Contemplating 16 sunrises in one day in the middle of the sky is a privilege only available to a lucky few. It is the imposing spectacle that the crew members of the International Space Station (EEI), which 20 years ago received its first settlers on November 2, 2000. It is now two decades since the orbital city, the most remote ever populated, opened its doors and, with this milestone, the human being put the finishing touch to the twentieth century, that of major advances in conquering the universe.

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The ISS, whose first module began to orbit the Earth in 1998, has been a real revolution in space research at this time: stopped the race unleashed in the mid-twentieth century between the United States and Russia and accelerated a stage of collaboration between different powers to unravel the secrets of the cosmos. With the station, which has not stopped being inhabited in these twenty years, a International cooperation where different technologies, languages ​​and cultures converge.

At present, after more than 200 astronauts have populated this space city -among them, the current Minister of Science, Pedro Duque-, the efforts of the experts seem to leave the ISS aside and focus on the return of the human being to the Moon and the conquest of Mars. In fact, with the rise to power of Donald Trump in 2016, NASA was forced to readjust the deadlines for the return to the satellite, with the Artemis mission, and set it in 2024, in accordance with the wishes of the new president. More uncertain is the date for arrival on the red planet.

“The arrival on Mars could occur between 2030 and 2034. There are some who say that the first human to step on the red planet has already been born”

“During this time, the presence of humans in space has been guaranteed. What will happen in the next 20 years no one knows, but plans are prepared to cover the deadlines and return to the Moon and reach Mars. For the latter , two decades is not a crazy time, could occur between 2030 and 2034. There are some who say that the first human to step on the red planet has already been born, “says Fernando Jáuregui, astrophysicist at the Pamplona Planetarium, although he warns that much of the technology necessary for this feat is not yet known and will be learned with the return satelite.

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Parallel to the conquest of Mars, another of humanity’s great dreams, which has nurtured literature and cinema for decades, is moving towards its consolidation: space tourism. The first to try it was billionaire Dennis Tito, who visited the ISS on his journey and led the way for other wealthy travelers interested in exploring the sky. For now, it appears that this “lucrative” line of business is moving forward, largely thanks to Elon Musk and his SpaceX. “Probably in the next few decades the cost is low enough so that not only the super-rich can do it, “says Jáuregui.

The Hubble Telescope

However, not only the human presence in space has worried experts in the last 20 years or exclusively focuses their efforts for the future. In this time, another of the great protagonists has been the Hubble telescope. Although it was put into orbit in 1990, in these last two decades it has not stopped portraying the universe and has left spectacular images, as well as a multitude of discoveries.

“In the next 20 years, one of the expected results is that we have found a planet where the traces of biological activity are unambiguous”

In the future, Jáuregui explains, the great hope for advancing cosmology lies in Hubble’s successor, the Telescopio James Webb, which will be released in 2021. “You will be able to look further back in time, study the universe when it was about 380,000 years old, when the expansion made light decouples from matter and it will begin to travel on its own. “In addition, it will allow to analyze the composition of the atmospheres of exoplanets and characterize them, as well as to detect candidates to harbor biological activity in other stellar systems.

“In the next 20 years, one of the expected results, that everyone would like to publish, is that we have found a planet where traces of biological activity are unambiguous“, he says, and stresses that it will become one of the priorities for researchers. At the moment, the exoplanet most similar to Earth is Kepler-452b, which was first seen in 2009 by the telescope that gives it its name. (Kepler) and whose existence was confirmed by NASA on July 23, 2015.

Rise of space probes

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In these last two decades, the probes They have had a special relevance in the exploration of the cosmos, since they have made it possible to closely observe bodies billions of kilometers from Earth and characterize the planets of the Solar System and their satellites, as well as the star around which they orbit. Among the most famous, the two Voyagers stand out, they reached interstellar space in 2012 and 2018, respectively. Thus, number 1 became the first human-built object to cross the heliopause and reach this area of ​​the universe.

Also around this time, the New Horizons probe made it possible look closely at Pluto -reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006- and provided detailed photos never before imagined. For its part, the Cassini unmanned space mission uncovered some secrets of Saturn’s moons when its Huygens module landed on Titan in 2005 and when that same year, shortly after, it confirmed the existence of Enceladus water.

“The vision of the universe as a whole has radically changed in these 20 years”

However, one of the main objects of study of this type of unmanned missions is the Sun, examined since 2018 by the Solar Orbiter and Parker, of the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA, respectively. Both, like their predecessors, have made it possible to better understand the king star and advance in space weather. Among those that have analyzed other types of celestial bodies, the Rosetta probe stands out, which was the first to land on a kite in 2014 with its Philae module. Meanwhile, Gaia studies billions of stars in the galaxy in detail and strives to create a “revolutionary” map.

All these advances have led the human being to be aware that he knows much less than he thought about the cosmos. “The universe we know today is much stranger than we thought and it is fundamentally made up of things that we have no idea what they are, “says Jáuregui. And he adds:” The vision of the universe as a whole has radically changed in these 20 years. “