Written by Nera Kuljanic with James Tarlton,
As well as being a symbol of human curiosity, Outer Space is hugely important for technologies that we use every day, such as mobile phones, live TV broadcasting and weather forecasting. The number of space-faring nations and the amount of space commercialisation are increasing, and, as space research and exploration push the boundaries of science and engineering and drive innovation, there is great potential for further advances that could significantly influence our lives.
For these reasons, space was the theme chosen by the STOA (Science and Technology Options Assessment) Panel for its traditional annual lecture, held on 16 November 2016. The event, jointly organised with the European Space Agency (ESA), featured many high-level speakers, including the ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet who left our planet the following day for a 6-month-long mission aboard the International Space Station.
‘Space exploration, with its blend of intellectual challenge, aesthetic appeal and practical applications, is uniquely placed to inspire European citizens and attract young people to pursue careers in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] disciplines’, said Paul Rübig, STOA Chair, who opened the event. Mairead McGuinness, EP Vice-President responsible for STOA, Eva Kaili, First STOA Vice-Chair, as well as STOA Panel members Clare Moody and Georgi Pirinski also featured on the programme.
Common European vision
With all these possibilities, it is important to have a concrete goal and the way to achieve it in mind. The European Commission has recently announced the Space Strategy for Europe, which responds to growing global competition, increasing private sector involvement and major technological shifts in this sector, explained Apostolia Karamali, from the Commission’s DG GROW. ESA is the EU’s partner in working towards using space as an enabler of knowledge, jobs and growth, strengthening security and fostering prosperity – ‘Space 4.0 for a United Space in Europe’, as described by Jan Woerner, ESA Director General.
— Nera (@nera_ku) 16 November 2016
Making Space more affordable
A pioneer in the miniaturisation of satellites, Sir Martin Sweeting, from Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd and the Surrey Space Centre, focused on ‘micro-satellites’ as a case study of space technology development. These satellites range in size from that of a loaf of bread to that of a pick-up truck, and have been instrumental in enabling small countries and companies to utilise space, due to the relatively low launch cost. Sir Martin noted that this technology has been developed thanks to synergy between academic research and commercial involvement, as well as advances in terrestrial technologies that have been used in the space sector.
— Sebastien Mitea (@SebMitea) 16 November 2016
Ariane Cornell of Blue Origin presented their work on developing reusable rockets. Traditionally, rockets used to launch satellites and other payloads simply burn up on re-entry to earth. This means that a new rocket needs to be built for each launch, which is one of the main costs of the launch. Blue Origin is developing rockets that return to earth intact, and land without incurring significant damage. They first achieved this feat in 2015 with a sub-orbital rocket that was used five times in total, and they are now working on doing the same with orbital rockets.
Johannes von Thadden of Airbus Defence and Space discussed their work on developing the Ariane 6 rocket, the successor to Ariane 5, the rocket currently used by ESA. Ariane is planned to have half the cost per kilogram of payload launched into space, again addressing the issue of affordability. Von Thadden also discussed their involvement in providing global wireless internet access via a network of hundreds of micro-satellites, and in developing the first reprogrammable satellite.
— Lieve Van Woensel (@Lieve_58) 16 November 2016
What next for space?
The speakers touched on possible opportunities and challenges in the next few years and decades. Sir Martin pointed out that a major limitation in the development of satellites and spacecraft is the need to survive the rigours of launch, and if assembly could take place in orbit then the design requirements would be much less constrained. He also talked about the potential need for space traffic control, as well as debris mitigation, recounting his own experience with space debris causing damage to satellites. He also predicted that space may become dominated by non-state players.
— EP Research Service (@EP_ThinkTank) 16 November 2016
Reinhold Ewald, an ESA astronaut, gave an inspiring message about what is needed for our exploration of space to continue to flourish. He discussed important examples of projects that have taken decades to reach fruition: Rosetta, a spacecraft to investigate what comets are made of; Voyager, a mission to explore what lies inside, but also beyond the solar system; and the International Space Station, which has allowed astronauts to carry out important scientific experiments in zero gravity, for 16 years now. These projects were ‘brought along by stamina, by ambition, and by long planning’. If we are to make further achievements of the same magnitude, then we will need to display these same attributes in the future.