In amongst all the Elon Musk excitement, you’d be forgiven for forgetting there was some other stuff happening in space, too.
At the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Guadalajara, Mexico, the same place Musk revealed his dream to colonize Mars, the United Nations announced it would launch its first-ever space mission in 2021. They even picked the same day for the announcement too, September 27. Talk about being overshadowed.
The goal of the initiative is to give developing countries a chance to access space that they might not otherwise get. The project, from the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), will take place on a new unmanned space plane being developed by a private company called the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC).
"One of UNOOSA's core responsibilities is to promote international cooperation in the peaceful use of outer space," said Simonetta Di Pippo, director of UNOOSA, in a statement. "I am proud to say that one of the ways UNOOSA will achieve this… is by dedicating an entire microgravity mission to United Nations Member States, many of which do not have the infrastructure or financial backing to have a standalone space programme."
SNC’s space plane is called Dream Chaser. It’s currently undergoing testing and hasn’t actually flown to space yet, but was given funding at the start of this year by NASA for development. Its first flight is not expected before 2019.
Dream Chaser will launch atop an Atlas V rocket into Earth orbit, where it will either dock with the ISS (as per the NASA contract) or conduct missions for private companies. It may one day carry up to seven people to orbit, too. Being a space plane, about eight times smaller than the Space Shuttle, it is then able to land on a runway when it comes back to Earth.
This particular flight for the UN will see Dream Chaser stay in low Earth orbit for 14 days. The unique microgravity of Earth orbit will let countries perform experiments not possible on Earth. The UN will select which payloads it will fly in 2018, with preference given to countries who do not have their own dedicated space program. And those countries that lack the expertise in doing space missions will be given support, too.
No launch and landing site has been picked yet, but as it’s a UN mission there is theoretically a host of countries that could be used. It’s certainly a good way to give more people a chance to access space, but given that we’re supposed to start living on Mars three years later, maybe it will get overshadowed yet again.