Space: It’s getting crowded up there

From Mars missions and moon shots to satellite networks and millions of sites of fast-flying rubbish, space is getting very busy indeed.

Everyone can name the first man on the Moon but what about the last? Neil Armstrong’s ‘one small step’ overshadowed all the other moonwalks, which ended over 45 years ago when Eugene Cernan, together with Harrison Schmitt, visited the Van Serg Crater, The Sculptured Hills and a huge split boulder called Tracy’s Rock, named after Cernan’s daughter. “We saw some dazzling, extraordinary things and you had to take time to appreciate them,” said the last moonwalker who passed away just a year ago. “I mean, not too many people get to see an Earth-rise.”

Cernan was the last astronaut to see it way back in 1972. Since then space agencies have prioritised unmanned missions; instead of sending humans to explore new worlds, they have sent probes and rovers. These can do the science for much less cost than astronauts, with no risk to life and the ability to go to environments that people can’t because they are too hostile or too far. That’s changing.

A new Space Race is on, fuelled this time not by a Cold War but by private competition, a search for resources and good old human curiosity. Millionaires like Elon Musk and others who have made their billions in the technology area are in a race to make space a holiday destination or even somewhere to start off-world colonies. 

Space could be big business and that’s why the UK is aiming for a slice of it with plans for its very own spaceport. There are new objectives too. We could be making a return trip to the Moon, partly because it could be a useful stopping off point just days away, to prepare for flights to Mars which is months away.

As NASA reaches its 60th birthday this year, Piers Bizony looks at its options for the next target, the Moon or Mars.

Also in this Space Special: how meteorite analysis is giving us new insights into the early building blocks of life; the spacecraft helping in the development of quantum computing; international law in the age of space tourism, and plans to put mega-constellations of satellites into orbit to bring the Internet to the more remote corners of the Earth.

With so much going on in Space, the debris orbiting the Earth becomes a bigger danger than ever. We take a look at the scale of the problem and what is being done to clean it up.

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