Home STEM The Future of Space

The Future of Space

by Jamie Stevens

Space, or as Captain James T. Kirk put it, “the final frontier”, has long been a source of fascination, the setting of countless science fiction movies and novels. But is this final frontier finally being conquered? The human race has long trekked further and further into the realm of space. Over the last 60+ years, progress in space has gone from Sputnik 1 to moon landings to private spacecraft. Settlements on the Moon and Mars will likely appear in the near future. Satellites might even start fighting each other, and more and more people will start journeying into space on whims. What will the future of space look like?

New Horizons

Sputnik 1, what can only be described as a metal ball with 4 legs, was no impressive sight, but its launch in 1957 triggered the Space Age, an age of groundbreaking space exploration. President Kennedy, afraid that the world would see the communism-based Soviet Union as more powerful because of its prowess in space, created NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) to compete with the Soviet space force. Less than 4 years after the launch of Sputnik, humans first traveled into the domain of space, and within 12, humans walked on the moon. Furthermore, the countless missions that have been sent into the far reaches of space have certainly not been wastes of money – they have discovered a wealth of information including new moons, the appearance of planet surfaces, and a space telescope has taken the first image of a black hole.

Most of these developments, however, happened at a relatively long time ago in the Space Age. Further exploration of the deeper reaches of space, as well as that of our closer cosmic neighbors, after a period of hibernation, is once again coming back.

After the Apollo missions, which ended in 1972, no human has set foot on the moon. This hiatus in moon exploration is soon coming to an end. The United States is planning on sending astronauts to the moon by 2025, while China, which is already planning on sending probes to the Moon’s south pole, plans to do so by 2035. The American mission, named Artemis after Apollo’s twin sister, is sending astronauts to explore the Moon as a stepping stone for future Mars missions. The mission also plans to utilize a base camp able to sustain four people for more than a month including a mobile home, a rover, and a lunar cabin on the Moon. However, the planned spacecraft being developed by NASA to send astronauts to the Moon, Orion, part of the SLS (Space Launch System), may not be ready by the current deadline. If that happens, the Starship system, developed by space company SpaceX, will be used instead.

Even though both the American and Chinese moon missions are impressive, they are only the tip of the iceberg of what could be done on the Moon. For longer missions, a lunar settlement is required. In addition to the United States, China, and Russia, private companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin are also interested in building settlements on the Moon, which could also provide important insight into possible settlements on Mars.

But why are people once again interested in the Moon? For one thing, the Moon has two important resources: water and regolith, both of which are of great value to scientists. Water, which is found on the Moon in the form of ice at the poles, is critical to future settlements for two reasons – it provides a source of drinking water, and it can also be split into its two components: hydrogen and oxygen. Oxygen is crucial to future settlements for obvious reasons, while hydrogen, as well as oxygen, can be used as rocket fuel. Water found on the moon is important because the cost of

transporting material from the Earth is costly, at an astounding $1.6 million per kilogram. Furthermore, forms of life might be found in the water, as water is essential for life as we know it.

The second resource, regolith, which is in essence crushed Moon rock, is not as important as water, but useful nonetheless. In addition to its being an excellent thermal insulator and its property of forming ink suitable for 3D printing when mixed with water, regolith can also be tested as a possible habitat for lunar life due to its soft nature, which would organisms to be housed in it.

Resources are not the only enticing feature drawing both governments and companies alike to the Moon. The Moon’s far side can be used as a radio base, where radio waves detecting the universe’s early days will be undisturbed by those from Earth’s surface. Another important aspect of the Moon is that it could be used as a military base. Even though the Outer Space Treaty bars military activity in space, loopholes still exist.

Mars is also receiving more attention. Mars, which was already the target of the Perseverance mission, is now being looked towards as the base of a settlement that can be used if something goes wrong with Earth. The first human mission to Mars, set for launch in the mid-2030s, is already being planned – all that it needs is the insight from the Artemis missions. 

Mars is not alone in its state of exploration – previously launched missions are still studying other aspects of the Solar System, including multiple spacecraft latched onto comets and asteroids.

Transport and Trade

As space exploration broadens, it is only too obvious that both spacecraft technology and business will broaden. Spacecraft designs will become more and more complicated and will incorporate ever more revolutionary technologies. And as space becomes privatized and increasingly attractive for profit, new laws need to be made to preserve the order of space.

