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Another small step: A new age of solar system exploration

Whilst the dominant scientific concern at the beginning of the new decade has been the very much rooted-on-Earth pandemic, excitement and renewed commitment to space exploration may see the 2020s eventually remembered for a surge of reignited interest in the Final Frontier. A new global space race is under way between the world’s major powers to be the first to unearth new secrets about our immediate celestial neighbourhood, the solar system.

“The purpose of life is the exploration of the Sun, the Moon and the heavens” – Anaxagoras, Ancient Greek philosopher

Already in February 2021 we’ve seen NASA successfully land its Perseverance rover on the surface of Mars and then in April, NASA’s Ingenuity rotorcraft was the first ever human-made contraption to fly above the surface of Mars. Not wanting to miss out on the action, China also landed its Zhurong rover on Mars in May. Even the United Arab Emirates (UAE) sent a satellite to orbit around the red planet. Suffice to say, Mars is arguably humanity’s biggest tourist destination for 2021. Closer to home, SpaceX recently made history by ferrying a team of astronauts to the International Space Station, the first time a private company has been entrusted with undertaking the trip. This also highlights how space exploration is now not merely the preserve of powerful governments but also a thriving space commercial sector. Later this year, the BepiColombo mission, a joint mission between the European and Japanese space agencies will reach its intended target of Mercury, a planet we still know relatively little about. Finally, plans are being fervently developed to return humans to the Moon this decade under NASA’s Artemis programme. The above milestones and planned projects are just the tip of the iceberg. And of course, Europe is not sitting idly by as the rest of the world rediscovers its space legs. Recently, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched its Agenda 2025 that outlines how Europe can play its full role in space exploration and claim its fair share of a burgeoning global space economy. Specifically relating to further solar system exploration, Agenda 2025 ambitiously states that ESA will strive towards putting the first European on the Moon by the end of the 2020s and will have defined Europe’s role in the human exploration of Mars. Supporting and underpinning these ambitions will be the dedicated research undertaken by hugely enthusiastic and talented European astronomers, many of whom are funded through the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme. Indeed, it’s not necessary to be an astronaut or a robotic rover or probe to contribute to the exploration of our solar system, much of the leg work is done down here on Earth. In this year’s dedicated space issue, we meet seven EU-funded projects that are positively contributing to Europe’s space ambitions, such as the development of a truly high-tech moon rover, efforts to produce more detailed and comprehensive maps of Mars, Mercury and the Moon and finding out whether the conditions for life are possible elsewhere in our solar system, such as Titan, one of the many moons of Saturn. Maybe by 2030 we’ll be able to look back and count the above work, not just beating a relentless pandemic, as our major scientific achievement of the decade. We may also be able to celebrate a new crop of astronauts on the Moon and maybe, just maybe, a gallant crew on their way to say hello in person to the red planet. We look forward to receiving your feedback. You can send questions or suggestions to editorial@cordis.europa.eu.

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