Mir station was the first continuously inhabited long-term research station in orbit.

The former director of the Shuttle-Mir program, Franck L. Culbertson, said in 1996 that the term “mir” represents a community “with common goals and values in a place where they had a better chance of surviving, living a productive life and succeeding as a group” and it described perfectly the purpose of Mir.

The history of Mir

Mir was the next step of the Soviet Union’s space exploration program after the success of Salyut which was the first space station program, running from 1971 to 1986. It was structured around the launches of several successive stations: Salyut 1, the world’s first space station was launched in 1971, followed two years later by Salyut 2 which unfortunately suffered an explosion after being placed in orbit and was never occupied. The program was designed to pursue both military goals – launch of Salyut 3 and 5 – and scientific purposes – launch of Salyut 6 and 7. Each station bringing its share of technical improvements, the Salyut program, literally salute in Russian, in tribute of Yuri Gagarin’s exploits, paved the way for Mir and the International Space Station (ISS).

It was in 1976 that Mir was authorised by decree. The project was to design an improved model of the Salyut space stations. In 1979, it was decided that the Mir program was to be merged with the Almaz military space station program. But it almost did not happened since in early 1984 its advancement was halted and all funding was entirely directed to the Buran spacecraft flight tests. Fortunately Valentin Glushko, who had been ordered to put Mir into orbit for 1986, finally decided to redistribute funding to the station.

One of Mir’s important progress, compared to the Salyut station, was the plurality of mooring ports on the station, thus allowing the docking of several spacecrafts at the same time and therefore an easier relief between crews and supplies, allowing longer stays in space.

At the time, Mir was a revolutionary station since it consisted of several habitable modules. There was a central module, from Salyut 7, and then five other scientific modules from the Almaz science program. Finally, a seventh module was added in 1995 for the docking of the American space shuttle. Due to the political and economic context of the late 1980s and 1990s, the assembly of the different modules of the station had been significantly delayed. Indeed the station will not be fully operational before 1996, ten years after the launch of the station’s first module.

The purpose of having several modules was to assign a specific role to each of them. Thus in the Mir station, the central module was mainly used as the living quarters of the crew whereas the other modules were dedicated to different scientific areas. For example, the module Kvant-1 was dedicated to astrophysics, whereas the module Kristall was dedicated to technology.

The aims of Mir

The main objective of the station was to develop and test technologies that would be needed for permanent space occupation. The possibility Mir offered to make long stays in space helped understand the difficulties faced when a permanent presence in space is established and especially the effects on the human body and mind. The station still holds the record for the longest single human spaceflight: Valeri Polyakov spend 437 days and 18 hours on the station between 1994 and 1995 so as to demonstrate that a human body can stay in micro-gravity for a period of time equivalent to the one that would be needed to go to Mars.

Accordingly to the aim of the station, it served as a microgravity research laboratory in which the different crews performed experiments in biology, human biology, physics, astronomy, meteorology and spacecraft systems.

Given that the aim of the experiments hosted was to develop ways of sustaining life in space, the station raised wheat, the first crop to be grown from seed to seed in outer space. The experiments were designed to answer vital questions about how humans, animals and plants would function in space, about how our solar system originated and developed, about how we can build better technology in space and about how we can build future space stations.

The Shuttle-Mir program

Thanks to the Mir station, the Russians and the Americans learned to work together, despite the geopolitical context of the time. The beginnings of an American-Russian cooperation date back to the 1960s, even if the two countries were engaged in a merciless race to conquer the moon. At the time U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet head of state Nikita Khrushchev began to discuss future ways of cooperation and in 1964 they agreed to exchange information on space biology and medicine. But the first major step was in the 1970s with the Apollo-Soyuz project.

Even in the midst of the cold war, cooperation between the two countries continued and in 1992, the United States and Russia renewed the 1987 space cooperation agreement and issued a “Joint statement on Cooperation in Space“.

Since the economic and political context was not the most favorable to the development of space activities, NASA and Roscosmos understood the need to cooperate together if they wanted to pursue the development of their own activities.

It was decided in the “Joint statement on Cooperation in Space” that the cooperation would include a “Space Shuttle and Mir Space Station mission involving the participation of U.S astronauts and Russian cosmonauts“. Thus from February 1994 to June 1998, the American space shuttle made 11 flights to Mir and the American astronauts spent 7 residencies onboard Mir.

Accidents on board of the station

The history of the Mir space station has been marked by two of the most impressive accidents that ever happened in space.

The first one occurred on February 23, 1997. An oxygen generator caught fire when it was replaced. Fire is one of the most serious disasters that can occur on board of a space station. Indeed the astronauts cannot leave the station and because of its small size, the fire can spread everywhere at an impressive speed. The station can be quickly invaded by smoke and toxic products. Russian authorities had said the fire lasted for less than two minutes but the U.S astronauts on board explained that the fire continued for at least fourteen minutes. In addition the smoke release by the fire had blocked the passage to a Soyuz capsule which would have allowed the astronauts to escape. Eventually the crew managed to extinguish the fire with a wet towel and a fire extinguisher. This accident definitely changed the engineering standards for space as well as emergency procedures.

The second one happened on June 27, 1997 when the Progress cargo spaceship collided with the Spektr module while docking. A new mooring system was apparently in the process of being tested and it appears that the cargo spaceship got out of their control. The collision resulted in a three square centimeter hole in the shell that isolates the module from the vacuum of space and also caused damage to the solar panels. This crack caused the depressurization of the module which was used as the sleeping quarters for the astronauts as well as a laboratory for the Americans.

