Every year the International Astronautical Congress meets in Guadalajara, Mexico, to discuss the future of space travel and exploration. For the first sixty or so years that the Congress met, space exploration was limited to a few government agencies and the main talking points were what these agencies were doing. But now things are very different.
Space is no longer the preserve of the superpowers. It’s now a place that is accessible to practically all nations, even if it is on a small scale. What’s more, technology now means that there are genuine commercial reasons for wanting to go into space. It’s no longer about superpowers flaunting their technological muscle: it’s a new frontier for entrepreneurs to generate fantastic profits.
One of the cool things we’ve seen in space is the fact that governments are keen to push it as a new “Wild West.” Obama has promised to hold off regulating the nascent space industry before 2022, giving companies the opportunity to take risks that they never ordinarily would have had.
The conference covered some of the incredible opportunities and technologies that are making space travel an enticing prospect. Let’s take a look.
For space to be attractive to private investors, there has to be the possibility of making money. At the moment, the cost of launching material into space is hovering around the $10,000 per pound mark. But recent advances in technology, including more efficient rockets and reusable rockets, promise to bring this price down to more reasonable levels. According to an estimate by Elon Musk, the cost of sending matter into space could come down by an order of magnitude or more, just using current technology developed by his company, SpaceX.
But the conference pointed out that even the most lucrative mining projects, such as projects to mine platinum from the asteroid belt, still wouldn’t generate a return under those prices. What’s needed are even cheaper methods of getting material in and out of space, like space elevators. Once the price of mining is lower than the cost of acquiring the material, companies will flood into the space sector, growing it substantially and reducing costs even further. Mining, in essence, will become the bedrock of the future orbital economy.
The term CubeSat was first coined way back in 1999. Cubesats are defined as small satellites weighing no more than 1.33 kilograms and are designed to carry out missions in areas like Earth observation and deep space exploration.
At this year’s IAC companies from all over the globe representing the industry, dominated the showroom floor. The growth in the sector is being driven by an ever more integrated space industry. Traditional companies you’d never expect are now working with new space startups, providing specialist equipment to meet their needs. One example is Reliant Finishing who has supplied none other than Spacex with its metal finishing technology. Now the aerospace sector is looking for more from Reliant Finishing Systems to help them create vehicles that are fit for interplanetary space, as well as helping them make better prototypes.
This year’s conference focused on how to make launching CubeSats more affordable, including plans for a new launch vehicle design to cut the costs still further. It also asked how CubeSats could be recovered from orbit so as to prevent further cluttering of the space above our heads.
Speaking of which, technologies involved in cleaning up space debris will actually form an important part of the future orbital economy in much the same way sanitation systems to process junk form an important part of the economy back here on Earth. Low Earth orbit, according to the IAC conference, is rapidly becoming a very dangerous place, with more than 500,000 pieces of debris floating around in space at more than 17,000 mph. Eventually, their orbits will decay, and they will plummet towards the Earth like the Mir space station did in 2001, but that could take a long time. In the meantime, it poses a risk to any new satellite or rocket launched into space.
What’s more, as space becomes more cluttered, there becomes a point where even a slight perturbation in the trajectory of one piece of space junk can cause knock-on effects that completely destroy everything in low Earth orbit forever: not good.
The idea at the moment is to use CubeSats to attach themselves to space junk, stop it from spinning, and then slightly alter its course, so it plummets back to Earth. Another idea is to use large nets and concentrated sunlight to literally push junk out of orbit and back down to Earth.
The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence could also be a technology that changes the face of the space industry forever. Although it doesn’t promise to make any money in itself, it is currently attracting huge funds from the world’s billionaires. Recently Stephen Hawking and Yuri Milner announced that they would be spending a whopping $100 million to seek out and find ET. The project entails building state of the art optical and radio telescopes that will scour the universe for possible signs of life.
The search for extraterrestrial intelligence was brought up at the IAC conference. Their idea was very novel indeed and could allow the cost of space travel to collapse to new lows. The idea is to launch microscopic vehicles into space, weighing no more than a gram, and then use Earth-based lasers to push them to near-light speeds. The craft would have cameras on board to capture images of the new star systems they encountered during their voyages, as well as transmission equipment that will allow them to send information back to Earth. The craft would have a tiny battery and perhaps a solar panel that would allow the craft to be charged by the energy from the laser beam that launched it. Top scientists say that these small crafts could beam back images from an alien solar system in as little as twenty years and that, thanks to the smartphone industry, many of the major technological challenges of any such project have already been solved.