Editorial of the “World”. The United States experienced, Monday, February 22, a curious telescoping of the news, a collision between a cruel failure and a resounding success. On the one hand, the announcement by Johns-Hopkins University that the country had crossed the grim barrier of 500,000 deaths from Covid-19 and, on the other, the release by NASA of the video showing the landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars on February 18. For the first time in history, we saw a land craft land on another planet.
Strange paradox that this country, the world’s leading scientific power, which does not control the epidemic due to the coronavirus on its own soil, but which, on that of Mars, delivers without the slightest burr a machine of more than one ton at the end horribly complex maneuver. The same paradox also applies to France, the country of Pasteur, but without a vaccine against Covid-19, which provides SuperCam, the main scientific instrument of Perseverance …
Space and the exploration of the Solar System have always been awe-inspiring machines, but under the current circumstances of the pandemic, this capacity appears to be heightened. For example, the film showing the Perseverance landing on NASA’s YouTube channel alone totaled nearly 7 million views less than twenty-four hours after its broadcast; thus, the fans of Elon Musk, become a real community, they are enthusiastic for each test of Starship, the future heavy launcher of SpaceX, although this one explodes with each landing; and there is no doubt that Thomas Pesquet’s next return to space, at the end of April, will spark new vocations as astronauts among young French people.
China catching up
Space, even if it is becoming more and more a military issue, continues to be the place of symbolic freedom, where one is free – in part – from geopolitical tensions, as evidenced by this, for more than twenty years, the International Space Station, co-managed mainly by the Americans and the Russians. And, while the Trump presidency claimed to end multilateralism, it did not translate into space. The return of the Americans to the Moon, for example, will be with the Europeans, who provide a module of the Orion spacecraft.
As for the Perseverance mission, it is the first step in a larger adventure, the return of Martian samples, in which the European Space Agency will play a major role. It will supply the mosbile robot which, in a few years, will recover the soil extracts taken by Perseverance. She will also participate in the spacecraft that will bring these precious samples back to Earth, which scientists will analyze, hoping to find traces of past Martian life.
There remains the case of China. Even though it managed to bring back samples from the Moon in December 2020, even though it is preparing to land its own rover on Mars around May, it remains in the learning and catching phase. In recent years, both Beijing and Washington have played the scenario of a new space race between the two superpowers on their respective populations. This remains in reality largely fictitious, as the technological gap is enormous. And it should be noted that Perseverance and its Chinese counterpart have taken the same calibration targets for one of the instruments they have in common, in order to compare the results. Often researchers know how to forget borders.
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