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To infinity and beyond

With a renewed global interest in space exploration, the possibilities are endless.

Read time 4min 20sec

Looking back at Earth from the moon in July 1969, Neil Armstrong commented that his vantage point did not make him feel like a giant, but rather, the famous space traveller realised how "very, very small" he was. In January 1995, astronomer Carl Sagan described the view of our planet from six billion kilometres away (from Voyager 1) in a similar fashion. "There is perhaps no better a demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world," Sagan said.

While the world's interest in astronomy, intergalactic travel and space exploration appeared to be waning just a few years ago - in 2011, the US government essentially mothballed its costly space shuttle programme due to financial uncertainty and stringent budget cuts - the globe's interest in the universe has been reignited.

In early November, in an unparalleled moment for space exploration, a spacecraft no larger than a washing machine landed safely on a comet more than 300 million miles from Earth. The Philae probe is expected to provide the world of science with a treasure trove of information about the behaviour and composition of comets. For now, the Philae mission has achieved what it set out to, and is currently lying dormant, as the scientists behind this voyage wait for the vehicle to receive enough sunlight to recharge its batteries and transmit further data about these icy solar system bodies.

Moving on from electronic payments and electric cars, South African entrepreneur Elon Musk has set his sights firmly on outer space. The 42-year-old billionaire's rocket company SpaceX has already been contracted by NASA to send numerous consignments of supplies to the International Space Station, and has partnered with Boeing to develop and launch spaceships to transport US astronauts into space. In addition to this, the private space entrepreneur is adamant he can pioneer the first manned mission to Mars over the next decade. Most recently, Musk and former Google exec, Greg Wyler, announced plans to loft a fleet of small and inexpensive commercial satellites to deliver Internet access across the globe.

But, it isn't all good news. A few weeks ago, Richard Branson's endeavours to send civilians into space suffered a setback, when his SpaceShipTwo aircraft crashed during a test flight in California's Mojave Desert. The failed Virgin Galactic test flight did not deter the British businessman, however, with Branson asserting that his commercial space tourism project "dream" would live on.

Africa2Moon

This side of the equator, the Foundation for Space Development SA, a non-profit organisation headquartered in Cape Town, is looking to launch an African mission to the moon. Twelve years since South African tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist Mark Shuttleworth became the second "space tourist" to live and work on the International Space Station, the #Africa2Moon mission aims to develop a robotic spaceship that will either land on or orbit the moon.

The first phase of the crowd-funded campaign will run for much of 2015, and the aim is to raise close to R17 million to finance the development of the mission concept and to pay for the relevant feasibility studies. Plans for the second phase of the project involve providing a detailed design of the intended mission.

Africa2Moon is inviting volunteers to get involved, and students from the University of Cape Town are already using the project as a case study for their research at the university's Space Lab. Africa2Moon is also keen to work closely with schools, and hopes to create and send videos to learners from the moon.

The #Africa2Moon mission aims to develop a robotic spaceship that will either land on or orbit the moon.

Home to 70% of the world's fastest-growing economies and with world's 'youngest' population, the hope is to tap into and inspire Africa's up-and-coming innovators and entrepreneurs to realise their potential and to promote astronomic development on the continent. The project is being undertaken by a number of international space experts and professionals from various African universities and related industries. Another projected by-product of the programme is to promote education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

And SA is not the only developing nation to enter the fray - China successfully landed a rover on the moon in December last year; India's first mission to Mars successfully reached its destination at the beginning of 2014; and Chile's Alma telescope has provided the world with a plethora of images of the farthest expanses of the universe since it became fully operational in March 2013.

And so, 45 years since Armstrong and Aldrin's momentous moon landing, the world is again enthralled with that unfathomably enormous mass of possibility beyond our blue skies. And, if recent events are anything to go by, it seems we still have so much of our cosmos to explore and discover.

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