Beyond Musk: The Six Trends That Will Change Space Exploration Forever

Motherboard’s final dispatch from the 67th IAC on what to expect in the future of space travel—without the sales pitch.

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Oct 3 2016, 11:00am

Jan Woerner, ESA Director General. Image: Daniel Oberhaus

Founded in 1950 by the International Academy of Astronautics and the International Astronautical Federation, each year the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) brings together the biggest players in the space world for a week of discussions bearing on humanity's future in the final frontier.

The 67th IAC wrapped up on Friday in Guadalajara, Mexico and saw attendance from the heads of all the major national space agencies, industry titans like SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Lockheed Martin Space Systems VP Wanda Sigur, space celebrities like Buzz Aldrin and Bill Nye, as well as hundreds of space enthusiasts and journalists from around the world.

The theme of this year's IAC was "Making space accessible and affordable to all countries," which was fitting considering that the host country only launched its own space agency in 2010. The question, of course, is how to make space accessible to all when of the 70 national space agencies in existence, only 13 have launch capabilities and only three are able to put humans into space. It's a lofty goal, but then again, space programs have never been known for thinking small.

Bill Nye hyping the Planetary Society's LightSail 2. Image: Daniel Oberhaus

Walking around the floor of the main IAC exhibition however, it was hard to shake the feeling that the congress was more focused on selling space access to non-spacefaring nations than simply making it accessible. As with anything under late capitalism, you can do whatever you want, as long as you have the cash. This feeling was reinforced during many of the larger presentations, particularly Elon Musk's keynote speech and Lockheed Martin's presentation on Mars Base Camp, both of which felt like a big sales pitch to NASA.

The notable exception to this trend was the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs' announcement of its partnership with Sierra Nevada Corporation to launch the first UN space mission in 2021. This mission will place priority on placing experiments in orbit which were developed by countries which can't afford their own national space programs. These experiments will be funded in part by the countries themselves and public-private partnerships with national space agencies and corporate space actors.

Thankfully, not all of the IAC was focused on selling space to those who aren't already there.

The real value of the IAC is found in the hundreds of technical presentations given by scientists and space policy experts from around the globe. These technical presentations occur in a handful of small rooms tucked away from the main IAC events and usually don't attract more than 30 people to any one session. Here, cutting edge space science and policy is discussed in an open and accessible manner. Based on what was discussed during these sessions, here are some major trends to watch out for in the future of space exploration—without the sales pitch:

ASTEROID MINING

One of the biggest tricks in colonizing space is figuring out how to get the resources necessary for this venture into orbit. Right now, the cost of launching stuff into space is about $10,000 per pound. Although both NASA and SpaceX are looking at ways to lower this cost to something more reasonable (like $1000 per pound or even $100 per pound), others are looking at ways to get material resources in space itself. This will likely begin with harvesting water from asteroids and Mars, which will be used for sustaining crewed missions as well as powering interplanetary spacecraft. Peter Swan of the International Space Elevator Consortium went so far as to label water as the likely default currency in space, at least until more robust economies are developed in orbit.

Yet as Alyssa Picard of the Science and Technology Institute pointed out, most of the space mining efforts around today are being developed by private companies and will require the development of a robust legal framework for commercial activities in space led by national and international stakeholders.

NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman speaking about the need for greater diversity in the space sector. Image: Daniel Oberhaus

THE CUBESAT REVOLUTION

Aside from the national space agencies booths at the IAC, the exhibition floor was dominated by commercial CubeSat companies from around the world. Although CubeSats were first formally defined in 1999 as small satellites weighing no more than 1.33 kilograms, it wasn't until recent years that they've really began taking the space industry by storm. These CubeSats can be deployed for a number of purposes, such as scientific missions or Earth observation, although CubeSats are increasingly being explored as potential vehicles for deep space exploration.

This year at the IAC, the focus was on how to make CubeSats more affordable, which included proposals for dedicated CubeSat launch vehicles. One of the most pressing challenges for the future of CubeSats in space will be figuring out how to get them back from orbit once their mission is over to prevent further cluttering Low Earth Orbit, which is quickly beginning to resemble a garbage dump.

SPACE DEBRIS

As mentioned above, Low Earth Orbit is quickly becoming a dangerous place. With over 500,000 pieces of known and tracked orbital debris—even the smallest of which can destroy a satellite or put crewed missions in danger—figuring out how to remove this debris and ensure a sustainable orbital future is paramount for the space sector. A number of methods of removing space debris were discussed at the conference, although one of the most novel was a detumbler—this method would deploy CubeSats that would attach to tumbling space debris, reduce the tumbling motion before sending the space junk to a disposal orbit at about 50 kilometers up. Other methods included using tether nets to catch and dispose of debris, as well as using concentrated sunlight to push space debris out of orbit.

BIG DATA

As more commercial and national actors make their debut in space, we're quickly generating far more data than we can handle. This brings up a number of pressing questions regarding how this data is generated, how to create standards that make sure this data can be used by multiple actors, who has ownership over this data, and what, exactly, we should do with all this data. As the orbital environment becomes increasingly crowded, taking advantage of this massive amount of data will become paramount, to ensure that we are not only deriving the maximum benefit from space missions, but also to ensure the safe deployment of these missions. Although many of these questions still lack anything close to a satisfactory answer, the space sector is definitely taking notice, and some, like the ESA, have begun to arrange conferences dedicated to the challenge of Big Data in Space.

Elon Musk sees what you did there. Image: Daniel Oberhaus

HUMAN SPACE EXPLORATION

Although Elon Musk's plans to turn humans into an interplanetary species and Lockheed Martin's plans to develop a crewed Martian space station stole the show at this year's IAC, there are a number of other plans in the work to make sure humans continue to have a presence in space. With the ISS set to be decommissioned in 2024 and most Mars plans slated for sometime around 2030, this would seem to leave a substantial gap in human orbital presence.

Luckily, China will be launching humans to their own national space station, the Tiangong-2, later this month and the country is expected to continue to keep a human presence in space for the foreseeable future. Indeed, China held a special session on how it plans to open its crewed space programs up to international cooperation in the future.

Aside from China's space ambitions, there will be other opportunities for crewed exploration in the coming decades. One of the most exciting plans is for an international lunar village, a program pioneered by the European Space Agency. Yet before this can happen a number of technical details need to be worked out, namely communications infrastructure and where the lunar village will actually be located. In addition to lunar villages, space tourism was another hot topic of discussion at IAC this year. Virgin Galactic outlined their revamped research on SpaceShipTwo and made affordable space tourism feel closer than ever.

SETI

And what would space exploration be without aliens? Unfortunately, the SETI technical sessions were the smallest of the conference, but this didn't mean they were lacking in big projects. One of the most exciting was the Breakthrough StarShot, the plan to send a small chip about the size of an SD card to another star by bombarding it with a huge array of lasers. The SETI group also discussed how social media has changed post-detection protocols. Currently, the IAA has a procedure about what to do in the event that we are contacted by aliens, but this protocol was designed far before the advent of social media. Now that much SETI research is crowd-sourced through projects like SETI@Home and a tweet can be read around the world within seconds, would SETI researchers be able to stave off global hysteria after contact long enough to verify the legitimacy of the signal?