By Jason D. Batt
Recently, I attended the 70th International Astronautical Congress (IAC)— an event that brought commercial, non-profit, and governmental efforts together to focus on space data, exploration, and technologies. In alignment with the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing mission, the 70th IAC was hosted this past October in Washington, D.C. With a reminder that we first ambitiously reached the moon fifty years ago, the Vice President of the United States kicked off the week with a reaffirmation of America’s commitment to return to the moon by 2024 – with the first woman to step foot (and the next man) on the lunar surface1. By 2028, the goal is to have “sustainable exploration.”1
Back to the Moon before Moving to Mars
At IAC two years ago in Guadalajara, the Founder and CEO of a leading private aerospace manufacturer and space transportation services provider announced his company’s ambition to go to Mars2. That year’s event also saw another global defense company’s promotion of their spacecraft vehicle as the solution to an orbital mission to the big red planet3.
Within two years, and a shift in focus by the Executive Branch of the United States, the focus of IAC was definitely on the moon. Throughout this year’s event, the administrator of the federal agency responsible for the U.S. civilian space program linked the two visions: “Yes, we’ll go to Mars, but first the Moon.”4
But, this isn’t your grandparent’s moon mission. The plan is to go and stay with a permanent and sustainable exploration of the lunar surface. At its core is an ongoing, international crewed spaceflight program. The program envisions new launch systems, lunar landers, and modern spacesuits for lunar walks. Central to this is the spacecraft vehicle that we previously mentioned—designed for deep space exploration, it will carry four astronauts at a time into lunar orbit and then transfer them to a lander for missions on the surface of the moon.
Businesses and National Agencies Partner in the Space Race
The space industry recognizes that this effort can’t be done by a singular nation. Years of efforts to craft and manage the space station in low Earth orbit have reaffirmed that an international effort of other countries and, now, private enterprise will achieve a long-term presence on the Moon. The U.S. government both planned and funded the original missions to the Moon. In 2024, future planned landings could demonstrate the new economy of public-private partnerships. One of the wealthiest individuals in the world announced that his privately funded sub-orbital spaceflight services company will be working with a leading organization in the space race on the newest lunar lander5. Along with this partnership, other industry partners across the aerospace industry have joined the new Moon mission.
It’s not only corporate partners that have committed to the exploration of the moon. A joint session on October 22 brought together the leaders of space agencies from Canada, Europe, India, Japan, and Russia. The main space agency in Europe is working through its plans to produce modules for the spacecraft intended to travel to beyond low Earth orbit – and eventually to Mars6. Russia announced that they will be participating in a proposed space station in lunar orbit that could be used for scientific research on space data, short-term habitation, and spacecraft storage, although they don’t have specific plans on what their participation will be7.
This “team lift” mentality was echoed through the exhibit hall floor where private and governmental organizations showed off their various upcoming projects, missions, and technologies, with many demonstrating how they’ll aid in the settlement of the moon. One electronic systems provider and integrator displayed an inflatable habitat designed to serve as a full-size habitat at a newly proposed space station8. Another organization is partnering with several Latin American space programs to develop autonomous drones to explore underground lunar cave systems9. The company also announced its intention to utilize distributed ledger technology (blockchain) to record and distribute all of its exploration findings. Their aim is to have transparent and open data storage with equal distribution amongst their partnering organizations.
New Aerospace Projects Look to Go Further, Faster
Yet, IAC was not only about the Moon. The conference brought nearly 6,000 individuals and hundreds of organizations10. In their search for intelligent life on other planets, one research center based in California is open-sourcing data from radio and optical telescopes and using distributed computing to analyze the results for the existence of extraterrestrials11. One spaceflight company showed off its new partnership with a leading apparel company in the creation of a new, modern flight suit for their astronauts12.
IAC was host to even more radical and ambitious focuses. During the Interstellar track, hosted by 100 Year Starship principal Dr. Mae Jemison, efforts by multiple programs to explore beyond our solar system were presented. A global research university kicked off the morning presentations with their new robotic, one-way mission into the interstellar medium13. The program will begin with an interstellar precursor mission—exploring out to 1,000 astronautical units (AU) (an AU is the distance between the Earth and the Sun). This will expand out into the very edges of the heliopause, which is the bubble of matter pushed by solar winds.
There are other interstellar launches in development—a breakthrough research and engineering project, financed by one of Russia’s most influential tech investors and initially announced by a former, notable theoretical physicist, read out their progress to launch a “light beamer” propelled light sail nanoprobe to Alpha Centauri14. Using a series of ground-based lasers aimed at a light sail, the project plans to bridge the enormous gap between our solar system and Alpha Centauri within twenty years after launch—a distance that is currently taking our furthest human-made explorer, Voyager, over 30,000 years at its top speed to reach.
Space Elevators: Fact or Fiction?