Astronaut Michael Foale was inside the module when the crash occurred. He says he felt a slight shock and then after feeling a pressure in his ears, he immediately understood that the module was depressurizing and therefore came out directly from it. Consequently the crew had to permanently seal the Spektr module and turn off some of the equipment to conserve as much energy as possible since solar panels were damaged.

These two accidents allowed lessons to be learned on the issue of fire and depressurisation risks. It was therefore decided that the alarm systems had to be more efficient and that the astronauts had to be trained more rigorously in the emergency procedures to be followed. Lessons on improvements to the design of a space station have also been learned and have been directly applied to the ISS.

The legacy of the Mir space station

The station was deorbited in March 2001 for several reasons. First of all, funding were cut off: Russia had decided to participate to the International Space Station program in 1993 and couldn’t afford to finance both projects. Moreover the station was getting older and the components were no longer suited to the needs of the astronauts.

The deorbiting procedure was carried out in two main stages: first, the station’s thrusters had to be used to slow it down and put it in a sufficiently low orbit so that it was again strongly attracted by terrestrial gravity. Then the station gradually disintegrated in the atmosphere. The remaining twenty tons from the station fell into the Pacific Ocean.

The Mir station has left an important legacy: thanks to the trials and errors committed during its use, we have been able to develop techniques that are more and more precise and adapted to human life in space. Thanks to the Mir station, all the knowledge acquired was directly applied to the design of the ISS.

Under the aegis of Mir, a real scientific partnership between nations, even though rivals on Earth, has emerged.

NASA And The Woodpecker

NASA and the woodpecker. It’s a title that resembles the one of a tale. But make no mistake, it heralds a true story. Everything was shaping up for the best. On May 11, 1995, the Discovery shuttle for mission STS-70 was brought to the launch pad of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The launch was scheduled for June 8 with the mission of putting NASA’s TDRS-G communications satellite into orbit.

Although appearing as usual, this launch presented some new features. Indeed, it was the hundredth American manned flight and the crew only included 5 astronauts instead of the usual 7. Finally there was a technical novelty: one of the three engines was the first of a new generation of engines, Block 1.

Another point is that the launch of the STS-70 mission had a constraint date. Because of technical reasons, a shuttle could not take off until the other shuttle had finished it mission. At this time the Atlantis shuttle was already present on another launch pad for STS-71, which had a mission of great importance: to join the Russian space station MIR and realize the first American docking to the station. The STS-71 mission was scheduled to launch at the end of June 1995, just three weeks after the STS-70 mission. The latter therefore could not afford to fall behind schedule.

Delays in space launches are not uncommon, we can say that they are even quite frequent. They may be due to the delay accumulated during the design of rovers or satellites, for exemple. But there may be delays at the time of launch due to the weather, a nearby plane or boat or even technical problems with the launch rocket. This last type of delay was finally quite frequent at the time of the space shuttle Discovery: the shuttle being complex, it was not uncommon to postpone the launch for safety reasons.

However it is for a completely different reason than those mentioned above that the STS-70 mission will finally be postponed to July 13, 1995. The American shuttles were launched at the Kennedy Space Center, located in Florida, a place known in particular for its abundant wildlife. Animals are frequently observed roaming freely around the Kennedy Space center, with the exception of dangerous areas where teams will make sure to keep them away using means that do not endanger their lives.

It was during the month of May 1995 that technicians noticed a multitude of abnormal holes on the upper part of the outer tank of the shuttle. Not understanding their origin, they observe the videos coming from the surveillance cameras. And it was at this moment that they discovered something very surprising: the cause of the hundreds of holes was a flaming woodpecker trying to dig its nest on the reservoir covered with protective foam. While trying to dig a sufficiently deep hole, he stumbled against the metal casting of the tank and unable to continue digging, he moved from place to place and dug a new hole.

The technicians initially attempted to repair the damage to the launch site but ended up concluding that it was not possible. In consequence the shuttle had to be brought back to the assembly area and the whole launch process had to be started over again. The launch date ended up being postponed to July 13, 1995 after the STS-71 mission.

Meanwhile the launch crews had to make sure that the woodpecker did not repeat its attempts to dig a nest in the reservoir. NASA is keen to preserve the species living near the space center. As a result, the Bird team was formed. Its mission was to find a way to keep the bird away without touching it. They then had the idea of installing a plastic owl statue near the shuttle to scare the bird. But woodpeckers are intelligent birds and as long as the owl was still, it was not a source of danger.

A rotation system was therefore set up and several teams of technicians took turns to change the owl’s place, in order to give the impression that it’s alive, and to use a foghorn to scare the woodpecker. As fun as these maneuvers may seem, they were effective and kept the bird away until takeoff.

On July 13, 1995, the Discovery shuttle was finally able to take off from the Kennedy Space center for the STS-70 mission to put NASA’s TDRS-G communications satellite into orbit. These were satellites designed to serve as communication relays with various scientific vessels and satellites as well as with the Hubble telescope. These are satellites that allow almost constant communication with the vessels and replace the ground installations which are less efficient. The crew took advantage of this flight to carry out various scientific experiments. Due to this rather amusing incident, a Woody Woodpecker plushy even became the mascot for this mission.

In the end, and despite the delay, the crew was able to complete their mission and this story has now become a fun anecdote to tell.

