With countries and companies racing to explore space, the sector is likely to see massive changes in the next few years. China has just become the second nation to plant its flag on the Earth’s moon, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced his space company Blue Origin will take the first woman to the moon, and Japan’s Hayabusa-2 capsule has returned safely to Earth with asteroid samples.
This buzz of space activity is unlikely to abate. SpaceX has launched nearly 1,000 small satellites for its Starlink constellation to date and is reportedly planning a crewed mission to Mars by 2026. NASA has also announced a mission to send astronauts to the moon by 2024 with plans to set up a lunar base camp. In this article we’ll discuss the Future of space in the next few years and how it will shape life on earth.
1. The Satellite Broadband Industry Will Move At Hyperspeed
We are in the midst of another space race, with participants competing not to reach the moon or Mars but to connect the world’s unconnected and under-connected populations. The latest space trends report details how a number of companies are working to build and deploy “mega constellations” of hundreds or thousands of satellites to bring affordable high-speed internet services to businesses, governments, schools, and individuals around the world.
These companies are looking to provide a multitude of potential applications such as:
- Better connectivity for the transportation industry (ships, trains, planes)
- Communication backbones for IoT devices for processes such as fleet management and remote maintenance
- Infrastructure or mobile backhaul for other communications companies
- Services for the direct-to-consumer market, including rural and other areas with poor or no service
- Government services, such as education and emergency response
Hundreds of satellites are already in orbit as part of these growing networks. The industry is moving at a breakneck pace, with a number of new developments occurring. Now with faster speeds and lower latencies than ever before, the satellite internet industry is set to experience more revolutions in technology in the coming years. Additional global connectivity and constantly improving technology will bring high-speed Internet to even the most remote locations.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said the company’s Starlink satellite internet service is intended for customers in “low to medium population density areas.” As Starlink comes online and makes it possible for nearly 4 billion people with no internet access, we can expect the fundamental makeup of the internet to change. That includes the language and cultural norms of digital communities with this new audience.
The bottom line is that whether you already have access to the internet or not, the Starlink program will fundamentally change the makeup of the internet and the world once it comes online. It’s important to keep track of this development as it will assuredly impact everyone on the planet in some way.
Improving Technology in Geostationary Orbit – Over the past several years, satellite Internet providers like Hughes have been making improvements to the satellite technology that provides high-speed broadband to residential and small business customers. The satellites used by Hughes and other satellite Internet providers are in geostationary orbit, which means satellites are high enough that they follow the same orbit as the earth.
2. Space Tourism and Suborbital Flights
The NewSpace industry has its sights set on space tourism, a growing market expected to be worth at least $3 billion by 2030. As companies like SpaceX test reusable rocket technology to make spaceflight more affordable and accessible for humans, other private firms, including Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, are investing in suborbital space tourism to take Earthlings into the very edge of space and back. While only uber-wealthy passengers and private researchers will have access to space tourism in the immediate future, the long term holds promise for ordinary citizens.
The evolution of technology plays a vital role in sending more tourists to space and a few influential trends will determine the future of space tourism, along with the progress we make both on and off our home planet.
Commercial Suborbital Trips
Suborbital travel will likely be the space tourism sub-sector to materialize first, but it may also be the most short-lived. However, Blue Origin, backed by Jeff Bezos, is testing its New Shepard system that will launch customers to the edge of space in a capsule which separates from a small rocket and retreats back to Earth under parachutes. Richard Branson’s company Virgin Galactic relies on a space plane, dropped from a carrier aircraft, with a rocket motor that speeds up and takes passengers high into the atmosphere.
Both companies’ shuttle systems are designed to fly passengers over 50 miles above Earth’s atmosphere, allowing customers to experience the feeling of weightlessness for a few minutes.
Some experts look to commercial suborbital trips to take the place of long-distance air travel that can eventually cater to everyday citizens. SpaceX plans to use its Starship rocket to fly 100 people around the world in mere minutes. The company stated that a 15-hour flight to Shanghai from New York would be capable of flying in 39 minutes. According to UBS, if even only 5% of the average 150 million passengers that travel on 10 hour or longer flights pay $2,500 per trip, then returns could skyrocket to $20 billion per year in today’s value.
Space tourism could be the stepping stone for the development of long-haul travel on earth serviced by space.
Orbital Vacations And Space Hotels
Orbital tourism, which entails remaining in space for at least one full orbit, is another major focus of governmental agencies and private space companies, all of which have the long-term goal to inhabit the moon and Mars. Projects from Boeing, SpaceX and Axiom Space plan to start launching tourists to the International Space Station on commercial spacecraft beginning as early as this year. SpaceX is also partnering with Space Adventures to send four tourists to low Earth orbit for a few days in late 2021 or early 2022.
As more companies consider in-space tourism, orbital vacations are set to become a popular trend. Orbital vacationing infrastructure, including orbital and lunar-based hotels, is positioned to become lucrative as space infrastructure companies already hauled in a combined $3.6 billion as of 2020.