In a track focused on space elevator technology, the main speaker mentioned the transitional point that the aerospace industry finds itself at. The space elevator is a concept to launch a large station into orbit and tethering it to a ground-based platform that would allow a continuous chain of “crawler” elevators to ferry payloads, both human and material, into orbit. If realized, the cost of launches would reduce dramatically and, hopefully, propel a far faster exploration and settlement of our solar system and beyond. At the technical track, I learned about the new materials, excitement, players, and schools of thought for space elevator programs in development.
Telescopes Scale to New Sizes… and Locations
This new space world isn’t without its challenges. As researchers continue to explore new swathes of the cosmos, data is being generated continuously at a massive scale. The expansion of various radio telescope arrays, such as a 64-antennae observatory in South Africa15, could see an exponential increase in data acquisition in the next decade. Scientists at a major university addressed efforts to get that data in the cloud faster and efforts to organize it for public use.
Ground-based observation of space data is growing more difficult with the rapidly expanding satellite population around the Earth. Proposals to address this issue proposed utilizing the far side of the moon as the future hub of radio telescope arrays. An adjacent difficulty created by increasing satellites is growing space debris—satellites that are in orbit, difficult to track, and no longer used.
Securing Space Data across the Industry
Finally, in the midst of all of this, is a very familiar challenge: cybersecurity. A recurring discussion throughout data presentations tackled the reality that newer startups in the space industry may not have the resources to address cybersecurity as larger governmental and corporate organizations do. The national institute that promotes U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness is currently developing guidelines for cybersecurity in the space industry that will allow any organization to ensure they’ve properly addressed the risks of security for their launches16.
My Final Thoughts
In the wake of celebrating the monumental landmark of putting humans on the Moon, the industry’s ambition is once again focused on returning to Earth’s closest satellite, as well as Mars, deep space, and beyond with an intention to stay and settle. If anything, IAC reaffirmed that the dream of space has not waned in the last fifty years. Instead, we are at the dawn of a new space world.
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- Here’s how satellite data from outer space is stored
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- Can data help humans survive in deep space?
- ‘Artemis Is Here:’ Vice President Pence Stresses Importance of 2024 Moon Landing. https://www.space.com/nasa-artemis-moon-program-mike-pence.html
- Making Life Multiplanetary. https://www.spacex.com/mars
- NASA Awards Lockheed Martin Contract For Six Orion Spacecraft. https://news.lockheedmartin.com/2019-09-23-NASA-Awards-Lockheed-Martin-Contract-for-Six-Orion-Spacecraft
- Mon to Mars – Administrator Jim Bridenstine. https://blogs.nasa.gov/bridenstine/category/moon-to-mars/
- Jeff Bezos announces Blue Origin will form new industry team to return to the Moon. https://techcrunch.com/2019/10/22/jeff-bezos-announces-blue-origin-will-form-new-industry-team-to-return-to-the-moon/
- ESA – Orion. https://www.esa.int/Science_Exploration/Human_and_Robotic_Exploration/Orion
- Russia Positions Its Moon Programme As Alternative To U.S. Lunar-Orbit Gateway Station. https://spacewatch.global/2019/01/russia-positions-its-moon-programme-as-alternative-to-u-s-lunar-orbit-gateway-station/
- Inside Sierra Nevada’s Inflatable Space Habitat for Astronauts in Lunar Orbit (Photos). https://www.space.com/sierra-nevada-inflatable-habitat-moon-gateway.html
- Legged lunar rover startup Spacebit taps Latin American partners for Moon mission. https://techcrunch.com/2019/10/23/legged-lunar-rover-startup-spacebit-taps-latin-american-partners-for-moon-mission/
- International Astronautical Congress brings space world, and political issues, to Washington. https://spacenews.com/international-astronautical-congress-brings-space-world-and-political-issues-to-washington/
- Berkeley – SETI. https://seti.berkeley.edu/listen/
- Virgin Galactic and Under Armour unveil spacesuits for the first space tourists to wear next year. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/10/16/virgin-galactic-under-armour-spacesuit-collection-for-space-tourists.html
- Interstellar Probe, a mission concept for NASA, aims to travel 93 billion miles past the sun. https://www.washingtonpost.com/science/interstellar-probe-a-mission-concept-for-nasa-aims-to-travel-93-billion-miles-past-the-sun/2019/07/11/e9b92f5c-92a8-11e9-aadb-74e6b2b46f6a_story.html
- Breakthrough Needed? Starshot Interstellar-Flight Project Faces Challenges. https://www.space.com/interstellar-flight-breakthrough-starshot-challenges.html
- South Africa’s MeerKAT Telescope Discovers Giant Radio ‘Bubbles’ At Centre Of Milky Way. https://www.skatelescope.org/news/meerkat-discovers-giant-radio-bubbles/
- National Institute of Standards and Technology | NIST. https://www.nist.gov/