The Teacher In Space Project

The Teacher in Space Project was a NASA program announced by U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1984. The project has for vision to inspire students, honor teachers and galvanise interest in mathematics, science and space exploration. Rightfully as James M. Beggs, former administrator of the space agency, said “This agency lives and dies by whether we can attract top talent and keep kids interested in the program“. Hence the choice of teachers as the first civilian passengers.

The Teacher in Space project’s mission was to send teachers into space as a payload specialist. A payload specialist is usually selected and trained by a commercial or a research organizations to perform a flight of a specific payload on a NASA Space Shuttle mission. They are usually trained to fly for a single specific mission. The first payload specialists sent on mission were technical experts and scientists with expertises in a specific field. They were sent into space for their particular skill in a field, a skill that astronauts lacked. Therefore they would at the same perform experiments and participate in experiments requiring human subjects.

The main part of the teacher in space project was for the teachers who would go to space to return to their classrooms in order to share their experience with their students. Indeed, teachers have a key role in our societies. They are the ones who pass on knowledge to the younger generations and they are the one who socialise the students to the values of society.

In addition, it’s important to note that communication between astronauts and the general public is of great importance. This is a phenomenon that has been observed better in recent years. Now, most astronauts have social media accounts and share their lives on the International Space Station (ISS) almost live. This ranges from the meal they are going to eat, to the experiment they are going to perform the same day, ending with the type of workout they will do.

It sparks a big interest in the people’s mind as we could observe during the mission of Thomas Pesquet on the International Space Station (ISS) between 2016 and 2017. But in the 1980s, there were no such means of communication as today. Sending teachers into space then made it possible to rekindle the public’s interest in the conquest of space, since they were civilian astronauts, as well as to transmit this interest directly to the students.

After the program was announced in 1984, more than eleven thousand teachers sent their applications to NASA. Out of all these applications, only one hundred and fourteen were selected to continue the selection process to reach the last ten applicants. Christa McAuliffe was then chosen as the first teacher to fly into space as a member of mission STS-51-L. She was supposed to conduct experiments in the fields of chromatography, hydroponics, magnetism and Newton’s laws as well as to teach two lessons from the Space Shuttle Challenger.

Throughout her life, Christa McAuliffe was fascinated by the conquest of space. An interest sparked in her youth by the Mercury and Apollo programs. As a social studies teacher in high school, she taught courses about history, law and economics. According to The New York Times, she “emphasized the impact of ordinary people on History“. This point may be the very why she was chosen among eleven thousand participants. Her will to convey knowledge and to involve ordinary people in the making of the world of tomorrow and her vision on education were surely the determining points of her selection.

The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 specifically states that NASA should provide the “widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the result thereof“. Thus the very essence of this program was to democratise access to space, or at least to the knowledge acquired since the beginning of the space conquest. The goal was to spark interest in as many people as possible, as much for humanistic reasons – to share knowledge and advance humanity in its conquest – as for practical reasons – to arouse vocations in order to have more competent people working in these areas.

It was also a necessity for the U.S. space agency to show its ability to organize a reliable space program.

Establishing a space program whose mission is to select and send civilians into space has two consequences. First, to revive public interest again after the end of the Apollo program. Then to show the beginning of the opening of space to the general public: going to space is no longer reserved for only a few people.

Unfortunately the teacher in space program was cancelled in 1990, following the death of its first participant Christa McAuliffe in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on January 1986.

The project was replaced in 1998 with the Educator Astronaut Project which required its participants to become astronaut Mission Specialists. There are different functions on board of a mission: pilot, flight engineer, mission commander and mission specialist. The last function refers to an astronaut who has a specific mission in a limited field, usually related to medical or engineering experiments. Mission specialists are first selected as astronauts and then get assigned to a specific mission whereas payload specialists were chosen at first for a specific mission. Hence they will have to meet a more rigorous list of criteria than the astronauts of the Teachers in Space program.

Consequently educator astronauts perform the same activities as current astronauts: they help coordinate space shuttle crew activity planning, assist with science experiments, participate in International Space Station (ISS) assembly and operation and even perform extravehicular activities.

The reason why NASA chose teachers is because they have the skills to communicate to the younger ones the challenging concepts that go along the study of science, technology and engineering. The purpose of this program is similar to Teacher in Space: convey the wonders of space exploration to the public and inspire students to pursue careers in those fields.

As Howard E. McCurdy, a professor at American University and a historian of the space agency, called the program: “new landmark, another chapter in the book on the broadening of recruitment… of employees who are representative of the nation at large” and not only military men and women, test pilots, scientists and engineers.

Barbara Morgan was the backup to Christa McAuliffe for the 1986 STS-51-L mission of Challenger. Following the Challenger disaster, she resumed her teaching career before being selection in 1998 as a mission specialist. However she did not train in the Educator Astronaut Project. She finally flew on STS-118 in August 2007 and she served as robotic arm operator and transfer coordinator.

Thanks to the private sector, the teacher in space project was revived. Currently Teachers in Space Inc. is a non profit educational organization which simulates students’ interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. They create opportunities for teachers including workshops about experimental flight, data sensors, remote device control and meeting scientists, developers at NASA as well as commercial space companies. One of their last project was the launch of the Serenity satellite into a low Earth orbit. It will provide low cost opportunities to test educational experiments in space. The point of the Serenity satellite is that it will carry a suite of data sensors and a camera that will be sending data back to Earth through the use of HAM radio signals. The ground stations will be collecting data and pictures sent back down to Earth.

Overall NASA has always been working with the U.S. Department of Education in order to develop programs for children and to promote science and technology, as the agency understood the importance of youth and education in the success of the conquest of space.