Spacecraft are the most important component of every space mission – without them, nothing can happen. The evolution of spacecraft design has been fast and efficient. Sputnik gave way to rockets, which in their turn gave way to space shuttles. When the shuttles retired, reusable rockets and private space airplanes arrived on the scene. As time progresses even further, starships the likes of which have only before existed in Star Wars, Star Trek, or space-themed games like starblast.io are at last becoming reality. 

One of the most interesting new concepts being developed currently is the nuclear-powered spacecraft, which is attractive because of its high energy output, which is derived from atoms being split. The Pentagon, concerned that American satellites will not be able to maneuver quickly enough to escape potential enemy missiles, is currently investigating nuclear power as a source of energy. The idea is that the uranium atoms in these nuclear reactors, once split, will produce enough heat to rapidly expand liquid hydrogen kept at a temperature of -235℃, producing thrust capable of reaching geostationary orbit in a few hours. Satellites using current rockets to reach geostationary orbit might need several days.

The heating of liquid hydrogen is not the only way that nuclear reactors could generate thrust. One other idea is that the heat from split atoms can be instead used to generate electricity, which could then be used to ionize a propellant gas. When used with an electric or magnetic field, this ionized gas would also give thrust to the spacecraft.

Another way to power spacecraft using nuclear energy is through the use of radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs). Instead of splitting atoms, RTGs use the amounts of heat released from atomic decay to produce some wattage. Plutonium-238 has been used in both of the Voyager spacecraft, both of which are

still functioning, as well as the Curiosity Mars rover. Because Plutonium-238 takes a while to decay, other researchers are looking into elements with a shorter half-life (the time it takes for half the number of atoms in a sample to decay), such as Cobalt-60. 

Unfortunately, there are downsides to the use of nuclear reactors. When reentering the atmosphere, should a nuclear reactor accidentally land in water, a meltdown could be triggered. If a nuclear reactor were blown up, nuclear debris could land all over the globe. Any mistake made with operating the nuclear-powered systems could have disastrous consequences.

Rocket designs are also becoming more advanced. Previously, the only large ships that could return from space in one piece were space shuttles. The Falcon 9 rocket, recently developed and launched by private space company SpaceX, is the first rocket capable of returning to Earth. The Starship rocket, which is also made by SpaceX, will also be able to do so once it is operational.

One concept that has yet to be explored is the development of other types of spacecraft. NASA is already researching hypersonic spacecraft. Another idea is that spacecraft able to be docked in space would save unimaginable amounts of money, as well as providing a tactical advantage should the need to defend resources arise. Since a type of mothership in the air is already being developed that can house drones and in the future fighter jets, why can’t the same concept be used in space? Using motherships or ship bases on the Moon could provide huge advantages in space exploration and travel.

A new age in space is beginning with the privatization of space. In July of 2021, Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Galactic, along with three other people, became the first person to go to space on a private spacecraft. Both Virgin Galactic and rival company Blue Origin want to start charging people for rides into space. In fact, Virgin Galactic now plans on sending around 1000 wealthy tourists to space per year.

Another driving force for companies is the wealth of resources and the advantages that space offers. Resources on our nearest neighbor in space, the Moon, are already planned to be used to support future settlements. Some companies have also talked about mining minerals on nearby asteroids. The problem that arises here is the question about who gets to claim ownership of these materials. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 states that no one is allowed to claim ownership of celestial bodies. Unfortunately, this says nothing about the resources on these celestial bodies. America says that private companies should be able to extract resources, while the rest of the world is largely ambiguous about its standing. More laws, such as those saying what space debris is whose responsibility, and those regulating the exploitation of materials, should be agreed upon by the international community.

Warfare

Sooner or later, as the resources that space offers start to become depleted and as governments vie for control of planets and moons, intergalactic war will turn from the basis of the most popular sci-fi movies to grim reality. Novels like the Insignia trilogy offer a plausible scenario for what futuristic wars in space will in actuality turn out like. For good or for worse, wars in space of the magnitude found on Earth are still a long way away, even though aggressive activity is already happening in space. What do the current state and the future state of war in space look like?

Former US president Donald Trump created a new branch of the army, the Space Force, in 2019, half a year after French president Emmauneul Macron did the same in France. China and Russia had also created their own army branches managing space in 2015. Wars, once only fought on Earth, might in the future be fought in space. 

