What is your image of the future? Are you envisioning an era of interstellar travel where humans live in gigantic space ships like in Star Trek? Or will you envision a colony of humans settling on other planets like Mars? While these may all seem sci-fi to us right now, these are not just pipe dreams. Scientists have never stopped looking for ways to explore outer space, and some of these current developments are starting to give us the hope that one day we can conquer our final frontier.
The recent launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and the first commercial Virgin Galactic flight are only the beginning of this new wave of space revolution. And in 2022, there are plans to send people into space for tourism, with accommodation provided by a space hotel called Aurora Station.
In light of these current developments, how will it revolutionise the space race?
Phase 1: Satellites galore
While many of us are familiar with the fact that there are plenty of satellites orbiting our planet, it may come as a surprise that there are thousands of them, and counting fast. According to the UN’s Index of Objects Launched into Outer Space, there were 4,987 satellites orbiting the planet at the beginning of 2019. Even scarier – only 1,957 (under 40%) of these are active, meaning there are over 3,000 lumps of metal flying around Earth at thousands of miles per hour as space junk.
These range in size, ranging from tiny ones that fit in your refrigerator to large ones that you see on space documentaries. The variety of satellites also mean they serve a variety of purposes, including communication, surveillance, and navigation, and depending on their size and purpose they sit on three levels of orbit.
The next ten years will be interesting, as there will be a significant number of satellites being launched each year thanks to the fact that launching them into space will only get cheaper. The recent launch of Falcon 9 showed that even private companies can send anything to space – in fact, there’s just as many commercial satellites as there are government ones in space now.
Phase 2: Elevator to Space
While rockets have been the conventional way to send people and payload into space, there may be another method on the horizon. You may soon see a colossal elevator that can actually send stuff from Earth all the way to space, at an altitude of 35,400km, where some satellites orbit.
According to NASA and theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, the basic concept is not that crazy, and scientists around the world agree that it can actually be built. Both Japan and China have expressed interest in building one – and if successful, we may soon see one by 2045 (China) or 2050 (Japan). The real-world feasibility study is now underway aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
Obviously there would be colossal construction costs – some estimates put it at US$10 billion – but it would also mean that anyone planning to send satellites (or other payloads) into space don’t need to send them in fuel-guzzling rockets in the future.
Going into space in the future may be as easy as pushing a button.
Phase 3: Space Factories
The wide expanse of space is no longer just a place for satellites and even our International Space Station (ISS). Imagine having a factory that orbits the Earth that pumps out products too difficult or expensive to make at home. With easier access to rockets and even a space elevator in the future, building a factory in space could be more than a pipe dream.
Building an entire factory in space doesn’t sound as intensive as building one on earth; if you can print an entire rocket or satellite with a 3D printer, you can also print parts of a factory to be assembled in space. It’s cheaper, faster, and more accurate than conventional methods.
This ‘low Earth orbit economy’ can truly break new frontiers when it comes to manufacturing structures designed for orbit. Space factories will be far more efficient due to the absence of factors like gravity – you can 3D print massive structures in space so you don’t have to get them into orbit, making them much cheaper to build. Potentially hazardous processes can also be performed in space with minimal repercussions on Earth.
Companies like Made in Space and Tethers Unlimited are already producing things with their 3D printers in space, so it’s not a stretch to say that this is just the beginning.
Phase 4: Space Junk Cleaners
If we need an analogy for the current situation in space, it could be compared to fast fashion. With the lower costs to send things into space, it also means that it’ll be more affordable for poorer nations to see some benefits. For instance, everyone can finally get access to cheap broadband internet.
But, as with fast fashion, the eternal question is the issue of waste. Already we are seeing tons of inactive satellites floating in space, and with more launches being planned, there’s the inevitable issue of space debris.
It’s only a matter of time before we see more ‘space sweeper’ companies like Astroscale – a Singapore-based company – pop up to clean up our space junk. Companies like these will act like our garbage trucks, sweeping space debris away from our orbits so that any shuttles that launch into or return from outer space will be safer (since these debris are at a higher orbit which prevents them from burning up and falling into our atmosphere).
Phase 5: Building extra-terrestrial colonies
It’s been proven that we can sustain large-scale habitable structures in space; just look at the ISS. As NASA prepares to retire the station in 2024, private companies like Axiom and Bigelow are rushing to take its place.
NextSTEP, a partnership between NASA and public companies for deep space exploration, is currently working on providing a safe place for human habitation for extensive missions beyond the moon. Both the government and private sector are working on human spaceflight, including the journey to Mars.
With the capabilities we can soon have – ie. space elevator and space manufacturing – we can easily create colonies in space. We’re talking about a permanent human settlement on the moon, Mars, or even on Titan (Saturn’s largest moon). Who knows, in the future, we can even see space colonies like the ones depicted in the movies Elysium or Interstellar.
All these possibilities simply indicate that a future in space is not just a dream, but possibility. We probably won’t be able to take a ride on a space elevator or live on a Mars colony in our lifetime, but in a couple of hundred years, we may. We may even conquer interstellar travel – it would be possible in around 200 years, according to a former NASA propulsion scientist. Starship Enterprise, here we come!
Want to read more about topics of the future? Check out our Future Issue, out now!