The Mars One Project

In 2011, the Mars One project was launched. Founded by the Dutch engineer Bas Lansdorp, its ambition is to establish a permanent human colony on Mars by the early 2030s using existing techniques and components. One of the founder’s promises is to carry out the mission for six billion dollars. Quite intriguing isn’t it?

Although a mission to Mars has fallen somewhat into the background, Mars has always been an irresistible attraction. The red planet seems to us to be both within reach and at the same time out of reach. Within reach because there seems to be a new breath animating the conquest of space. Out of reach because there is still a significant amount of technological and human challenges to overcome.

The Mars One project

One of the features of this plan is the selection of future astronauts from civil society. Basically, anyone over 18 and in good health can participate in the selection process. This is why more than 200.000 candidates applied between 2013 and 2015. Of course the candidates had to pass numerous aptitude tests afterwards, both physical and mental. Such a mission is not without its share of mental difficulties and the organizers had to carefully choose the people who would be best suited to lead a human mission to Mars. Hence Mars One established five key characteristics an astronaut must have: resiliency, adaptability, curiosity, ability to trust and creativity. Those are of course general criteria and there are many qualifications to meet.

The training of the Mars One’s selected candidates should have started in 2017. A major part of the training, as organized by the project, consists of training the future astronauts to endure the best possible the long period of time they will have to face and during which they would only remain among themselves, with no one else to rely on. Consequently they’ll be sequestered in a remote location, in a place resembling Martian landscapes, and learning to repair components of the habitat and the order, training to perform medical procedures and learning to grow food.

There are many challenges to overcome before seeing a man for the first time on Mars. The mission roadmap extends over fifteen years and includes several preliminary stage before the launch of the astronauts. It includes the launch of communications satellite in 2024, the launch of a rover and a second communications satellite in 2026, the launch of six cargo missions in 2029, all of this to arrive at the launch of the first human crew bound for Mars in 2031.

Mars One’s funding model is based on four main poles: donations, intellectual property rights on the hardware created by Mars One’s suppliers, merchandise and broadcasting rights. However, the main source of funding will mainly be the broadcasting of a permanent reality TV program. The progress of the crew’s training and then the mission to Mars will be shared and broadcast via a documentary series and via the Internet.

An interesting point of the project is its estimated low cost: the estimation to bring the first four people to Mars is no more than six billion dollars. In comparison studies that have calculated the cost of sending men to Mars estimated it at around 200 billion American dollars.

How to explain such a low cost? According to Mars One, one of the reasons missions to Mars are so expensive, if it were to be organized by NASA for exemple, is because they include the cost of returning to Earth. And precisely one of the main characteristics of this project is that it is a one-way ticket to Mars. Thus the weight of the material, provisions and fuel to be sent will be significantly lower, especially since the future colonists will have to be autonomous. For instance, they’ll have to grow their own food. The purpose of the colony is to establish a self-sufficient base on Mars.

Why has the project failed?

However this project is too ambitious for such a short period of time. The project that received wide media coverage. Indeed someone launching a detailed program to go to Mars, funded by a reality TV program, does not happen very often. Yet it quickly lost its credibility when we started to take a closer look at it due to two major issues.

First: technical reasons. A trip to Mars, and even more when it aims to establish a human colony there, requires the use of several technologies, some of which are not yet mastered. For instance, we do not yet have an operational technique for landing a ship over one ton. In comparison, the empty weight of Space X’s Dragon capsule is 4.2 tons. However, a trip of such magnitude necessarily requires a more comfortable vessel than a capsule in order to support the duration of the trip, requires a quantity of provisions and equipment, etc. Several techniques are under study but none has really reached maturity yet. Another example is the production of fuel and oxygen on site to avoid having to bring everything. These production systems are still only at the experimental stage. We see the same problem with the autonomous on site food production systems.

Then we have the human reasons. The psychological impact that space travel has had on astronauts is not without significance. It has been shown that astronauts, who have been trained for this purpose for years and who have already made flights, were mentally and physically affected by these long journeys. It can be argued without a doubt that the Mars One project will cause a trying psychological situation that has never been experienced before. Indeed, communications with Earth will not be instantaneous, astronauts will quickly no longer have visuals on Earth, they will no longer be able to depend on Earth and no repatriation will be possible. The stress generated will be enormous, especially since no return to Earth is planned.

On top of that we do not know the long-term effects of a prolonged trip outside the protective atmosphere of the Earth, especially in terms of radiation for example.

Five students of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology made a serious report on the Mars One project and came to the conclusion that the astronauts would die 68 days after the landing. Not really optimistic.

The project launched by Bas Lansdorp seems to be currently at a standstill, mainly due to a lack of funding. Indeed the start-up had been divided into two companies: Mars One Foundation, which is non profit and Mars One Ventures, which for profit. The latter was bought in 2016 by Swiss financiers, InFin Innovative Finance AG, but unfortunately it went bankrupt.

Unless the project receives sufficient funding, it seems to end for good. However, the project of a mission to Mars seems to be the goal of several projects and it is reasonable to expect such a mission within a few decades.

Understanding the ENMOD Convention

The ENMOD Convention or Convention on the prohibition of military or any hostile use of environmental modification techniques is an international treaty whose objective is to prohibit such techniques for military or hostile purposes. This Convention was adopted by resolution 31/72 of 10 December 1976 by the UN General Assembly. It was signed on 18 May 1977 in Geneva and entered into force on 5 October 1978. It contains ten articles and an annex relating to the Advisory Committee of Experts. To date, the Convention has seventy-six signatory States.