In 2007, China tested its first anti-satellite missile, while India did the same a year later. Satellites are crucial enough already for terrestrial war. Although satellites have so far only been used for spying purposes, they could soon play even larger and more aggressive roles in future wars in space. Because of their location high in the atmosphere, satellites are able to spot enemy troop and weapon positions, allowing them to instantly alert

armies about any missiles the enemy just launched at them. Their position also makes it much easier to transmit information to faraway troops with a smaller risk of interception. In the future, their positions in space might even enable them to fire weapons at high altitudes, making it much harder for troops to deflect attacks.

Because of America’s current military power and its dependence on satellites for its missions, its satellites are enticing targets for missiles: destroying one or knocking one out of orbit would make it harder for American troops to fight, or even disorienting them when they need information the most.

While there are multiple ways of sabotaging satellites, the easiest is by far attacking it with missiles. Satellites are most vulnerable to attack while in low orbit, but even geostationary orbit, the orbit that most satellites because of the ability to see entire continents at a time, and the altitude that corresponds to a 24-hour Earth orbit, is becoming less and less of a safe haven as missiles capable of reaching that altitude, like those developed by China, are becoming tangible threats. 

The problem with blowing up satellites in space is that the resulting debris, much like the equivalent of nuclear fallout on Earth, would add to the already ponderous amount of space junk, which has reached almost a million objects capable of serious damage to spacecraft. Hitting satellites is also painstakingly obvious, making it much harder to cover up.

This is why to sabotage satellites, countries are instead turning to the possibility of using satellites to put other satellites out of function. Because of the sneaky and to be honest rather cowardly nature of this method, it will become a lot harder to reliably point the finger of blame at the perpetrator. Getting a satellite close to another satellite is something that is already being done for repair purposes, or maybe even for spy missions that conveniently occurred in the Earth’s shadow, but never for something as nefarious as destroying another satellite.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), satellite-disabling methods are not limited to physical interaction. Spy satellites are especially vulnerable to lasers. Powerful lasers would be enough to blind them. Higher-intensity waves such as microwave beams could even do physical damage to the satellite body. If satellites were able to carry EMP (electromagnetic pulse) guns, they would be able to shut down entire body systems, leaving empty frames behind in the void of space. Satellites can also be hacked by malicious evildoers – in 1998, Russian hackers apparently hacked an American-German satellite and destroyed its instruments by pointing it at the Sun. The unofficial “eye for an eye” rule might also make ruining another country’s satellites less appealing. If combat in space ever did occur, America would handle it with its National Space Defense Center, located at an Air Force base in Colorado.

American satellites are vulnerable because of their giant size and cost, which also makes them attractive targets. Single satellites can cost almost $20billion. DARPA, a branch of the Pentagon, hopes to remedy this weakness by taking a leaf from the private sector’s book and instead establishing a network of satellites that can securely relay information across the atmosphere.

The Outer Space Treaty bans weapons of mass destruction in space, but it says nothing about more conventional weapons. If war in space ever begins, satellites would become more and more like today’s fighter planes, boasting the latest advanced technological weaponry like those in the Insignia trilogy or maybe, eventually (but hopefully not), like those in Star Wars and Star Trek.

Alien Life

Just as with warfare, the global population has been greatly fascinated by the population of life outside of Earth. In addition to the countless UFO (unidentified flying object) sightings and encounters that have been reported, the media has also included aliens and extraterrestrial life in a seemingly endless number of sci-fi movies, from the cute Stitch and E.T. to the terrifying Blob and Thing to the manhunting Xenomorphs and Predators. The subject of extraterrestrial life is seemingly also a popular one among authors – H. G. Wells described a war between Earth and tentacled Martians in his classic The War of the Worlds, and the novel Arrival by Ted Chiang became the basis for its movie namesake.

While it may seem like it, interest in alien life is not just limited to popular culture – both the scientific and academic communities are deeply interested in it as well, but perhaps not in the alien-conquest (or vice versa) sense that many of us think of when we think of aliens. Instead, both fields look for evidence of life on other planets in the universe or hints of alien intelligence. Just last year, for example, a Harvard astronomer published a book claiming that he had found a sign of extraterrestrial intelligence when an asteroid-like object that was “moving too fast along a straight orbit” and “left no trail of gas or debris in its wake” passed the inner solar system. He then deduced, to wide controversy, that the object was “a piece of advanced technology created by a distant alien civilization”.

