Space: the new innovation frontier
Far away from the pandemic, war and extreme weather events on Earth, humans are pushing new boundaries in space.
As we mark the 22nd anniversary of living and working in space, 2022 will see the launch of an unmanned lunar mission, the debut of a quiet, supersonic plane, as well as an all-electric experimental aircraft. Other space programmes will include the testing of new planetary defence technology in the US and a study of X-ray light from black holes and other extreme cosmic objects.
All of this builds on a successful 2021, a year that saw the Perseverance Rover landing on Mars, a solar probe mission touching the sun for the first time and China bringing back rock and soil samples from the moon.
Space exploration is undoubtedly exciting. But what’s the point of spending so much time and money up in space when the world is struggling with more immediate problems down here?
According to Oxford University academic and futurist Sophie Hackford, exploring space has never been so vital to the future of humankind.
“(Space is) underappreciated as a force of innovation for our lives here on Earth. It is no longer the province of government research agencies, or the military industrial complex; it's now this incredibly exciting domain where entrepreneurs, scientists, government, bodies are all innovating,” says Hackford, who is co-founder of Oxford-based data and AI company 1715 Labs.
“I don't think we can understand the development of future technologies here on Earth, unless we understand what's going on in space.”
But the aim, she adds, should not be to find Planet B, or to back up the biosphere – as Space X founder Elon Musk once said – so that we can create a second version of Earth elsewhere for the wealthy to escape to.
“For me, the focus is 100 per cent about our life on Earth, and has to be,” Hackford says.
“We face such incredible challenges here on Earth… that we need all the entrepreneurship and innovation that we can get in order to be able to solve them. It's a very important sort of laboratory space, almost, or playground, to be able to trial some new ideas.”
Earth missions and "made in space" products
In recent years, space agencies have also paid closer attention to how space exploration can help improve life on Earth.
For example, NASA is partnering with commercial companies and international space agencies to launch five satellite missions, which will study the atmosphere, the ground and underneath the surface.
The Earth System Observatory will help guide efforts related to climate change, disaster mitigation, fighting forest fires and improving real-time agricultural processes.
NASA’s satellite dataset is also used for OpenET – a collaboration with Google and several universities to provide field-scale information on water consumption, which can be used to improve water management, maximise crop per drop and reduce costs for fertiliser and water.
Space agencies in Europe and China have Earth-focused missions aimed at developing a suite of satellite data records, which scientists can use to better understand climate change and predict the future. Space innovation is also transforming manufacturing.
The space environment – microgravity, vacuum, or extreme temperatures - allows manufacturing of certain products which could otherwise been impossible.
For example, Florida-based start-up Made in Space has recently 3D-printed an optical fibre onboard the International Space Station.
The space fibre was superior and more efficient than counterparts made in the gravity-heavy environment, which causes imperfections such as the formation of bubbles and crystals.
The firm is also developing an in-space robotic precision manufacturing and assembly system for the production of large-scale structures, such as communication tools or even space stations, in orbit. Its launch is scheduled in 2023 on a reusable rocket.
Manufacturing is part of the burgeoning global space economy where declining satellite launch costs, technological advances and rising private funding are opening up new frontiers. From satellite internet and asteroid mining to space tourism, the industry is expected to grow to USD1 trillion by 2040 from the current USD350 billion.1
Dawn of new humans
Space technologies also have potential to improve healthcare and help humans to adapt to a harsh environment, whether in space or on Earth.
Space researchers are developing electronic skin for monitoring vital parameters which they can integrate into AI platforms. Devices under development include “electronic nose” with the ability to sense harmful compounds and “electronic ear” to detect pathology in lung sounds.
These wearables can be incorporated into clothing such as T-shirts or space suits, acting as “exoskeletons.”2
Incorporating all these technologies may allow humans to change the nature of our species to prepare ourselves to a possible end of the stable climate of the past 10,000 years.
“Some people I know in the astronomy world look at our telescopes, our spacecraft, not even as tools but as extensions of ourselves. (It’s) the idea we may genetically modify ourselves to survive better in difficult conditions,” Hackford says.
Just as her former colleague and NASA astronaut Yvonne Cagle once said: what if the alien that we’re in search of is ourselves?