The ENMOD Convention has its origins in military techniques that were used during the Vietnam War. In 1962, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, then President of the United States, ordered his army to spread the so-called “agent orange” over forests in northern Vietnam. The agent, which turned out to be a highly toxic herbicide, was intended to destroy the forest in order to leave the Vietnamese maquisards without natural shelter. In addition, the U.S. military had also experimented with cloud-like experiments to artificially prolong the monsoon season. The natural environment was then modified here in order to be used as a weapon against Vietnam. Nevertheless, it is easy to understand that the use of such techniques can quickly become uncontrollable and can be dramatic from both an environmental and human point of view as they appear to be severely toxic.

Article 1 of the ENMOD Convention provides that each state party undertake “not to engage in military or any other hostile use of environmental modification techniques having widespread, long-lasting or severe effects as the means destruction, damage or injury to any other State Party” and “not to assist, encourage or induce any State, group of States or international organization to engage in activities contrary to the provisions of paragraph 1 of this article“. Three cumulative conditions emerge from this first Article: a State must use techniques, for hostile purposes, to cause destruction or damage prejudicial to another State Party. Article 4 of this Convention establishes a principle of prevention for States by stating that “Each State Party to this Convention undertakes to take any measures it considers necessary in accordance with its constitutional processes to prohibit and prevent any activity in violation of the provisions of the Convention anywhere under its jurisdiction or control“. Finally, Article 5 provides that “the States Parties to this Convention undertake to consult one another and to cooperate in solving any problems which may arise in relation to the objectives of, or in the application of the provisions of, the Convention“.

There are therefore means of verification and recourse, but these are essentially based on cooperation between States. A State party which suspects another State Party of violating the ENMOD Convention could therefore file a complaint with the United Nations Security Council: “any State Party to this Convention which has reason to believe that any other State Party is acting in breach of obligations deriving from the provisions of the Convention may lodge a complaint with the Security Council of the United Nations. Such a complaint  should include all relevant information as well as all possible evidence supporting its validity“. Nevertheless, despite this idea of a complaint to the Security Council, which seems to be a good solution, one may question its application in practice, notably because of the vetoes that certain powerful States could pose against investigations in order to protect themselves. For example, the United States or Russia are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, and could therefore take advantage of their important positions to hide their practices.

Despite the innovative and interesting idea of such a Convention, some shortcomings can be highlighted both in its application and in its effectiveness. Firstly, the very terms of the Convention in its first article, which requires a hostile use of these modification techniques. In contrast to this Article, Article 3 provides that such techniques may be used for peaceful purposes if their purpose is to protect and improve the environment for the benefit of present and future generations. However, allowing modification for peaceful purposes could be problematic. It is not illusory to think of the abuses that such authorization could lead to. Indeed, some States might try to circumvent the prohibition on hostile use by trying to pass off these techniques as hidden hostile use. There is a de facto risk of abuse. Some States have therefore chosen to make a reservation to article 3 in order to protect their territory.

The second condition concerning the damage caused to another State Party may be criticised. The damage must indeed occur between two States that have ratified the ENMOD Convention. The scope of the ENMOD Convention is therefore largely reduced to the only States that have ratified it, and environmental protection is therefore not fully covered by it as a State that has not ratified it may use such amending techniques. Moreover, it is required that the modification is a deliberate manipulation of the state, although this deliberate manipulation must be proven. A State could attempt to defend itself by claiming that it was an accident.

As regards the purpose of modification techniques, they must have “extensive, lasting and serious effects“, however these terms are imprecise. An interpretative protocol (Additional Protocol I of Geneva in 1977) was therefore put in place in order to better define these terms, even if today, despite these protocols, they remain imprecise. According to the protocol, it should therefore be understood that an extended effect is one that extends over a large area, i.e. several hundred square kilometers. Concerning the durability of the effects, they should be understood as lasting several months.

Finally, a serious effect would be one that causes a strong disturbance, or serious damage to the populations, the natural resources of the targeted state or its economy and wealth. In spite of these clarifications, the purpose remains quite broad and can therefore be broadly interpreted by States. Finally, another problem of interpretation of the terms of the said ENMOD Convention has arisen concerning the definition of “environmental modification technique“, which is to be found in Article 2: “For the purposes of Article 1, the term ‘environmental modification techniques’ means any technique designed to modify – through the deliberate manipulation of natural processes – the dynamics, composition or structure of the Earth, including its biota, lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere, or outer space“.

By this definition, the ENMOD Convention does not apply to changes in the environment indirectly, incidentally or incidentally produced by means of conventional warfare or by weapons of mass destruction, or by weapons or means of warfare which do not have as their primary objective the modification of the environment through the deliberate manipulation of natural processes. Moreover, as these protocols are not incorporated into the Convention, it is not legally binding. They are only intended to clarify the interpretation of certain terms. For example, these protocols have provided examples of effects occurring such as a Tsunami, disruption of the ecological balance of a region, ocean currents etc. This raises the question of what is meant by environmental modification techniques. On this subject, the Italian delegation wished to broaden the scope of the text by adding after “any technique whose purpose is to modify“, the terms to influence or affect. The question had been raised as to whether blowing up a dam could be considered as an activity modifying the hydrosphere.

