With the high costs of funding space travel and dwindling government support for new initiatives, will the progress we’ve made in exploring our universe soon come to a grinding halt? The answer, thankfully, is no. Government institutions like NASA have long been the forerunners in developing technologies for traveling outside the range of our atmosphere. In recent years, however, progress by government institutions has slowed, leaving room for private companies to begin picking up where the space race of the late twentieth century left off. SpaceX, run by entrepreneur Elon Musk; Blue Origin, owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos; and Virgin Galactic, a part of the Virgin Group, are just a few examples of private space exploration companies that have emerged in recent decades and that are achieving notable advances in a field once exclusively dominated by national governments. It’s companies like these and the democratization of science that have ushered in a new era of more affordable technologies and rejuvenated the competitive nature of space exploration to its former glory. Ideas that once seemed like science fiction, possible perhaps in the distant future, are now on the horizon. Manned expeditions to Mars, affordable space tourism and interstellar exploration could all be possible within our lifetimes thanks to the rate at which private companies are investing in new technologies.
Moving Construction From Earth to Orbit
Successful space travel poses many challenges, many of which begin even before launch. Launching spacecraft with large components such as antennae, solar panels and trusses is particularly difficult because these components must be securely packed in order to survive the gravitational stress of a trip to orbit. Then, once in orbit, they must be unpacked and deployed. If that doesn’t already sound like a challenge, imagine components that are at kilometer-length scales — think football field-sized antennae. Sending large structures into orbit may soon become much easier thanks to the efforts of a company called Tethers Unlimited, which has developed a spider-like robot that may see action within the next decade. SpiderFab will hopefully lower the cost of space exploration by eliminating the need to build huge structural components on Earth
and then launching them. Instead, these robots will use technology similar to 3D printing — called a trusselator — to weave web-like support structures in space. This would mean systems could be launched in a much more compact “embryonic” state, and then completed by spider robots once in orbit. Tethers Unlimited hopes to work alongside NASA and the International Space Station (ISS) to further promote its new technology. Rob Hoyt, CEO of Tethers Unlimited, has the ultimate goal of eventually promoting affordable human exploration
of the solar system and permanent human habitation of space.
Sailing Through Space
You may remember Bill Nye as a television host and “the Science Guy.” Nowadays he’s a CEO heading the Planetary Society, which is the world’s largest non-governmental space interest organization. The Planetary Society has been hard at work raising money and developing LightSail, a cube-shaped spacecraft no bigger than a breadbox
called a CubeSat. Photons, which are particles of sunlight, have no mass. They do, however, have momentum, which will be utilized by LightSail to propel the spacecraft through space without any heavy fuels. The tiny craft deploys a gigantic Mylar sail that catches sunlight and gets pushed along by photon momentum. A prototype was deployed successfully in early 2015 and launched into orbit as a secondary payload on a rocket from another private space company, Boeing’s United Launch Alliance. The Planetary Society is now preparing for a full test of the new technology, hitching a ride aboard a SpaceX rocket sometime in 2016. The best part about LightSail is that it has been entirely citizen crowdfunded — The Planetary Society’s backers and membership directly funded the project. Nye predicts that CubeSats will one day revolutionize access to space for citizens — including teams of students and faculty at universities.
More Advances, More Affordability
With more efficient production technology and growing private interest in space travel, many more projects are in development that will hopefully revolutionize space travel and exploration in the coming decades. Smaller rockets will lead to more flights for less monetary cost. Even better is the concept of reusable rockets, like the ones SpaceX has been testing
. Such rockets can already survive launch, enter orbit, and then use special engines to return to the Earth’s atmosphere and land safely in water. The next step is to have them return from orbit to land safely on a launch pad. Other new technologies are emerging. SpaceX and Blue Origin use liquid methane gas, which is cleaner and more widely available than traditional rocket fuels. Commercial off-the-shelf parts for spacecraft and additive manufacturing involving 3D printing are also on the rise. What new breakthroughs will we see in the near future? Only time will tell.
About the Author
Megan Ray Nichols is a science writer and editor of Schooled By Science
. When she isn't writing, Megan enjoys keeping up with the latest science news, and finding new places to go camping or hiking. Follow her on twitter @nicholsrmegan.