Skip to content
Curator Doug Millard looks at how our exploration of space is a truly international affair.

In early 2021, three spacecraft speeding towards Mars will reach the red planet. The arrival of the United States’ Mars 2020, China’s Tianwen-1 and the United Arab Emirates’ Hope, will generate national pride and celebration in those three countries.

Just a few days before this year’s national day, the UAE’s mission executed a third and final mid-course correction. All planetary missions need these to make sure they hit their target! That Hope required only three such manoeuvres on the way to Mars – it can be far more – was itself a source of joy for the young space engineers and scientists working on their first ever interplanetary mission.

Hope mission team working on the spacecraft electronics,2016. Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre.

The United States, on the other hand, has launched many spacecraft to the planet but its Mars 2020 mission with the Perseverance rover on board is the most ambitious and sophisticated of them all. The seven minutes of terror’ when ground controllers wait in silence for the signal that the lander and its rover have survived their fiery descent through the Martian atmosphere will give way to much cheering, flag waving and jubilation when that signal comes through 18 February, 2021.

The Curiosity rover mission control team celebrate its safe landing on Mars, 2012. NASA

China’s ground controllers will have to endure a similar wait while Tianwen-1’s lander and rover descends to the Martian surface two months later. This mission bears witness to China’s careful, long-term planning of its space programme which just this week saw the landing on the Moon of Chang’e-5, a robotic mission to bring lunar samples to Earth – the first time that will have been done since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 in 1976.

Launch of the Chang’e-5 mission, November 2020. CNSA

The national objectives of these three missions are clear and yet they all incorporate an international dimension as well. Mars 2020 carries experiments from Spain and Norway as well as those from the US. China’s Tianwen-1 carries instruments on its rover and orbiter that French and Austrian teams helped with. And the UAE’s Hope mission planners teamed with universities in the US during the spacecraft’s development.

Such international collaboration is by no means confined to Mars missions. The Science Museum proudly displays an engineering model of the BepiColombo spacecraft, its flight version now over two years into its 7 year journey to Mercury. ‘Bepi’ is a collaborative venture from the 22 member state European Space Agency (ESA) and JAXA –Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency. Some 1200 scientists and engineers from 16 different countries worked on the spacecraft.

BepiColombo is the ESA's first spacecraft to Mercury. The full-size structural thermal model can be seen in the Tomorrow's World gallery of the Science Museum, London.
BepiColombo is the ESA’s first spacecraft to Mercury. The full-size structural thermal model can be seen in the Tomorrow’s World gallery of the Science Museum, London.

And in three years’ time the cheerfully named SMILE mission will investigate the interaction of the Solar Wind with Earth’s magnetosphere, to learn more of how our own star affects planet Earth. SMILE is a joint venture between China’s Academy of Sciences and ESA with the United Kingdom, as with Bepi, contributing significantly to the mission.

The SMILE spacecraft monitors the Sun’s solar wind on Earth’s magnetosphere (artist impression), ESA/ATG medialab.

These are indeed exciting times for the UK’s space programme. Before long satellites will be launched from spaceports in Cornwall and Scotland, the first time missions have been launched from British soil. But these endeavours too will be truly international affairs with overseas companies and agencies working with the UK on both the launch sites and the satellites themselves.

Underpinning all these missions and programmes, however, is a far more deeply engrained internationalism. In 1958 the United Nations created a new Office for Outer Space Affairs.

Emblem of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs

It was just a year since the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite of the Earth. The United States had responded with its Explorer 1 satellite a few months later and the space race between the two Cold War rivals was well underway. With humanity having breached the frontier of space the UN’s new Office was charged with running a newly created Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

Sputnik orbiting Earth. Artist’s impression, Gregory R. Todd

To this day the Office manages the space treaties that enable the ‘orderly conduct of activities in outer space’. These cover such issues as ‘the freedom of exploration and use of space for the benefit and interest of all countries’ and ‘the non-appropriation of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies.’ These agreements also commit nations ‘to assist an astronaut in case of accident, distress, emergency or unintended landing’. They have also established standards of liability for damage caused by space objects falling to the Earth. And for those who need to know what exactly is up there (approximately 6,000 satellites, functioning or dead at the last count) the treaties requires the space-faring nations of the world to register all objects launched into outer space.

Explorer 1. NASA

As important is the programme of projects the UNOOSA oversees to encourage and help develop space applications for the benefit of people around the world.  Global health, environment, disaster monitoring and response, communication and transportation are but a few of the areas in which the Office provides assistance and guidance.

Space is essential for the achievement of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals that guide global developmental efforts until 2030. Over 40% of these directly benefit from space applications and if one was to add telecommunications enabled by space the percentage would be higher still. UNOOSA works to help all countries access the enormous benefits of space and so help them advance on the Sustainable Development Goals.

And as we approach the third decade of the 21st century there is still more for the UNOOSA to consider and help manage as the number of nations, agencies and companies that can reach space increase dramatically.

The space sector is expanding rapidly, with new actors entering the arena and fast technological advancements opening new opportunities. In this increasingly complex environment, at UNOOSA we work to advance international cooperation among both established and emerging space actors, to ensure space is an inclusive arena and that its benefits reach everyone, everywhere.

International cooperation to facilitate the development and use of space applications is essential to address the common challenges we face on earth, from climate change to disaster risk reduction. Furthermore, it is our duty to preserve space for future generations, and international cooperation is essential to protect space as a global commons and ensure its long-term sustainable use. – UNOOSA Director Simonetta Di Pippo, 25 November, 2020

Fifty two years ago this Christmas the crew of Apollo 8 looked back on their home planet from lunar orbit. The photographs Bill Anders took as Earth appeared in all its majesty and beauty from behind the barren Moon lodged in the human psyche. Subsequent missions repeated the shots which are now known collectively and simply as ‘Earthrise’.

Earth seen from lunar orbit by the crew of Apollo 8, December 1968. NASA

All those years ago space exploration enabled us, for the very first time, to look back on our place in space as one world where international borders are all but invisible. It is heartening that half a century on the very process of exploring space sets as good an example as any of how international collaboration can achieve far more than the sum of its parts.