To conclude, modification techniques should have been defined more precisely in order to be more comprehensive and therefore more applicable in practice. For example, Georges Fischer, in his book “Annuaire Français de Droit International“, in which he comments on the said Convention, had proposed as a definition “any deliberate manipulation of natural processes with the aim of modifying or affecting them”, a definition which makes possible to encompass a greater number of situations and which is simpler to interpret.

As far as France is concerned, it is one of the few European Union states that have not signed the ENMOD Convention. France refused to sign this Convention which did not correspond at the time to its disarmament policy which was rather defensive under the Fifth Republic. Even today, it is still not a State party to the Convention. Indeed, it criticises the imprecise and therefore uncertain application of the articles.

Ultimately, in view of the ENMOD Convention’s lacunae, it must be said that the ENMOD Convention has not had the desired effect in its application by its State parties, since it does not have real binding force and remains highly imprecise in these terms.

This article was written by Cloé DANIEL, Mikhael TORRES, Yannis KHENNANE, Léa DETURCHE, M’hamed BENNOUNA and Jean-Pierre MENDY (Paris-Saclay).

NEAR Shoemaker: The Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous Space Probe

The NEAR Shoemaker

Let us have a look at the NEAR Shoemaker. “Deep down, the only idol, the only God that I respect is time, it is obvious that I can only do myself pleasure or profound harm in relation to him. I knew that this poplar would last longer than I did, that this hay, on the other hand, would have wilted before me; I knew that I was expected at home and also that I could easily have stayed under this tree for an hour. I knew that any haste on my part would be as foolish as any slowness. And this for life“.

The obstacle time, the slow time, its rejection as well as its appreciation, but also, more often, the neutrality, undergone or accepted, with regard to him, recurring themes in the work of Françoise Sagan could not, any better, summarize the existence of Eugene Merle Shoemaker whose time of existence, certainly undergone in this case, has, amusingly or dramatically according to the spirits, employed itself to recall the link, coarse, which it maintained, with the surprise, the disappointment of the surprise.

Deceased at the age of sixty-nine, at the beginning of the Indian summer of his life according to Edwin Shneidamn, following a car accident during a trip in search of asteroid impacts in Australia, “Gene” Shoemaker is, in the collective imagination, mainly known to be the only “being” to have had the privilege of resting on the Moon after his death, the ashes of his remains having been sent in 1999, as a tribute, by wish of NASA and his descendants.

A gifted spirit turned astrophysicist and engineering geologist, Dr. Shoemaker contributed during his lifetime to the creation of the field of “astrogeology” by establishing the Astrogeology Research Program at the U.S. Institute of Geological Surveys in 1961, of which he was the first director. In particular, he was strongly involved in the “Ranger” missions to the Moon, which ended up revealing that the Moon was covered with impact craters of various sizes.

The co-discovery, in 1933, of the comet bearing its name “Shoemaker-Levy 9”, as well as the followup of the latter, completed the “highlighting” enterprise, to all and sundry, started in the previous years.

It’s on the strength of this record of service that he joined the “Discovery” program, launched in 1992 by NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin. This program was launched to enable “more frequent, cheaper, efficient” space missions with a spectrum of “skills” extending from robotic exploration of the solar system to the identification of exoplanets, using the now famous Kepler telescope.

The robotic exploration of the solar system, a prerogative of the “Discovery” program, as stated earlier, notably revolved, among many other missions, around the study of asteroids. The interests in the study of asteroids, formerly known as “sky’s vermin” are – both scientifically and economically – considerable. Thus, in astronomy, as Patrick Michel, a French astrophysicist and director of research at the CNRS, reminds us in an interview with Le Monde, “The study of asteroids gives the recipe for the formation of planets”.

Indeed, asteroids have the advantage – unlike the materials that formed the planets – of not having been heated, or only slightly, and therefore not having been chemically transformed, thus keeping the memory of the initial composition of the solar system. It is also thanks to elements found in meteorites, which are asteroids that fell to Earth, that we have been able to date the Solar System to 4.567 billion years ago.

In addition, they could, in the future, enlighten us on the origin of life. Indeed, it is envisaged, by the scientific community, that asteroids may have brought back the necessary ingredients – water and organic matter – for the creation of life. Antonella Barucci, an Italian astronomer, explained in an interview with Le Point that: “carbonaceous chondrite-type meteorites – found on Earth and originating mostly from asteroids – have exactly the same deuterium/hydrogen ratio as the water in our oceans and rivers”.

In a more pragmatic lens, studying asteroids could also allow us to improve the means of “planetary defense”. Indeed, many asteroids have an orbit that brings them dangerously close to the planet Earth. If it seems complicated to systematically destroy them, studying them could allow us, however, to learn how to deflect them. Patrick Michel explained, again, that “if the fall of an asteroid is the least likely natural disaster, it is also the only one that can be predicted and avoided… if we give ourselves the means”.

Moreover, from an economic point of view, it is estimated that one cubic kilometer of type M asteroid, i.e. metallic, contains seven billion tons of iron, one billion tons of nickel, and enough cobalt to satisfy world consumption for three thousand years. Finally, in a distant future, the latter could constitute space bases – self-sufficient due to the presence of mining resources – within the solar system. Moreover, thanks to their low mass and thus their low gravity, the energy spent to leave them would be much less consequent. Now that the time to dive deeper in the mission itself has arrived, let’s take a, quick, moment to have a look at the asteroid constituting its core.