3. Mining In Space
As Earth’s population continues to swell, the strain on our planet’s resources continues to grow. And although ecologists assert that we aren’t at the tipping point just yet, Earth has a finite amount of resources. Eventually, we are going to run out, so it makes sense to start planning for that inevitability now.
One of the most promising avenues? Space. The mining of asteroids by private individuals and companies through advancements in space cameras and satellites aid in the precise location of asteroids. Once located, these celestial bodies can be used to extract minerals such as platinum, gold, iron, or even water. Indeed, the economic incentive for space mining is evident and analysts predict that space mining & extraction activities could potentially translate to a billion-dollar industry.
Space Mining: A New Business Outside The Earth
This is not science fiction. There are now space mining companies, such as Planetary Resources, which has already launched several mini-satellites to test several of its patents. Other companies like Asteroid Mining Corporation or Trans Astronautica Corporation, although still far from their goal, are already attracting millions of dollars of private investment interested in being on the front line of a possible future space business.
Is asteroid mining possible? This new space race already began back when the Japanese Hayabusa missions successfully returned a few grams of an asteroid’s regolith, so the technology to harvest asteroid material exists, we just have to change the scale. It is no longer a technological problem.
Is it economically viable? We are increasingly dependent on rare elements (such as those in the palladium group), which are expensive to exploit on Earth and come with a high environmental cost, so the sum of these two factors could make it profitable to travel to the asteroids to extract these raw materials. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse argues that the planet’s first trillionaire will undoubtedly be a space miner.
4. The Future Colonization of Mars
Mars is a valuable place for exploration because it can be reached in 6 ½ months, is a major opportunity for scientific exploration, and has been mapped and studied for several decades. The Mars rover Perseverance missions in 2021 represents the first step in a long-term effort to bring Martian samples back to Earth, where they can be analyzed for residues of microbial life. Beyond the study of life itself, there are a number of different benefits of Mars exploration such as understanding the origins and ubiquity of life and the advancement of space technology.
When could we expect to see humans set foot on Mars? Continued success with Mars exploratory missions demonstrates progress is being made toward putting boots on the ground.
The private aerospace manufacturer and space transportation services company SpaceX was founded with the goal of reducing space transportation costs to enable the colonization of Mars. SpaceX is working on a next generation of fully reusable launch vehicles that will be the most powerful ever built, capable of carrying humans to Mars and other destinations in the solar system. The company regularly launches cargo to the International Space Station and plans to transport humans there soon.
In addition, SpaceX is currently building an interplanetary spacecraft for Mars known as Starship, capable of bringing over 100 passengers and large amounts of cargo to and from Mars. Although SpaceX has not given a timeline for its first missions to Mars, SpaceX founder Elon Musk has said that the first Mars base could be up and running in 2028.” As of this writing SpaceX has completed 112 launches and 74 landings, and has reflown 54 rockets.
Human Settlement on Mars
So what would a Mars base look like, and would this mark the beginning of permanent human settlement on Mars? (Queue the interplanetary urban planning eye candy.)
The Space.com article goes on:
“While SpaceX intends to set up a transportation system for humans and cargo traveling to the Red Planet, the company won’t be building an entire Mars base on its own. Musk has laid out his vision to create a million-person colony on Mars, but to establish that colony, SpaceX will have to work together with NASA and the agency’s international partners and other commercial space companies. Several companies have already begun designing concepts for Mars habitats and have proposed orbital outposts similar to NASA’s Lunar Gateway, which could serve as a waypoint for Starship and reduce the amount of fuel needed for return trips to Earth.”
The idea of settling Mars has long received interest from public space agencies and private corporations—not to mention film, writing, and art. Musk and SpaceX are confident in spite of major technical and financial considerations involved in getting to—and staying put—on Mars. SpaceX estimates Starship will cost up to $10 Billion to develop, and a Mars base would require air-tight habitats to shield the atmosphere’s toxic air and deadly radiation.
5. Space Warfare
Future wars which begin on land or sea could quickly escalate and be “won or lost” in space, the head of Britain’s Royal Air Force has said, as he warned that Russia and China are developing anti-satellite weaponry.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, chief of the air staff, said that while it was still considered “contentious” to talk about space as a military domain, it would be “tantamount to negligence” if the UK armed forces failed to take seriously the threats posed to crucial satellite functions such as communications and GPS navigation.
“A future conflict may not start in space, but I am in no doubt it will transition very quickly to space, and it may even be won or lost in space,” the air chief marshal told an online audience at the UK’s Defence Space Conference on Tuesday. “So we have to be ready to protect and if necessary defend our critical national interests in space . We see nations like China and Russia and others developing anti-satellite capabilities.” Earlier in 2020, the US and UK accused Moscow of testing a new space-based weapon from its Cosmos 2543 satellite, marking a new frontier in the militarisation of space. The projectile, which was released into orbit, could have been used to target an enemy satellite.
Gen John W Raymond, head of US Space Command, said at the time that the test fire was “consistent with the Kremlin’s published military doctrine to employ weapons that hold US and allied space assets at risk”, while Air Vice Marshal Harvey Smyth, head of the UK Space Directorate, said the projectile had the “characteristics of a weapon”. The fear among western allies is that the use of space weaponry not only threatens the peaceful use of space but also risks creating debris which could damage satellites and space systems. As the density of debris grows, it could cause follow-on collisions and make parts of space too hazardous to enter.
