The newest missions to space are going beyond the International Space Station (ISS) to the Moon and the Mars. Speaker Ersilia Vaudo Scarpetta talks about new players in the space industry and it’s inspiring future path.
Ersilia Vaudo Scarpetta has been working at the European Space Agency since 1991 and she is currently Chief Diversity Officer. During her career at ESA, she held several positions, including elaboration of high-level strategy, formulation of policies, international relations, strategic analysis, relations with Member States, network with Think Tanks. She has supported the creation of the European Space Policy Institute in Vienna. She participated to the formulation of the first ESA Exploration programme, worked as coordinator of Science and Human Spaceflight activities and had the responsibility as Executive Secretary of the Science and Technology Advisory Group on Exploration in charge of selecting experiments for exploration missions, including ExoMars.
She spent four years at the ESA Washington Office in charge of relations with NASA and US stakeholders, and was Member of the Board of Directors of Women in Aerospace US. Currently she is member of the Standard Ethics Rating Committee. She holds a Degree in Physics, with specialisation in Astrophysics and has a further education in Economics. During her studies she has been awarded with Amelia Earhart Fellowship in recognition of distinctive merit in Astrophysics studies and with the Academia dei Lincei Fellowship, for outstanding Italian students in Physics.
Scarpetta wrote a high number of articles on science and space for the general public and participated to events and TEDx talks on the Universe, as strong believer in the power of inspiration and transformation that science can have on people and in particular on the young generations.
Mission to the Moon
The Moon, Mars and the stars, but also – why not? – the asteroids, the comets, and the exoplanets. The mission objectives of the main space agencies on the current international scene are certainly ambitious. In numbers, countries like the US, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and Europe are planning for the coming years about 14 different missions on or near the Moon, 13 Mars-related missions, as well as others on asteroids and other planets of the Solar System.
However, while the big space agencies lay out their exploration strategies for the decades ahead, private players are stepping up, bringing about not only ideas, but also concrete projects and remarkable financial resources. The space race seems to be no longer a business of nations but rather a new competition among the brave generation of the billionaire astropreneurs as Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, and tech tycoon Elon Musk. A drive is certainly the huge potential offered by the space infrastructure to sustain the digital economy boom. But equally strong is the desire of pushing further the human reach, and beyond the attraction of being explorers and discoverers, a new purpose is emerging for the builders, designers, and settlers.
Footprints in Space
A mixture of curiosity, daring, and opportunity drives us to reach for the Universe today. But if over the past decades we had left no more than footprints in space, we seem to be ready now to build up gates and stations in the sky, and villages and cities on the Moon and even on to Mars. Actually, if we think about that, some habitable shelters in outer space do already exist: the ISS – jointly run by the US, Europe, Russia, Canada, and Japan – and the Chinese space laboratory Tiangong-2 – whose name does literally mean “heavenly palace”. But according to the latest announcements, other amazing projects are already on the table.
Indeed, as emerged from the 13th National People’s Congress last month, China will launch its new space station core module Tianhe-1 around 2020, and two other science modules by 2022. Thus, Chinese taikonauts in low-Earth orbit will soon have a new home. Already in 2019, however, the new heavy-lift rocket Long March 5 will carry the Chang’E-5 lunar sample return mission, the first one since the last Soviet Union’s in 1976. And even before, at the end of this year, the Chang’E-4 lunar lander and rover spacecraft will attempt the first-ever soft landing on the far side of the Moon, thus becoming a cornerstone in our Solar System’s exploration roadmap. And if someone could settle happily with these impressive objectives, apparently Chinese could not, as they are developing – although still at a conceptual stage – even a base on the Moon.
Landing on the Moon
But our own natural satellite is not of interest to China only. While committed to support ISS’s operations in LEO until at least 2024, NASA and ESA, too, are already setting their sights farther on the Moon. In fact, Europe is currently preparing for a robotic landing in partnership with Russia as early as 2022. And the mission does not look to be just an hit-and-run one. Preserving precious records of our Solar System evolution, our closest neighbour offers unique scientific potentials. What if there was some water ice in its dark poles as scientists believe? Such a discovery would actually open up our future to unprecedented scenarios, making the perspective of living off the lunar land much more concrete. Towards this ambitious vision are some significant steps being already taken. The future generation of explorers – and settlers, we could add – will in fact rely on a whole new crew vehicle already under development: NASA’s Orion spacecraft, with a European service module at its core, which promises to take humans farther than they have ever gone before.
America’s Dream of Mankind to Travel to Mars
After all, dates back to last December the Space Policy Directive which US President Donald Trump signed to make human return to the Moon a formal goal for NASA’s human spaceflight programme. Nothing really new, one would say, except this time President Trump himself spoke clearly, explaining that US would not only plant a flag and fly back home as done in the past: rather, American astronauts will return to the Moon while already shooting for Mars. Yes, because if Trump’s lunar ambitions are apparent at this point, the Red Planet still remains America’s long term dream.
Global Future Missions
Actually, projects and enthusiasm around future missions to Mars do not lack: if China is planning its first robotic mission for 2020 and Europe is ready to launch the second part of its ExoMars programme in search for signs of life in two years, other sensational announcements come from the new tech élite of the US’ space world. And besides, this brave group of billionaire astropreneurs seems to have us got used to their bold, daring plans. If Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are all about their plans to send tourists into space, Elon Musk shoots even farther. Indeed, less than two years ago he had captivated the audience of the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, revealing the details of his grand plan to colonise Mars and make humanity a multiplanetary species.
If his words may sound a bit too visionary, surely his actions seem quite concrete.
If confirmed, in fact, the first flight tests of SpaceX’s new giant rocket (BFR), which should be able to send humans to the Moon and on to Mars, will start already as soon as next year. And all this while the ISS partners are envisioning a new international deep space Gateway to support robotic and human exploration of the Moon and of Mars. But let’s push the ambitions. NASA has just revealed further details about TRAPPIST-1, which is the most deeply known planetary system apart from our own, distant less than 40 light years from us. This solar system is composed of seven Earth-size planets orbiting a cool dwarf star, and three of them seem to have right conditions for life. Will TRAPPIST-1 become one day an interesting destination to expand human presence beyond the Solar System? We will see. Exciting moments are just to come.