The commercialisation of space is an inevitable and exciting prospect, says Paul Kostek senior member of the IEEE and advisory systems engineer to Base2 Solutions
Having reached the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing, the future of the space industry is being considered by many. For some, the new goal is to put humans on Mars – an ambitious target, which requires considerable innovations in space flight and technology. For others, the next frontier is the commercialisation of space, whereby it is used to harvest resources or as a place to send people through tourism.
Until now, the commercial use of space has consisted of organisations placing satellites in the Earth’s orbit to provide services such as Earth imaging, television broadcasting, telecommunications or navigation systems. However, with developments in space technology continually improving, those in the industry are looking further afield still. New, private companies are pioneering the next era in space exploration and are generating a significant amount of interest from the public and investors. These companies are increasingly looking to fully explore and possibly colonise space.
Now that the original ‘Space Race’ has long passed – and government funding for space exploration has cooled somewhat – the private sector has its chance to take a bite of the cherry. While government projects are often intended to display international dominance irrespective of cost, private ventures are looking for lucrative returns. Private companies are finding money making ventures in three key areas – resources, tourism and colonisation.
Capitalising on space resources
Today, companies are looking to harvest resources – such as water and minerals – that exist in space and can be brought back to Earth to be sold as goods. The moon and other near-Earth objects (NEOs), such as asteroids, contain a rich diversity of physical substances such as metals, along with gases and water that could be used by mankind in the future. To reach the stage of a moon- or NEO-oriented supply chain, companies must first invest in reliable infrastructure that can create a means to collect resources.
The advent of space tourism
Following the hype of previous years, the advent of space tourism is very much upon us. NASA has recently announced that it will allow tourists to visit the International Space Station (ISS) in approximately 2020. NASA’s broader plan is to allow commercial companies into space. It hopes that the private industry will help to influence the future of space technologies and help NASA with its plan to return to the Moon in 2024, taking the first ever woman to walk on the Moon with it.
Richard Branson and Elon Musk have both openly shared their plans to privately send people to space and further afield. Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Galactic, stated that the company was “in the best position in the world” to provide rocket-powered holidays in space. The decreasing prices, along with larger availability and backing by NASA will provide more people with the opportunity to see the Earth from lower Earth orbit and increase humanity’s awareness of the planet as a shared place. The idea of space tourism to spread appreciation of the planet Earth is both aspirational and ambitious but ultimately could drive the industry forward.
For space tourism to become an established industry, private companies must be able to achieve a return on investment. This will come, in part, from the development of reusable space technology, such as launch vehicles that will improve turn-around times and drop costs for crew and materials, so private companies won’t have to reinvent the wheel for every space holiday.
Existing satellite technology has helped us to monitor space for the last few decades and has greatly contributed to our understanding of the Earth and its natural resources. Now, as that same data shows that our resources are becoming increasingly scarce as well as shifting climate patterns, space is emerging as a possible alternative and opportunity to start again.
Before private companies can truly explore space colonisation, considerable research will need to be done. This includes understanding the long-term health impacts of lengthy missions or planetary relocations. While human journeys into space are still relatively young, data analysis from long term ISS stays is beginning to be explored. Ultimately, understanding the impacts of this will help to identify some of the ways that human health and life could be sustained and maintained on another planet.
Ultimately, the commercialisation of space is an inevitable and exciting prospect. Companies hoping to capitalise on the nascent market are also helping governments drive forward the development of new space technologies and gathering data on space and the Earth to drive both forward. Indeed, this new opportunity is helping humankind plan for and understand the future of this planet. Privatisation of the industry has the potential to bring new resources, a new era of leisure and tourism, and perhaps even a new home for humankind.
By Paul Kostek senior member of the IEEE and advisory systems engineer to Base2 Solutions