China has embarked on a plan to launch a new space lab on Thursday beginning with the lift off of its 8.5-ton Tiangong-1 space module.
Tiangong-1, which translates to "Heavenly Palace," launched at 9:16 p.m. aboard a Chinese Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Northwest China.
The Tiangong-1, an unmanned prototype for a future space station, is paving the way for another milestone. As the U.S. and Russia scale back on ambitious manned missions, China is improving its space program with its sights on building a 60-ton manned space station by 2020.
China is one of three countries to send someone into space.
But all three countries may soon have some heavy competition, as several developing nations across the world are launching space and science research.
From South America to Africa, countries are beginning to pump billions into R&D in order to become the next space innovator. They are building universities and space agencies in hopes that one day, they, too, may have a set of researchers who can compete with the likes of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the National Science Foundation in the U.S.
For these nations, space is the final frontier.
In 2008, Brazil and the UK announced plans to work together in space by having British camera RALCam-3 included on Brazilian satellite Amazonia-1. Amazonia-1 is an Earth observation satellite that will look at land resources.
The two countries signed an agreement in 2007 to partner in the field of science, technology and innovation.
Brazil also has a $2 billion Science Without Borders Program that is taking on the new approach to expanding science and innovation in the country.
Brazil, which is the world's 10th largest economy, has said it plans to invest $2 billion in 75,000 science and technology scholarships by the end of 2014, according to the journal Nature. This is a part of the government's Science Without Borders program. The country plans to send students to 238 foreign universities so as to strengthen its number of science and engineering graduates.
"We in developing countries should not expect to follow the research model that led to the scientific enterprise of the United States and elsewhere," José Goldemberg, a physical sciences professor at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, told the journal Science. "Rather, we need to adapt and develop technologies appropriate to our local circumstances, help strengthen education, and expand our roles as advisers in both government and industry."
The Institute for Scientific Information in New York ranks Brazil at 13th in scientific production.
The country's expanding economy means there are increased opportunities for scientific collaboration with other nations. It also means that the country has a need for chemists, physicists, computer scientists and engineers, Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, director of FAPESP, the Sao Paulo state research foundation, told Nature.
"If we manage to send [just] 8,000 or 10,000 good students to have some experience abroad it's going to be a good thing for Brazil," Brito Cruz said.
Across the Atlantic Ocean in Africa, Nigeria and South Africa opened space agencies and are keeping an eye on developing space technologies to include satellites, telemedicine for health, land mapping and telecommunications.
Nigeria established aNational Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA) in 1999 with a the objective to pursue the development of space science and technology mainly for the socio-economic benefits of the nation.
Nigeria launched two satellites into space in August in order to conduct monthly crop monitoring and more. The two satellites, NigeriaSat-2 and NigeriaSat-X, launched from a base in Yasny, Russia. The satellites were built at the Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) in Guildford, UK, under contract with the NASRDA. Twenty-six Nigerian engineers helped design and build the accompanying ship NigeriaSat-X.
The country's president Goodluck Jonathan called the effort "transformational."
South Africa has said it wants to develop its astronomy and space sector. To that end a South African Space Agency was created as a vehicle for looking into space science and technology. They plan to focus on six areas: earth observation, space operations, space science, space engineering, space advancement and public engagement, and human capital development.
Closer to home though, just south of the border of the U.S., Mexico now has a new space program called the Agencia Espacial Mexicana. The program got official approval last April to be part of a consortium of more than 40 countries that share scientific, technological and financial resources that's needed for space exploration, according to a Fast Company article.
Over in the Middle East, reports surfaced last year that Iran had its sights set on sending astronauts to the moon by 2025.
The country's first launch attempt was with a two-stage rocket named Safir, which means "Ambassador" in Farsi, and a dummy satellite on Aug. 17, 2008, according to Space.com. That rocket failed shortly after liftoff, outside analysts told Space.com.
Iran finally had success when it launch of the Safir-2 rocket on Feb. 3, 2009.
That rocket placed an Omid satellite weighing about 44 to 60 pounds (20 to 27 kilograms) into low Earth orbit, according to Space.com, which also said the cube-shaped satellite is almost 16 inches (40 centimeters) on each side.
ForexTV.com reported that the U.S. won't be testing a new space rocket to undertake any manned missions until 2017. Similarly, Russia has said such missions are no longer a priority.
NASA's Space Shuttle Program
That China is boosting its option for independent space exploration comes at a time when NASA is under scrutiny, especially since its 30-year space shuttle program retired this summer.
U.S. President Barack Obama challenged NASA to begin planning for human missions to an asteroid and even Mars. NASA has since decided to have the private sector handle the sending off of astronauts to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station.
All these nations that are conducting their own independent explorations are presenting several choices for the U.S. It is a matter of whether America will cooperate and engage in joint exploration projects or return to its days of heavy competition in the space exploration arena.
"The U.S. is currently in a situation of refocusing its spaceflight efforts," Joan Johnson-Freese, chairwoman of the Department of National Security Studies at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., told Mother Nature Network. "We don't have the political will that China has right now. If there's a race going on, their advantage is through political will, not technology."