The EROS asteroid, whose exploration was the core of the Near Shoemaker mission, was known to be at the time, the second largest known asteroid representing roughly the size of the Caribbean Island country of Barbados. This asteroid, whose first terrestrial approach was recorded in 1931, is also known to have been the first asteroid to have its shape visually determined and was notably at the heart of a pioneering legal action in this matter. Indeed, eleven months before the landing of the Near Shoemaker probe on the asteroid Eros, Gregory Nemitz, CEO of Orbital Development, a company located in the town of Twin Falls, Idaho, attempted to assert his ownership of the “asteroid433 Eros” by taking legal action against NASA and the U.S. government. The legal action was seated on the recognized and affirmed common law principle of the validity of pre-possession recognition.

During an interview given to the SPACE.com website, Gregory Nemitz said regarding this legal action “Everybody knows that possession is nine-tenths of ownership”. Adding to it, in an attempt to shed some light about his actions, he declared in a meeting filled with School of Mines attendees “The primary purpose of the lawsuit was to get an official determination from the U.S. government about property rights in space. The secondary goal was to move forward the international conversation about that topic” Even if, in the end, the lawsuit resulted in a “motion to dismiss”, with both of the Federal Court and the Court of Appeal declining to consider the motion on the grounds of “lack of a cognisable legal theory”, it did end up allowing the asteroid Eros to go down in history as the first space feature for which recognition of possession was sought. To everyone’s surprise, the anchoring in history of the EROS asteroid would end up strengthened, again, thanks to a mission, which became NEAR, conceived in the mid-1980s.

The question that the NEAR mission, inaugurating the “Discovery” program set up by NASA, as mentioned above, proposed to resolve was based on the assumption that at the time of the launch of the project, no asteroid had yet been visited by a spacecraft. It is, with this in mind, that the NEAR probe, renamed “NEAR Shoemaker” in homage to the tragically deceased doctor, saw the light of day with the objective of measuring the general properties of the asteroid Eros as well as its surface and internal proportions.

This project with an initial titanic cost of six hundred and fifty millions of dollars, revised however downwards, two hundred and ten millions of dollars, to adhere to the low-cost policy of the “Discovery” project became, on February 14, 2000, the first project allowing a space object to enter the orbit of an asteroid. This entry, initially planned for January 1999, had however been delayed due to a problem inherent to one of the three maneuvers enabling it to catch up with its target and get closer to it (which notably caused a failure of the probe’s motor as well as a momentary loss of contact with the craft). Chance of fate, the failure, corrected, allowed the scientists in charge of the project to choose as a new date the 14 of February 2001, February 14 related to Valentine’s Day and chosen in reference to the asteroid, taking its name from the Greek god of love, Eros.

During a whole year spent in the orbit close to the asteroid (between five and fifty-six kilometres), “NEAR Shoemaker” allowed to elaborate databases, provided in innumerable fields, such as the mass of the object, its structure, its gravity, its magnetic field… Among the numerous discoveries made, some of them proved to be more fundamental than others, in particular the discovery that “the surface of Eros had both very smooth, flat areas and regions covered with large boulders. NEAR found that Eros, unlike the planets of the solar system, had not undergone extensive melting and differentiation into distinct layers”. To get to the end of this mission, the probe was equipped with “an X-ray/gamma ray spectrometer, a near infrared imaging spectrograph, a multi-spectral camera fitted with a CCD imaging detector, a laser rangefinder, and a magnetometer”, the total mass of the instruments being estimated to fifty-six kilograms and requiring a eighty-one watts power source to function normally. Moreover the NEAR tracking system also allowed a radio science experiment to be held, experiment used to estimate the gravity field of the asteroid.

It’s on the strength of these numerous observations, added to the encounter, 1212 km away, of the asteroid “Mathilde” on June 27, 1997, that the probe’s mission unofficially ended on February 12, 2001. Unofficially, indeed, because on this February 12 the probe survived a landing on the surface of EROS, a landing not foreseen in the initial plans. During this “extra mile” made by the probe, the latter allowed, even beyond the objectives of its mission, both to send photographs of objects as small as a centimetre during its descent and to allow the collection and sending of scientific data on the composition of the surface of the asteroid.

Closing its final chapter, on February 28, 2001, communication with the “NEAR Shoemaker” probe ended, although an unsuccessful attempt to re-establish contact took place on December 10, 2002, killing two birds with one stone by engraving the name, for eternity, of the asteroid and the deceased scientist in the scientific collections, and more importantly, in the collective imagination.

This article was written by Cloé DANIEL, Mikhael TORRES, Yannis KHENNANE, Léa DETURCHE, M’hamed BENNOUNA and Jean-Pierre MENDY (Paris-Saclay).

The Space Legal Issues with Mega-Constellations

With the advent of mega-constellations of satellites like Space-X’s Starlink, will we have to play Crossy Road in an orbital version before launching a spacecraft?” Nowadays, we hear more and more about constellations and mega-constellations projects consisting of hundreds or thousands of spacecraft. A satellite constellation is a group of artificial satellites working together. The satellites orbit in selected and synchronised orbits so that their respective ground coverage overlap and complement each other instead of interfering with each other.

Today, many businesses and other users, such as the general public, demand better and more efficient connections. To respond to them, more and more efficient communications technologies are developed and implemented. Today, several “mega-constellations” projects are being organized to connect the seven billion human beings inhabiting our “blue planet”.