China has already faced criticisms for its role in creating space debris: in 2007, it shot a missile 500 miles into space to destroy one of its own ageing weather satellites. The test created thousands of pieces of debris — which ACM Wigston described as an “irresponsible action” — and sent the signal that Beijing would also be capable of targeting enemy satellites.
The US conducted a similar operation a year later when it shot down one of its own spy satellites, which had malfunctioned, because it said the toxic fuel onboard would be dangerous if it came back to earth. The Pentagon said the timing of the intercept, close to re-entry of the rogue vehicle, minimised any space debris. However, Russia suggested the operation was being used as cover to test an anti-satellite weapon.
In 2019, India became the fourth country to shoot down a satellite in space. Sir Mike added that China’s ambition to become the world’s pre-eminent space power by 2045 had already involved developments in cyber, electromagnetic and kinetic systems “that potentially could threaten other users in space”.
6. The Revolution In Satellite Technology Means There Will Be Swarms Of Small Spacecraft In Space In The Future
As the size and cost of satellites have come down, their numbers have grown dramatically. In 2018, 253 satellites weighing between 1 and 50 kg were launched worldwide, according to the most recent study by SpaceWorks, although this figure will increase considerably in the next few years.
More and more startups, companies and governments have the capacity to have their own satellites. In fact, SpaceWorks expects between 513 and 745 launches in 2023. If those forecasts are met, the number of small satellites launched into space would at least double within five years. And in the most optimistic scenario, it would almost triple.
The Transformation On Its Way Thanks To Artificial Intelligence
Artificial intelligence (AI) is also arriving in space. If we focus on the future of small satellites, this transformation will bring important advances. First of all, let’s think about automatic diagnostics based on telemetry, thanks to artificial intelligence tools that will make it possible to anticipate future problems based on current telemetry data from satellites.
Another interesting aspect is the application of AI for on-board information processing and the reduction of download data. In Earth observation or Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) applications, for example, this pre-processing of information would make it possible to carry out the analysis in space and download only the specific data or images necessary for the mission.
Another of the future applications of artificial intelligence has to do with automatic learning systems for the management of satellite constellations. Intelligent ground station networks and automatic learning systems will optimise the control of large CubeSats constellations. Artificial intelligence will help to simplify the management of all tasks associated with the control of satellites and the services they provide.
Improvements in active and passive de-orbiting systems
The presence of space junk in Earth’s orbit is one of the main concerns of the sector, as this debris poses a risk to functioning satellites. Today’s CubeSats are designed to enter the Earth’s atmosphere at the end of their useful life, so that they disintegrate without leaving a trace, although in some cases this process can last for years, and if something goes wrong, they may end up as space junk. The de-orbiting systems are in charge of guiding this process of leaving orbit and controlled destruction.
The trend in the sector is towards an improvement in these procedures, which in part are closely related to the propulsion systems we have just seen. These active de-orbiting systems include electric, chemical and water propellants, which allow the CubeSat to be guided towards the Earth’s atmosphere once it has completed its mission. Work is also underway on improving the efficiency of passive de-orbiting systems, such as braking using Air Drag Augmentation Devices (DADs) and systems such as magnetic torques or inertia wheels.
In both cases, these are fundamental advances towards the objective of achieving in the coming years a reduction in the level of risk associated with the increase in space junk in the Earth’s orbit.
Space continues to be an inexhaustible source of new business opportunities. New and promising technical advances are appearing in the future of small satellites that will help boost its practical applications. Space travel already has exploded centuries-old myths and promises to continue to confront our long-held assumptions about who we are and where we come from. The next decade promises to be an exciting period as scientists mine new data from space telescopes, space travel, and robotic exploration.
One of the most crucial features of humanity is our curiosity about life, the universe, and how things operate. Exploring space provides a means to satisfy our thirst for knowledge and improve our understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe. Ten or twenty years from now, we may have answers to basic questions that have eluded humans for centuries, such as how ubiquitous life is outside of Earth, whether it is possible for humans to survive on other planets, and how planets evolve over time.
The Satellite Broadband Industry Will Move At Hyperspeed – https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/industry/technology/future-of-satellite-internet.html
The Future Of Tourism And Flight Will Be In Space – https://www.space.com/future-of-space-tourism-op-ed
Mining in Space : The Next Frontier – https://www.startus-insights.com/innovators-guide/top-10-spacetech-trends-innovations-2021/
The Future Colonization of Mars – https://edition.cnn.com/2021/04/15/world/mars-exploration-humankind-scn/index.html
Wars Of The Future May Be Won Or Lost In Space – https://www.ft.com/content/18d81681-f6da-4715-854d-16d1a9216404
The Revolution In Satellite Technology Means There Will Be Swarms Of Small Spacecraft In Space In The Future – https://info.alen.space/predictions-about-the-future-of-small-satellites-and-new-space