The scientific community, meanwhile, is more interested in finding traces of life on other celestial bodies. Many of the missions that NASA has launched have the search for life as a secondary, if not main, purpose. The Perseverance rover, which was launched last year, is now looking for evidence of microbial life on Mars. The Cassini-Huygens and Galileo missions, sent to Saturn and its moon Titan,

and Jupiter, respectively, both discovered possible environments for life (the conditions on the planets’ moons are most promising), which the Europa Clipper and Dragonfly missions, which are both planned to be launched in the next five years, seek to explore. Europa Clipper will investigate the ice and possible water underneath Jupiter’s moon Europa for organisms, while Dragonfly will search the lakes of methane for chemical building blocks on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. These missions will help further research and understanding not only on how life developed on Earth in the first place, but also the progression of life under other conditions.

One problem with the search for extraterrestrial life that is only now being fixed was the type of organism for which the search was being conducted. Ever since we have started the search, we have assumed that life on other planets, moons, or even asteroids would be like life on Earth. Not only is this blatant in popular culture where aliens are most commonly portrayed as “little green men (most likely from Mars)”, based off the human body (Xenomorphs and Predators), or based off of unique Earth animals (the Martians from The War of the Worlds, for example, as well as many other aliens, have tentacles, which are found on squid, octopi, and anemones, which are all Earth animals), but it is also impacting the decisions about what life would look like that scientists make when planning missions. The problem with this approach is that Earth is unique – its oceans, its atmosphere, its crust, all are made of components that make them distinctly from Earth. On other planets, oceans and atmospheres are made of different substances, which would affect how any possible life could form. Looking for biosignatures that are the byproducts of organic chemical reactions that most likely only matter on Earth, such as carbon dioxide and methane, will only find life, if any exists, that developed with Earth-like conditions.

Scientists are instead thinking about a wider variety of shapes that life on other celestial bodies could have. Carbon is arguably the most crucial element on Earth – its property of being able to form bonds with four other atoms allows it to create intricate structures. Alien life, if not based on carbon, could potentially be based off of silicon, which also has four bonding sites, or another similar element. In laboratories, polyoxymetalates, a type of metal oxide, have formed into a sort of chemical membrane (called “inorganic chemical cells” by Lee Cronin, a chemist at the University of Glasgow) and have formed structures similar to DNA. It’s not unfeasible that building blocks of life, however exotic, can form from chemicals found in planets – amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, likely formed by random chemical reactions slightly helped by the early state of Earth.

In addition to building blocks, life also needs a solvent. On Earth, this solvent is water. Water is a good solvent because of its polarity, which allows it to dissolve chemicals, which then start chemical reactions and form molecules, a process crucial to the formation of life’s building blocks, whatever they may be. While water can still be a solvent on other planets, other possible solvents include ammonia and formadide, a liquid formed from the elements carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen and found at the edges of the solar system.

To have a better chance of finding life elsewhere in the universe means that we need to be more open to the idea of life formed from different elements than those on Earth, as well as the idea that organisms may be living where we least expect them. Life can be found in the most surprising places, such as in the deepest, highest-pressure regions of the ocean, in toxic chemical vents, or even radioactive waste. No matter the conditions, life finds a way.

Conclusion

It’s only been a bit over 50 years since the Space Age began, which makes the number and magnitude of humankind’s accomplishments even more impressive. As we continue to further explore this “final frontier”, science and technology will only further progress over the course of the next 50 years – future missions to even more planets and moons, space travel for everyone, settlements on Mars, revolutionary discoveries of life in other realms of space, satellite war, hypersonic spacecraft and  invulnerable motherships, and more might all become possible. 

But perhaps the best thing about space is the fact that it’s unconquerable – we will never even come close to knowing everything or even exploring everything, and that is what makes it so fascinating.

Just for Fun

Sometimes, it can be beneficial to escape from the ever-increasing problems of the world and relax a bit. Sticking with the space theme, one of the most popular space games (and with the best graphics too) is the online space-themed shooting game starblast.io. In the game, you start off as the pilot of a small spaceship, then you mine gems to gain ship tiers while upgrading ship stats like health or energy capacity. You can then choose to become a ruthless corsair, a team-carrying miner, a Soloist Defense Force [SDF] member, or anything you choose – the choices are almost limitless. You will learn to defend your base, defend your teammates, and most important of all, defend yourself from enemy ships, toxic stackers, and nefarious aliens.

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