x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

To space [tourism] and beyond

The age of considering children naive for dreaming of becoming an astronaut is coming to an end.

The new generation of space exploration will be driven by an increasingly commercial focus on activities such as tourism, energy production and mining.
The new generation of space exploration will be driven by an increasingly commercial focus on activities such as tourism, energy production and mining.

Two things are guaranteed to capture the imagination of children, according to Eric Anderson: space and dinosaurs. And one of the two will become a lot more important in the coming decades. The age of considering children naive for dreaming of becoming an astronaut is coming to an end. When reaching adulthood, a child born today will enter a world where the commercial exploration of space is a trillion-dollar business employing millions of people. If things go to plan, they could get a job with Space Adventures, the company Mr Anderson founded in 1998. He hopes to see it become a service provider to government and commercial space programmes around the world, while also turning a lucrative trade in taking people to the moon and beyond. The commercialisation of space exploration may seem to have sneaked up rapidly - we live in a time when a ticket can be booked on a Virgin Galactic spaceship - but, like most technological advances, it has been making small, incremental steps, largely out of the public eye, for decades. Space-based technology now powers global communication networks, along with much of the world's mapping and guidance systems. It helps scientists to understand climate in a way never before possible and is a driving force behind revolutionary technologies for energy, materials and communication. But much of this progress has escaped public interest, a fundamentally academic pursuit driven by government money and infrastructure-type investments. The new generation of space exploration will be different. An increasingly commercial focus means it will target areas that engage a wider audience, such as tourism, energy production, mining and permanent human settlements on other planets and the moon. The US government has made putting a man on Mars a national priority, and will tender US$400 billion worth of contracts related to this mission alone by 2030. Much of the private-sector interest in space has been funded by wealth generated in America's Silicon Valley. The region's technology entrepreneurs see space as yet another frontier to be conquered by bright minds, and the founders of some of the most successful businesses such as Microsoft, Google and PayPal have channelled hundreds of millions of dollars into the industry. "Space tourism is the lowest-hanging fruit," says Anousheh Ansari, a millionaire technology entrepreneur who recently travelled to the International Space Station with Mr Anderson's company. "By creating a viable space travel industry, you will be able to do continuous launches and therefore, through volume and competition, bring down costs while gaining experience and advancing technology." Frequent launches of commercial space vehicles - Virgin Galactic hopes to reach five per week - are widely mentioned as a major step in developing low-cost space travel. The existing system for reaching orbit, where the vehicle escapes the Earth's gravity, is extremely costly. As most of the space craft is abandoned after launch or on re-entry to the atmosphere, each individual mission carries enormous one-off expenses. Mr Anderson compares it with passenger aircraft. Imagine the price of a trip to London, he says, if each jumbo jet held only four passengers and had to be ditched into the sea before landing, with a new plane being built - and discarded - for the return flight. Companies such as Virgin Galactic do not face such challenges as their flights, known as suborbital missions, never leave Earth's gravitational pull. Like a ball being tossed in the air, they blast their way at three times the speed of sound to the edges of the atmosphere, where they float for about five minutes while slowly falling back to Earth. To escape Earth's gravity, a craft needs to be accelerated to more than 25 times the speed of sound. Thanks to the rules of physics, this requires an exponentially larger amount of energy. It is this huge amount of fuel that makes it necessary to use a giant disposable rocket to propel a much smaller space vehicle. While this challenge is a major bottleneck to frequent orbital space tourism, it also has a broader impact on the space industry. The cost of moving anything into space is at least US$5,000 (Dh18,365) per kilogram, and often more than 10 times that. Solving this challenge is one of the many lucrative missions on which the private space industry is working. Solutions are expected to come from lowering the costs of launches and basing supply facilities in space. An orbiting supply station could mine for ice - the likely "white gold" of future space exploration - or other resources such as silver and magnesium. All three are found in abundance in the asteroids orbiting the Earth, with water being valuable both for human consumption and conversion into hydrogen fuel. Even more lucrative will be the role of space in the race to develop clean, sustainable sources of energy. Solar satellites, as they have been dubbed by researchers, could orbit Earth with giant solar collectors harvesting the unfiltered energy of the sun. The satellites would beam the energy back to stations on Earth in the form of microwave signals. Such a transmission system was recently tested in the US, sending electricity between two Hawaiian islands 148km apart; a similar distance to that of a satellite orbiting Earth. US defence officials believe space-based solar power could supply 10 per cent of global energy needs by 2050. A recent report by the department recommends the US government become a founding customer for such power, guaranteeing demand for private sector energy providers willing to invest in the technology. While existing electricity costs in the range of 4 US cents to 10 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) today, the report says solar power from space will initially cost in the range of $1 to $2 per kWh. But even at those prices the system could be economically feasible, the report says. Remote military bases and government facilities would make natural customers for such a service. They already pay high premiums for power. The report uses US military bases in Iraq as an example: when factoring in all the direct and indirect costs, space-based power could be competitive with existing systems of producing electricity for such bases. "Only governments can afford to spend dollars on fundamental research that may not have commercial appeal for decades," Mr Anderson says. "But anything that can be done by private companies should be done by private companies." While he sees a role for government and private-sector investment in space, Mr Anderson believes a major role for states will be to adapt the existing international system in preparation for a new generation of exploration, land grabs and potential conflict. "In technology we tend to over-predict how much progress we will make in two years, but under-predict what we will achieve in 10 years," he says. "The international system for dealing with space issues is going to have a lot of new things to deal with in the coming years." tgara@thenational.ae