Starlink is a project organized by SpaceX and which aims to provide high-speed internet access throughout the planet by mega-constellations. Currently, Internet access depends on satellites transmitting Internet via towers and cellular cables. However, these two options do not allow Internet access in some remote areas. Today only fifty-seven per cent of the world’s population has access to the Internet. Disparities are felt in some regions such as Central Africa where only twelve per cent of the population has access to the Internet. Elon Musk’s project would allow broadband internet access across the globe at an affordable cost thanks to several high-performance satellites placed in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) above five hundred anf fifty kilometres from Earth. This project of a mega-constellation would benefit a lot of people, but does the end always justify the means?

Starlink is not the only mega-constellation project. With the same goal, the startup OneWeb plans to send six hundred and fifty satellites to one thousand two hundred kilometers altitude by 2021 and therefore create a mega-constellation. However, the company OneWeb, declared bankruptcy at the end of March. Moreover, Jeff Bezos, talks about launching three thousand two hundred satellites between at an average altitude of six hundred kilometers. This mega-constellation is based on small satellites in LEO between three hundred and fifty and one thousand kilometers altitude. However, there are several concerns about mega-constellations such as the issue of orbit congestion and space debris.

THE ORBIT CONGESTION

In 1976, eight States traversed by Equator signed the Bogota Declaration in which they requested their rights over geostationary orbit as a natural resource that had been unfairly removed from their sovereignty. The Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) is the circular orbit located at a distance of 36.000 km above the Earth’s Equator. A satellite placed in this orbit always fixes the same point. The GEO satellites are used for TV, telecommunication services and other applications.

The Bogota Declaration is the evidence of the fear among developing countries that no space will be left for them to launch geostationary satellites in the future due to orbit congestion. Though, the Bogota Declaration did not receive wide international support nor recognition. Moreover, the Article 2 of the Outer Space Treaty provides that “outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means“. The geostationary orbit is in fact part of outer space and the 1967 Treaty therefore invalidates the sovereignty claims of the Bogota Declaration. Yet, Article 33 of the 1973 International Telecommunications Convention defines the geostationary satellite orbit as limited resources that may have equitable access.

Starlink planned to deploy about twelve thousand satellites by 2027 with the objective of sending a total of forty-two thousand satellites if the company obtains the authorization. To give an overview, in 2019 there were two thousand active satellites in orbit around the Earth and thirty-four thousand objects larger than ten centimetres in size. This monopoly of the orbit raises the question of the equitable use of this resource by these companies. Above all, however, mega-constellations raise the risk of orbital congestion, which could seriously hamper future space missions.

SPACE DEBRIS

The problem of congestion is directly related to the risk of a significant increase in Earth orbit debris. The increase in the number of objects in orbit necessarily increases the chances of collisions between aircraft. Concerning Starlink project, placing the satellite in LEO, will allow them to de-orbit in a few months thanks to their own propulsion system, whereas a traditional satellite placed more than one thousand kilometres from Earth takes one to five years to de-orbit. However, Starlink’s satellites or those of other mega constellation projects are likely to fail. It is estimated that already three per cent of Starlink’s satellites are out of service; these satellites are no longer manoeuvrable and are therefore likely to collide.

This risk is real and has already been observed. In September 2019, the European Space Agency had to perform evasive maneuvers on one of its satellites in order to avoid a collision with a mega-constellation of SpaceX. In this case, the device in question was in operation, but its anti-collision device was deactivated. Therefore, if nothing is done to prevent these risks, repeated collisions could occur, which could lead, in the extreme, to Kessler’s scenario: an exponential increase in debris and impact probabilities that would make space exploitation impossible.

The law is silent on the subject of space rights and mega-constellations. Jean-Yves le Gall, head of the French space agency and former president of the IAF, believes that mega-constellations would make it necessary to establish an international law on waste: “There are practically no examples of satellites that have had a problem because of debris. But this is beginning to become urgent because of the mega-constellation projects. SpaceX doesn’t do anything that breaks the rules, the problem is that there are no rules. There are air traffic controllers for airplanes, we’re going to come up with the same system for space“.

Without an international law to control behaviour, it is up to the States to legislate waste treatment. In this field, only France has a law requiring that all aircraft in low orbit be de-orbited within twenty-five years. For the rest, national agencies such as NASA have adopted non-binding rules for their own satellites. Thus, everything depends on the good conduct of operators. To date, a Space Safety Cooperation charter, signed by thirty-four players in the sector, including Airbus and OneWeb, aims to regulate the production of debris in orbit. Other directives, such as those of the Inter-agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, created in 1993 by NASA and the European, Russian and Japanese space agencies, issue non-binding recommendations, one of which is based on French law.

But like all environmental issues that present long-term challenges, simple rules of good conduct may not be enough to stem the spread of space debris; it would be enough for an operator not to respect them to spoil everything.

Several satellite recycling projects are underway. Space Advanced Concepts Laboratory is trying to set up a kind of autonomous garage in orbit that would house spaceships to diagnose the state of the satellites, to repair them but also to tow them for recycling. This project is expected to come to fruition within the next fifteen years or so. It would partly solve the problem of space debris and increase the lifespan of satellites. Another project proposed by the start-up Clear Space aims to send a satellite whose mission will be to capture space debris using four robotic arms.

However, these projects are not yet implemented and finding investors is very complicated since they will not bring benefit. The mega-constellation would be a great technological breakthrough for Internet access in particular, however the risk of congestion and an increase in space debris pose real problems.

This article was written by Corinne BAUDOIN, Laetitia PIETRI, Pierre-Yves VILLARD, Guillaume BRESSON, Bianca-Laetitia TOMASI, Élise DRILHON and Esther SENG GARCIA (Paris-Saclay).