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Space: The moon, Mars and beyond

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- No space programs have captured the public imagination quite like NASA's exploration of the moon in the early 1970s. Now, earth's satellite is in national space agencies' sights again.

Japan has a long-term goal of establishing a lunar base, while NASA is developing the space shuttle's replacement, the Orion crew exploration vehicle, to land men on the moon again by 2020.

A nascent Chinese space program has an ambitious schedule of launches in the coming years including its own desire to land a man on the moon.

So could we see a new space race emerge, with the moon as the ultimate prize?

Despite the national prestige associated, the costs involved for a solo tilt at the moon and beyond are prohibitive, so international co-operation rather than competition is more likely to be the feature of the future.

Earlier this year Russia and China announced an agreement to cooperate on a lunar exploration; talks of cooperation between NASA and the China National Space Adminstration have begun, as well as linking up with India's burgeoning space program.

A lunar base then could be truly international and provide the perfect place to launch further interplanetary exploration as well as an ideal laboratory to study the mysteries of the cosmos.

With some parts in perpetual sunlight, the conditions would be ideal for continuous solar power, while the shadows in the rims of craters provide the smothering darkness perfect for deep space astronomy with high powered radio telescopes.

Beyond earth's satellite though, lies Mars, the planet that has captured the imagination of both enthusiasts and professionals.

"In thirty years time we'll probably have a large colony on the moon and the first bases on Mars," futurist and Nominating Committee member Ian Pearson told CNN, and his optimism is matched by many other experts and scientists grappling with the challenges of getting a manned mission to the Red Planet by 2020.

"We're better prepared for a journey to Mars now than we were when we sent men to the moon in the 1960s," says Robert Zubrin, director of the Mars Society. "There have been 15 successful probes to the Red Planet - in fact we know more about it than the American pioneers knew about the western frontier."

Robotic missions will be the trailblazers, paving the way for humans to set foot on the surface. The success of NASA's two Martian rovers bodes well for the future of robotic exploration.

As well as beaming back staggering pictures they've collected valuable data. Faster, stronger, more reliable and able to provide us with enchanced information, the next generation of explores could be wheeled devices or even microbots, "hoppers" that bound across planets' surface, able to search the smallest nooks and crannies for signs of life where their wheeled relatives cannot reach.

Developments that will allow humans not only to explore but live on the Mars are already underway. From highly mobile space suits that can cope with daily temperature fluctuations of 155°F to life-supporting settlements that can provide a home from home under the Martian sky, the Mars Society and other independent groups of scientists and scholars are contributing to solve the problems we will face when we get there.

If we can reach Mars, where can we go from there? Current technology means a round trip to Mars takes a year, so travelling into deepest space would be a long-haul trip of a lifetime.

Solar sails pushed by the sun's light particles can set fair small spacecraft to the far reaches of the solar system and developments in ion engines, previously used by NASA, could provide hugely efficient and potentially much faster propulsion.

And will we explore the nuclear option? The dream of anti-matter engines remains just that for now, but with the giant leaps in technology that are being made in robotics, composite materials and energy sources, the possibility remains for that and other ideas previously thought of as science fiction to become a reality - a space elevator to the stars perhaps and even mining asteroids for their rich mineral reserves.


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NASA has planned to send people to the moon again by 2020 on the Orion crew exploration vehicle

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After a lunar expedition planned for 2020, Mars could see human visitors ten years later.

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