How new technology is democratizing access to space
The exploration of space – the ‘final frontier’ that has inspired so many scientists, engineers and artists – is no longer just the preserve of national governments.
From commercial companies launching cars into orbit to schoolchildren sending iPhones to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere, more people than ever before can now explore what lies at the fringes of our atmosphere and beyond.
This democratization of space has been driven by technological advances that have reduced the size and cost of equipment, making it more affordable for many to join in space exploration as commercial companies are increasingly able to provide space-related services.
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) Group, for example, has been providing cost-effective and reliable space launches since the 1970s, and the demand for increasingly smaller and less expensive satellite technology has one of the main reasons why the demand for such services is increasing.
In the last few months of 2017 alone, its H-IIA rockets have deployed three satellites to improve GPS signals in Asia and one designed to monitor the effects of climate change.
But to appreciate just how affordable space exploration technology has become, it is worth looking back to when it was dominated by the national agencies of global superpowers.
‘We have affordable lift-off…’
At the height of the space race in the 1960s, it is estimated the US government was allocating 4% of its annual spending to NASA and associated scientific research. In today’s terms, that would be equal to an annual spend of roughly $152 billion – more than the entire gross domestic product of some countries, including Hungary and Kuwait.
This figure is far more than the funds national space agencies are allocated today and it completely dwarfs the running costs of the many private space ventures that currently exist.
For example, the Twinkle mission led by University College London – which aims to explore the chemical makeup of planets in other solar systems – reportedly costs just $65 million.
By comparison, NASA’s Kepler project, which also aims to explore planets in other solar systems, is likely to cost $600 million, about ten times more than Twinkle.
NASA is building the Kepler spacecraft from scratch, creating a bespoke piece of precision engineering capable of travelling to new galaxies.
The academics behind Twinkle hope to achieve similar results by adopting a more “off-the-shelf” solution and modifying existing satellite technology. They can do this because the computing power they need to engineer their mission, which would have been expensive in the space-race era, is now accessible and cheap.
Similarly, satellite technology is now far more abundant and less expensive. It is so affordable, people can have their own personal satellites.
Small satellites measuring just 10cm across known as CubeSats can cost as little as $3,000 to send into space. They can easily fit inside launch vehicles and be sent into orbit at the same time as bigger commercial payloads, bringing down the cost.
Groups including schools, universities and global conglomerates have launched CubeSats. Housing sensors, communications receivers and transmitters, these allow operators to study the Earth and the space around our planet, and to test out new systems.
In 2015, MHI’s H-II Transfer Vehicle 5 carried a CubeSat built by a student team from Denmark’s Aalborg University, with backing from the European Space Agency, as part of the ‘Fly Your Satellite from the ISS’ education program. The satellite was built to test an improved version of a maritime ship-tracking technology.
While most CubeSats are in low-earth orbit – the same region in space as the International Space Station – NASA plans for future Moon and Mars missions to carry CubeSats further into space.
From satellite to smartphone
Other satellites that have a wide variety of commercial and scientific goals have also helped to democratize space exploration.
You only need to pull out your smartphone to see how much we use satellites and take them for granted. Smartphones are equipped with Global Positioning System capability, allowing apps like Google Maps to help us find our way while fitness trackers can trace our daily steps. The phones in our pockets communicate with around 24 satellites orbiting the earth.
The demand for satellite communications is enormous and the technology provides TV, phone and broadband services.
While space exploration in its earliest days was largely driven by political goals, today it is a commercial enterprise and the barriers to entry are falling all the time.
Right now, MHI Group is developing its H3 launch system, which aims to deliver payloads of between two and seven metric tons, depending on configuration, for a much lower price than the current H-IIA.