Nasa, Roscosmos and the reopening of the final frontier

Could Donald Trump’s presidency herald a new era of co-operation in space?

Last man on the moon: US astronaut Eugene Cernan, who died last week,   in 1972. Photograph: Nasa/EPA

Last man on the moon: US astronaut Eugene Cernan, who died last week, in 1972. Photograph: Nasa/EPA

 

The apparently positive relationship between US president Donald Trump and Russian premier Vladimir Putin could potentially herald an era of greater co-operation between Nasa and Russia’s Roscosmos. The European Space Agency (ESA), on the other hand, might not be looked on as favourably.

In the 2015 sci-fi movie blockbuster The Martian, Nasa officials are assisted in their hour of need by the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) to help cosmic castaway Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, survive another catastrophe.

Despite being a work of fiction, The Martian prompted one senior Chinese space official to state publicly that the film was proof the US wanted greater co-operation with China’s space programme.

While the US Congress prohibits Nasa from engaging with its Chinese counterpart, for security reasons, the head of the CNSA, Xu Dazhe, has pledged that China’s space plans will become “increasingly transparent”.

Every major national space programme exhibits an unwillingness to share, be it expertise or technology. Yet space exploration is one of the few human endeavours that’s universally supported, regardless of the nation state or political regime leading the way. Even the late American comedian Bill Hicks, who criticised virtually every US government policy, was an advocate for Nasa.

Mr Trump and Mr Putin ostensibly show a lot of support for one another. It remains to be seen how much of this is geopolitical theatre, but even if the “Trumputin effect” is little more than an egregious meeting of two like-minded tyrants on the world stage, greater co-operation between Russia and the US is still an intriguing prospect.

Competition

Nothing beats a little healthy competition for driving innovation. During the cold war, space exploration progressed at such a rapid pace principally because of the intense rivalry Russia and the US felt for each other. Competitive patriotism pushed each to their limits.

However, the possibility of a new era of greater co-operation offers its own advantages. In reality, there’s already significant cooperation between Nasa, Roscosmos and the ESA.

“The Russians are the only ones who are launching rockets with people in them to the International Space Station (ISS), so they transport all US and European astronauts going to the space station already,” says Prof Turlough Downes of Dublin City University’s department of mathematical sciences. “Of course, one of the big ambitions at the moment is to get a permanent settlement on either the moon or Mars. So far, the US is the clear expert on getting things to land successfully on Mars. Perhaps co-operation between Russia and the US on this project would be welcome.”

Russia and the ESA have been working closely together in an effort to get a new mission to Mars, which is expected in about 2020. This would be a follow-up of sorts to the Nasa-led Rover mission, which began back in 2003. Closer collaboration between all three groups on Mars exploration would greatly enhance the prospects of progress on what has become a shared obsession to colonise the red planet. However, Downes isn’t optimistic that the US would be willing to participate in the aforementioned project between the ESA and Roscosmos, though not because of traditional geopolitical rivalries.

“In my view, it’s unlikely the US would get involved, given Trump’s antipathy towards Europe, ” he says.

Three-legged space race

Were Russia and the US to agree to co-operate more closely, the new “space race” would be less a 100 metres sprint, more a three-legged event, in nature. Trust that both parties were keeping a friendly eye on their third leg would be key.

All triple entendres aside, there are many reasons to support closer ties between Nasa and Roscosmos.

“Significant economies of scale would kick in,” says Prof Mike Hinchey, professor of software engineering at the University of Limerick and until this month the director of Lero, the Irish Software Research Centre. “The US hasn’t had adequate launch capabilities for years now and is reliant on the Russians.”

While it’s difficult to unearth too much by way of specifics at Roscosmos, the Russian Federation continues to produce many of the world’s leading scientists, mathematicians and engineers, ensuring that its space programme remains strong.

The Americans may have ceased sending manned missions into space for the time being, but innovation in other areas is at an all-time high.

“Nasa is doing a lot of work on smaller unmanned crafts, almost like more advanced drones, an approach to space travel which doesn’t rely on the fortunes of one craft but rather multiple smaller crafts working in tandem,” says Hinchey.

This approach is partially inspired by nature, specifically the way swarms of insects work together. If one small craft malfunctions, there are numerous others in place to pick up the slack.

“I’ve been working with Nasa for 15 years on a concept mission to send 1,000 small spacecraft into the asteroid belt,” says Hinchey. “It has been a goal of Nasa to put a human on an asteroid for some time. At this point, the technology isn’t there. But we’re making significant progress.”

No one from Nasa was available to comment on what a Trump presidency might mean for the American space programme, but there’s no doubt that combining the strengths of Roscosmos and Nasa would accelerate progress in a number of areas.

“Given Russia’s strength in engineering, science and maths, and Nasa’s innovative flare, not to mention the huge amount of expertise the ESA contributes, greater co-operation would certainly benefit us all,” says Hinchey.

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