the world’s principal space-faring nations have taken
the first step toward assuring that robotic and human exploration of the Moon and Mars is done using a common set of technical standards.
Meeting in Spineto, Italy, May 30-June 1,
the agencies set the outlines for agreeing to commonly accepted standards for communications, control, life-support and docking systems.
The 25-page “Global Exploration Strategy – The Framework for Cooperation” that was agreed to is designed to introduce minimum standards of interoperability that can drive down costs and facilitate cooperation while permitting individual nations to pursue their own national strategies – independently if they wish.
“This may seem overly vague, but what we have accomplished has never been done before,” said SimonettaDiPippo, director of exploration at the Italian Space Agency, which hosted the meeting
and also chairs
the European Space Agency’s exploration board. “It means that as a lunar or Mars exploration program proceeds, an agency adopting these common standards could enter the loop and participate with its own contribution even if it was not involved from the beginning.”
Pippo said in a June 1 interview that the very different data systems used by Europe and the United States to retrieve and archive planetary science data act as a barrier to the participation of other nations in space exploration.
“We in Europe are used to using both systems, but we have found that in Japan and China and India, both of these standards have posed serious
problems, because they have their own standards,” DiPippo said.
One surprise of the meeting was the major presence of China, which has perhaps the world’s fastest-growing space program but up to now has hesitated about whether to partake in an internationally coordinated exploration effort.
China National Space Administrator Sun Laiyan addressed the Spineto meeting and endorsed its overall goals.
The presence of China and the United States among the signatories illustrates the challenges inherent in creating any global standard for space exploration. Regarding space activity,
the two nations are barely on speaking terms. Each views the other’s space ambitions as a threat.
Pippo declined to address the U.S.-China issue directly but referred to unspecified “cultural differences” as being one roadblock that this new effort will have to overcome if it is to succeed.
Having agreed to the basic principles, the 14 signatory agencies have set as the next step the creation of a semi-permanent body that would coordinate further steps in harmonizing the exploration effort. They agreed to meet in November in Berlin to review the next steps.
The document they produced May 31 stresses that a global space-exploration policy on robotic and manned missions to the Moon and then to Mars and possibly to asteroids will not be binding. It makes a passing reference to “such difficult issues as property rights and technology transfer” that inhibit multilateral efforts today as much as ever.
But it says a limited agreement on technical standards should be possible while permitting individual nations to pursue their own efforts without seeking the approval of a United Nations-like supranational governing body.
It drew comparisons to
the telecommunications transmissions standards for mobile telephony that have
made it possible for telephones to be used worldwide even if made by competing manufacturers and operated in nations with dissimilar regulatory regimes.
But the document also makes the case for a multinational program to explore Mars robotically and, eventually, to send astronauts there.
“Several nations can afford to send their own robotic exploration missions to Mars but there are significant benefits in coordinating these national efforts and future human exploration missions,” it says.
The document recommends that these same nations establish a “Coordination Mechanism,” which would be a semi-permanent body that would help assure that common standards are developed and used at least in limited areas that do not violate technology-transfer limitations.
Also recommended is “an assessment of the requirement for any relevant international legal agreements” to make cooperation easier.
One of the clear policy decisions of the document is the direction for
exploration. “The moon is our nearest and first goal,” it says. Some of the signatory nations, including individual European nations such as France, have urged that the global focus be on Mars instead of the
Moon because of Mars’ superior potential as an arena of scientific discovery.
The 14 agency signatories are the national space agencies of Italy, Britain, France, China, Canada, Australia, Germany, India, Japan, South Korea, the United States, Ukraine and Russia, and the 17-nation European Space Agency.