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The final frontier

The International Space Station (ISS) is shown in

The International Space Station (ISS) is shown in this image from NASA. Credit: NASA

Today, we highlight a complex issue in the news, provide multiple perspectives and present our view on the controversy. Our hope is to start a conversation that better informs all of us, and we invite you to share your insights. Email with the subject line “space” or tweet to @NewsdayOpinion.

Welcome to the new normal in our corner of the solar system: Machines built by China and the United States simultaneously but separately rove the surface of Mars, as an orbiter from the United Arab Emirates circles the planet. Russia tests antisatellite maneuvers above Earth even as life down below becomes more dependent on satellite technology. And while the great space powers jockey, private companies prepare to take the lead in what was once a state-led sphere.

Such is the situation right now and over the last few years in outer space, signs that the next era in the age of space exploration is here. It’s a crucial chapter in space history, with a lot going on in the heavens.


Humanity in the galaxy

The last few months have seen incredible achievements of American science and engineering, with the robotic rover Perseverance safely landing on Mars and the experimental helicopter Ingenuity lifting off in the planet’s thin atmosphere, a first-time feat.

Yet China’s own Martian landing in May makes clear that America has company in outer space.

Space also is emerging as a tense battleground domain for big countries’ military muscles, and America’s Space Force, created under President Donald Trump as the newest branch of the Armed Forces, is just part of it. China, India, the U.S., and Russia have all tested orbital military capabilities. In a fraught incident in 2020, a Russian satellite flew close behind a U.S. spy satellite hundreds of miles above Earth’s surface.

In a modern twist, nations are no longer the only big players in space. Commercial space industry spending has continued apace through the pandemic. Part of that presages more space tourism, and already there is a reality TV show in the works, "Space Hero," which would pit contestants against each other for a trip to outer space.

But there are also bigger changes afoot, with private companies eyeing their own exploration missions. It may not be long before businesses try to collect heavy metals from asteroids or water on the moon.

Companies see dollar signs in all that can be sent to and from Earth. That means carrying astronauts to the International Space Station but also Amazon’s plans for thousands of internet satellites offering high-speed broadband from low orbit.

Then, of course, there are the UFOs. Conspiracy theorists and the just-curious will likely be watching closely next month, when U.S. intelligence agencies are scheduled to deliver unclassified reports to Congress about the often-seen, always-tantalizing, never-quite-adequately-explained objects.


Conflict in the cosmos

Setting aside the question of alien intelligence, plenty of space conundrums loom. China’s ambition to become a great space power shows that space races aren’t limited to pushing Russia aside. That means that space competition and perhaps even conflict between nations could bubble up further.

While space treaties and agreements have been signed by countries including the U.S., there are still lots of questions about how economic activity will be regulated in space. The UN’s Outer Space Treaty covers the issue of property rights in space, but some experts argue that we shouldn’t use a first-come, first-served system encouraging companies and countries to scoop up resources. Others rightly argue for a future with some real limits on lunar or planetary development: Think of how economic activity is regulated around natural landmarks like the Grand Canyon.

Another reason to think carefully about what exactly we do up above: the amount of space debris that has been accumulating for decades. There are hundreds of thousands of pieces of junk orbiting Earth that could endanger current and future satellites, and cleanup is difficult.

Space junk can be big. Consider that the world held its breath as rocket debris from a Chinese flight fell to Earth earlier this month, luckily landing in the Indian Ocean and not, say, at Roosevelt Field.

But the debris can also be small and still dangerous, from broken pieces of heat shields to astronaut gloves dropped during spacewalks. The International Space Station has had to change course multiple times to avoid debris.


Cooperation is essential

Humanity won’t get far in this crowded, expanded new space age without more and stronger international cooperation, regulations and agreements to help many countries and companies get their shot at space. That could include new space traffic management and coordination or expansive agreements about what is off limits out there.

Closer to home, we hope that President Joe Biden lays out a full agenda for the next age of space exploration without ceding the field to the private sector, and that Long Island residents and companies — who have played a critical role in space history from the Apollo lunar module to the recent Mars spacecraft Perseverance — continue to look to the stars and help grow our economy.

Most important at this crucial juncture is making sure space exploration lifts up all humanity and does not replicate the sordid problems and mistakes we’ve made down here.