Of CubeSats, Large Scale Gravity Lens, Space Gloves and More
At a presentation given to the MIT Club of Southern California at The Aerospace Corporation, CEO Steve Isakowitz shared what we can expect for the future of space. As a parent of an MIT student, I was thrilled to attend the event at the company’s El Segundo, California headquarters.
The Aerospace Corporation is a nonprofit corporation that provides objective, technical guidance on complex problems facing the nation. It has a broad purview to look at space trends near-term, along with 10-20 years out in the future.
As the morning kicked off, I could tell this group enjoys their fair share of jocularity. Steve mentioned that he is Aerospace CEO 007 and also,
“There is a close resemblance between The Aerospace Corporation’s logo and the Avengers logo. In fact, our leadership team informally goes by the name Avengers.”
Broadly, Steve explained that the future of space can be examined in three different sectors:
- Civil Space
- Commercial Space
- National Security Space
Civil Space Future: Collecting Data Both Physically and from Satellites
Within civil space, robotic exploration’s future includes:
- Mars Sample Return (i.e., the return of samples from Mars), likely in 2020. An interesting nuance with the Mars sample returns is that, while unlikely, it’s important to make sure no infection is spread by the returned sample.
- A lander going to Europa, which has conditions that make it possible for life, but a very challenging atmosphere.
- Additional discoveries of Exo planets. The Keppler Satellite has found thousands so far.
We also saw work on a large-scale solar gravity lens that require swarms of satellites, going fifty billion miles out to examine far away solar systems. This program looks twenty years and more into the future.
Commercial Space Future: Small Satellites and Space Tourism
There are many new launch entrants in commercial space, including Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, among others. Firms like One Web and Planet are working on CubeSats. With the proliferation of smaller satellites, there is the potential for orbital debris. One audience member with a commercial interest asked, “Isn’t a satellite without a working radio an asteroid?”
Other hot areas in commercial space are reusable rockets and private space travel with Virgin Galactic and Bezos’ Blue Origin, both promising 2019 availability.
National Security Space: Innovating Faster
Since space is no longer secure, there are a number of developments underway to increase resiliency, innovation, shorten decision-making time and address gaps.
- The movement to constellations of smaller satellites means that some can be lost, allowing resiliency. Previously, nations relied on a small number of large satellites with a 10-20 year lifecycle.
- Prototyping and trying new technologies faster allows for more innovation. Work is underway to reduce decision cycles from five-year approvals to one-year approvals.
- In 2019, we will see a Unified Space Command and a Space Development Agency.
After the presentation, an open showcase was provided with leaders of several Aerospace programs. For example, we had the opportunity to meet one of the solar gravity lens program’s lead investigators. Given the long-range timeline, he anticipates his grandson will still be working on this effort before its completion.
The “Future of Space” is fascinating, and I’ll always appreciate the opportunity to wear a mission-tested space glove.