- - Monday, April 11, 2016

If asked about humanity’s greatest achievements in the 20th century, one would certainly mention the beginning of the space age. Its major benefit for all of mankind is not the immediate economic and technological advancements, but the more subtle shifts in our cultures and international relations.

Since the dawn of the space age the first space powers started not only competing to achieve new heights in space exploration, but also collaborating with one another. Gradually, other states became involved in the process. France, for example, started a long and fruitful partnership with Russia, participating in many joint experiments and projects after Charles de Gaulle visited the Baikonur Cosmodrome in 1966.

Today, unfortunately, space is one of the few spheres of interest that unite us. Despite our political differences, we continue to work together on the International Space Station, and our next step will most likely be to travel not to the low-Earth orbit, but to the moon. We at the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences also see many other possibilities for cooperation in the exploration of space. It is not merely a matter of funds that makes collaborative projects so important for space science, but new opportunities.

The first artificial satellites were launched during the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58, when extensive programs of observations and experiments took place throughout the world. The next large-scale international space program started when Halley’s Comet returned to the sun’s vicinity in 1986. American, Soviet, Japanese and European spaceships were sent to rendezvous with the comet. During the fly-bys of the Soviet Vega spacecraft, we would calculate the location of the comet’s nucleus with precision, and this data was immediately sent to our European colleagues. This was a new type of space experiment, achieved in a joint venture.

What comes next? On March 14, we witnessed the start of ExoMars-2016 mission from Baikonur. ExoMars is a joint European and Russian project that is aimed at learning whether Mars was ever inhabited and what kind of climate it had. The project was initially developed by European and American space agencies. but American colleagues left it. At the same time, Russia had suffered the failure of the Phobos Sample Return mission, which was the only national planetary project in many years. The European Space Agency (ESA) made a proposal to Roscosmos to turn ExoMars into a joint project. Vladimir Popovkin, then head of Roscosmos, passionately supported the idea.

We tried to implement the idea as a truly joint endeavor. This meant that Russia not only contributed by providing rockets and scientific instruments, but took an active part in developing a joint data system. We hope that ExoMars will become the first step in future collaborations in the area of planetary exploration.

Our next target might be the moon or, more precisely, its polar regions. The moon’s regolith contains frozen water deposits that were implanted by solar wind or left by comets. These deposits can reveal the early history of our solar system. The “fossils” there can also be mined for the sake of increasing the knowledge of the universe.

The current Federal Space Program of Russia envisages a sequence of missions to the moon. The first three missions include sending two landers and one orbiter that will study the surface and exosphere of the moon and test soft-landing techniques. Roscosmos and ESA are currently discussing possible forms of cooperation in this program, and we hope that the decision to conduct joint programs will be approved by ESA’s ministerial council by the end of the year.

We also have a successful history in collaborating with the United States, and we are very happy that American spacecraft are using Russian instruments. However, up until now, only the International Space Station is considered to be a joint project between the two nations. Still, our communities are very interested in working together. One possible joint endeavor could involve Venus. Considered to be a “forgotten” planet, it still presents enormous interests to scientists.

In order to outline possible joint missions, the Venus Joint Science Definition Team, which includes representatives of Russian and American scientific institutions, was established. Its first and second meetings were held at the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 2015 and 2016. They were based on two concepts of the Venus mission that were developed independently in Russia and the United States. Unfortunately, these projects were not adopted, and now we are looking for ways to harmonize our goals and for best methods to achieve them.

Mars, the moon and Venus are our nearest neighbors. Each one of them was extensively explored during the first years of the space age. So why should we go back? The answer is simple. These celestial bodies (except for Venus) can, in principle, be used by human beings. This does not necessarily mean that they will be inhabited. But it is reasonable to build a scientific station on the moon with scientists and engineers. The moon provides unique conditions for radioastronomers, and X-rays and cosmic ray specialists. Even though the journey to Mars is dangerous, human curiosity and courage are great enough to risk it once. Stable collaboration between nations based on mutual understanding is vital to the success of this mission.

Lev Zelenyi is director of the Institute of Space Research of the Russian Academy of Sciences, where Olga Zakutnyia is a senior specialist.

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