The past decade has seen a resurgence of interest in space travel and the technological innovation driving it. Billionaire space tourists Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson made the headlines in 2021, while Elon Musk has his sights set on the colonization of Mars.
However, it's worth remembering that these high-flying schemes often end up affecting our lives in more down-to-Earth ways – scratch-resistant glass, GPS, LEDs, memory foam, and heat-resistant metals have changed the way we live and were all developed thanks to space exploration. Many of the principles of remote medicine – which has surged in popularity during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic – were initially conceived to assist with space travel. And there’s no telling how many lives have been saved by smoke and carbon monoxide detectors – also first conceived as space technology!
So, where will space travel take us in 2022? Let's take a look at some of the most exciting implications of humanity continuing to venture beyond the final frontier …
Something of a holy grail for space travel at the moment, reusable launch systems for orbital vehicles are set to dramatically lower the cost of leaving Earth’s atmosphere, opening the doors to many exciting space initiatives which, while theoretically possible, are currently too expensive to be practical. It will also make routine space missions, such as launching satellites and resupplying the International Space Station, far more economical. SpaceX’s SN20 will attempt to launch the first successful orbital flight using a reusable rocket in early 2022, pending approval from the US FAA. SN20 is the most powerful rocket ever built, and is the craft that SpaceX hope will eventually take humans to Mars
Later in the year, Blue Origin will attempt to launch its reusable two-stage New Glenn rocket into low Earth orbit – this rocket is designed to be used up to 25 times and eventually will carry humans as well as cargo.
Back to the moon!
Travel to the moon has not been top of the space exploration agenda for the past few decades, but that has changed as a number of strategic reasons to resume lunar landings have been identified in recent years. Mostly these will not call for humans to visit the barren satellite and will be conducted by autonomous landers and exploration vehicles. One key reason for the renewed interest is that it is thought it will be a good testbed for many technologies that will eventually help us make our way to Mars.
The focus of these missions will be on sending "small payloads," mainly autonomous instruments designed to locate, extract and process elements from the lunar surface. As well as the US, which is planning to launch its Commercial Lunar Payload Services mission – a collaboration between NASA and Astrobotic Technology, Russia, Japan, and India all plan to deliver robotic landers to the lunar surface during 2022.
Satellite launches make up the majority of commercial space activity, and that won't change as we go into 2022. The big drivers of increased activity in this field are the ever-falling cost of putting satellites into orbit and the growing number of use cases for the data they can provide. GPS and satellite imagery is an essential tool for many aspects of day-to-day life, and new uses – for example, tackling pandemics – are emerging all the time.
Satellites are becoming smaller and lighter, meaning that even start-ups can now take advantage of the technological capabilities. In fact, reports in recent years have found that the cost to a business of launching a satellite is becoming comparable to launching an app. China's Galaxy Space has developed and launched 1,000 small satellites into space for its customers in industries including aviation, marine, and vehicle manufacturing. Meanwhile, another Chinese company, ADA Space, is planning a network of 192 satellites that will use artificial intelligence (AI) technology to provide live streaming satellite imagery of the Earth.
Another sign that satellites are becoming cheaper and more accessible can be seen in the world’s first fully 3D-printed satellites, that Australian manufacturer Fleet Space Technologies says it will launch into orbit in 2022. These satellites are primarily designed to provide communications and connectivity solutions for the internet of things (IoT) devices that are quickly being adopted in homes and businesses around the world.
Cleaning up our mess
One worrying side effect of space exploration is that we might end up making as much of a mess of the rest of the universe as we have done of our own home planet. It’s estimated that there are already up to 8,000 tons of debris from previous space missions and now-defunct satellites floating in Earth’s orbit. These potentially pose a hazard to future space missions, where collisions could be catastrophic, but also threaten to interfere with many of the space services we rely on, such as weather forecasts and GPS.
With that in mind, it’s reassuring that we are already starting to think about clearing up after ourselves as we explore beyond the boundaries of Earth’s atmosphere. Launched this year, the ELSA-d (End Of Life Services by Astroscale-Demonstration) mission aims to clean up debris that will be left in space by future space missions. It does this using magnets to grab floating debris and push them towards Earth, where it will burn up in the outer layers of the atmosphere. Another waste disposal spacecraft, called RemoveDebris, will use nets to capture floating junk, while the European Space Agency is working on plans to launch a “self-destructing robot” with the specific aim of destroying a 100-kilogram piece of space debris left behind from a previous mission.
Space technology vs. climate change
Space technology is specifically recognized as one of the keys to achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 set out by the United Nations. A great example is the reflective materials originally developed to conserve heat in spacecraft, which are now commonly used to insulate buildings on Earth. This means that world governments are increasingly investing in space innovation with the primary purpose of tackling challenges caused by climate change on Earth. And with a growing awareness of the importance of decarbonization and limiting global warming among businesses, it's becoming an active focus of enterprise activity too.
One of these initiatives is MethaneSat, designed to identify and track sources of methane emissions on Earth. This is vital, as according to the IPCC, methane emissions alone are accountable for around half of the rise in global temperature since the start of the industrial era.
The UK space agency has recently announced funding for a number of projects that will get underway next year, including one spearheaded by Global Satellite Vu aimed at using infra-red cameras on satellites to monitor the level of thermal emissions from homes and businesses. Another project named TreeView, established by the Open University and funded by the UK Space Agency, will use satellite imagery to map tree cover and track deforestation, in relation to the ability of trees to assist with carbon sequestration and storage.