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Private space voyages: The next giant leap for mankind?

Private space voyages are showing signs of becoming a reality, as they continue to draw investor interest

The New Shepard booster that flew to space and then landed vertically in November 2015. Photo: Blue Origin
The New Shepard booster that flew to space and then landed vertically in November 2015. Photo: Blue Origin

One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind", was how Neil Armstrong described his landing on the moon. Ever since he became the first human to set foot on the lunar surface on 20 July 1969, the urge to explore outer space has only intensified.

To be sure, it was the erstwhile Soviet Union that had first triggered the space race when it launched the Sputnik programme, putting a satellite in orbit, way back in 1957.

India, on its part, aims to have a successful manned space mission by 2022. The country’s first manned space flight, Gaganyaan, is expected to send three humans into space for five-seven days. If the mission succeeds, it will be an added feather in the cap of the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) that has been launching numerous low-cost satellites into space over the last few years.

Nevertheless, governments and private companies today are not only eyeing the moon, Mars and Venus but also the sun, and planning manned and unmanned missions. However, while governments of countries such as the US, China, Russia, Japan and India are exploring space from a geopolitical point of view, private companies are seeking business opportunities.

Consider the case of Blue Origin founder and Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, who believes there will be “one trillion humans in the solar system one day". Addressing Wired magazine’s 25th anniversary summit in San Francisco in October, Bezos said he would be spending a “little more" than $1 billion (around 7,300 crore) next year to support Blue Origin, his rocket company.

The rocket company’s aim is to lower the cost of access to space. The US Air Force recently selected Blue Origin and a couple of other companies to develop domestic launch system prototypes. Blue Origin was awarded $500 million for the development of the New Glenn launch system.

Elon Musk at the unveiling of the Manned Dragon V2 Space Taxi in California, in 2014. Photo: Bloomberg

Elon Musk-owned Space Exploration Technologies Corp., better known as Space X, was founded in 2002 and designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. SpaceX successfully achieved the historic first re-flight of an orbital class rocket in 2017, and the company now launches flight-proven rockets. In 2018, SpaceX began launching Falcon Heavy, capable of carrying large payloads into the orbit and supporting missions as far as the moon or Mars. The company is now working on fully reusable launch vehicles.

SpaceX also won its first contract to launch a classified military satellite on the Falcon Heavy rocket. The launch contract, according to a 22 June report in the Quartz, will cost the US Air Force $130 million as compared to the $350 million average cost of United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV, that was produced as part of a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, told the media recently that his company Virgin Galactic would soon conduct its first space flight. Branson hopes the price of a space flight would come down to around $40,000-50,000 over the next decade.

There are smaller companies, too, that are exploring space for other commercial reasons. US-based Planetary Resources, for instance, is embarking on the world’s first commercial deep-space exploration programme. The initial mission will identify asteroids that contain the best source of water, and will simultaneously provide the vital information needed to build a commercial mine which will harvest water for use in space.

The idea is to process asteroid material to liberate the water and break it apart into hydrogen and oxygen, thus getting an abundant supply of rocket fuel. The company believes that water from asteroids will supply gas stations in outer space to enable voyages.

Singapore-headquartered Astroscale’s mission is to secure long-term space flight safety by developing space debris removal services. Space debris comprises man-made objects such as rocket upper stage bodies, non-functioning satellites, metallic fragmentations and others. According to the company, there are currently more than 20,000 large-sized space objects that can be tracked from earth, along with over 750,000 smaller pieces that are untraceable.

US-based Made in Space’s additive manufacturing facility (AMF) is a permanent manufacturing facility on the International Space Station (ISS)—the world’s largest habitable spacecraft. It uses a 3D printer to manufacture parts on board the ISS for both Nasa and the US National Laboratory. Made in Space owns the manufacturing device while Nasa and commercial customers use it as a service. The company has already manufactured a number of parts, tools, devices and multi-part assemblies to be used in orbit and on earth.

The New Shepard suborbital rocket system on the launch pad. Photo courtesy: Blue Origin

US-based Planet Labs designs, builds and launches earth-imaging satellites in orbit. Called Doves, they image the whole of earth daily. The company uses patented automation software to manage a fleet of satellites.

All these companies are also managing to draw investor interest. A report from investment firm Space Angels reveals that 120 venture capital firms invested over $3.9 billion in private space enterprises in 2017. The number is only expected to increase in the coming years.

Moreover, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being used for trajectory and payload optimization, and autonomous targeting of cameras in space. For instance, when Nasa launches the James Webb Space Telescope in March 2021, a part of the mission will involve using AI-powered systems to analyse the humongous amounts of data captured by the telescope’s 25ft golden mirror, which scientists won’t be able to manually process.

However, while both unmanned and manned missions hold great potential, there remain many challenges. First, the deployment of autonomous rovers—space-exploration vehicles designed to move across the surface of a planet or any other celestial body—and robotic spacecraft to probe Mars for evidence of water and life, remain a work in progress despite the tremendous achievements that scientists have made in this field.

The bigger challenge, however, is to put humans in a spacecraft with the intention of having them settle down on the red planet. Dutch organization Mars One’s goal, for instance, is to establish a human settlement on Mars by 2031.

Living on Mars will certainly be no easy task for human beings. They will have to tackle major issues such as space radiation, dust storms, lower gravity pull that can weaken their bones, likely infection from unknown microbes and the effect of loneliness on the mind.

While these concerns are being addressed by researchers across the world and Nasa’s Human Research Program, the fact is that private space voyages, which were in the realm of science fiction till now, are showing signs of becoming a reality.

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