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Europe, Russia hunt for alien life in new Space Race

A new Space Race may be underway, with the major spaceflight powers launching programs to hunt for signs of life on Mars and further afield.

The battle between the then-Soviet Union and the U.S. to establish supremacy in space saw the former launch the first human into space on 1961 and the U.S. land Neil Armstrong on the Moon in 1969.


Apollo 11, the first manned lunar landing mission, was launched on 16 July 1969.
SSPL | Getty Images
Apollo 11, the first manned lunar landing mission, was launched on 16 July 1969.

Now, both Russia and Western Europe are leading players in the search for life within our own solar system and elsewhere in the galaxy. Here, CNBC takes a look at some of the region's ongoing space programs.

Alpha Centauri

Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and English celebrity physicist Stephen Hawking joined forces to announce a $100 million project to blast tiny spacecraft on a mission to "search for life in the Universe" on April 12.

The destination of the multiple nanocraft would be Alpha Centauri, our nearby star system, where astronomers say there may be an Earth-like planet that can support human life.

"55 years ago today, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. Today, we are preparing for the next great leap — to the stars," Milner said in a statement on the launch of the "Breakthrough Starshot" program.

Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg is the third member of the program's board.


Mark Zuckerberg and Yuri Milner.
Getty Images
Mark Zuckerberg and Yuri Milner.

Alpha Centauri is 25 trillion miles away. The Breakthrough team hopes that by propelling the spacecraft with light beams, they could reach the star system in just over 20 years from launch.

The nanocraft would travel at 20 percent of light speed — over 1,000 times faster than today's fastest spacecraft, according to Breakthrough.

On arrival at Alpha Centauri, the spacecraft would take pictures of possible planets and collect other scientific data.

Mars mission

The European Space Agency (ESA) established the ExoMars program to answer one of astronomy's biggest questions — was there ever life on Mars?

The agency launched its first mission to the Red Planet on March 14 this year, in collaboration with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, and another is planned for 2018.


A rocket carrying ExoMars spacecraft blasts off on March 14, 2016.
Sergei Savostyanov | TASS | Getty Images
A rocket carrying ExoMars spacecraft blasts off on March 14, 2016.

"If life ever arose on the Red Planet, it probably did when Mars was warmer and wetter, sometime within the first billion years following planetary formation," the ESA said on its website.

"Conditions then were similar to those when microbes gained a foothold on the young Earth. This marks Mars as a primary target for the search for signs of life in our Solar System."

The 2016 mission will search for evidence of gases like methane on Mars that could have once helped support life. The 2018 mission will see a European rover scour the surface of Mars for life, using a drill to collect samples.

Moon Village

Last month, the ESA also offered further details of its plan to build the first permanent base on the Moon.

The agency said the permanent "Moon Village" might allow tourists to holiday on the Moon, as well as provide opportunities for science and business.

It hopes that space-faring countries outside the region, including Russia, the U.S., China, India and Japan will collaborate with the project.


The European Space Agency's prospective Moon Village.
ESA/Foster + Partners
The European Space Agency's prospective Moon Village.

"On the Moon Village, we would like to combine the different capabilities of space-faring nations, be it robotic or be it human, to look also for different activities, be it pure science, be it also business, even tourism or mining," Johann-Dietrich Woerner, the ESA's director-general, said in a video posted to the agency's website.

Asteroid mining

Meanwhile, Luxembourg has announced plans to kickstart the fledgling asteroid mining industry. A small but wealthy country in the euro zone, it plans to develop Europe's first legal and regulatory framework for asteroid mining, as well as invest directly in the sector.

"Our aim is to open access to a wealth of previously unexplored mineral resources on lifeless rocks hurling through space, without damaging natural habitats," the country's deputy prime minister and minister of the economy, Etienne Schneider, said in a statement published online in February.

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