(Mike Lockwood, Professor of Space and Environmental Physics, University of Reading)
Reading, November 8 (The Conversation) Commercial companies are increasingly involved in carrying astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and other activities in orbit.
Some, such as Houston-based Axiom Space, now want to build their own space stations in orbit, where commercial astronauts could spend extended stays.
It could also provide more funding and opportunities to advance science in low Earth orbit. But it also raises several safety concerns, as it would add to the already troubling issue of space junk. It also has implications for the environment, as rockets produce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.
Axiom, founded in 2016, was the first company to conduct a privately funded mission to the ISS. Under Axiom’s Space Access Program, it is offering various countries the opportunity to design customized missions to orbit on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. As such, it has recently signed an agreement with the UK Space Agency for an all-UK astronaut mission to the ISS.
NASA is increasingly partnering with private companies to carry out its space missions. However, the initiative with Axiom to fly multiple tourist missions to the ISS symbolizes a new type of commercialization of space.
Axiom’s planned commercial space station will first be built as an addition to the ISS. Then it will be taken apart so that it becomes free. Space tourism is an important part of its business model.
Axiom is not alone in its goal. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, aerospace giant Northop Grumman, and smaller companies like NanoRacks and Sierra Space are all developing their own space station designs. Their goal is to operate in low Earth orbit within the next decade.
Blue Origin, Northop Grumman and Nanoracks have been awarded USD 415 million (£335 million) by NASA under the agency’s Low Earth Economy strategy to develop their space station concepts. In fact, NASA’s strategy is to use public funds to enable private companies to bring in commercial funds. This private investment then helps provide the infrastructure needed for science and operations in low Earth orbit.
The scientific case for sending humans into space has historically been very weak – though not non-existent. Modern robotics and remote-control systems are now so good that matter is even weaker today than in the past.
For most scientists, human space missions are vanity projects tied to national prestige. However, most people would agree that there are huge benefits in terms of public engagement and motivation. However, even if their costs were complete, it is unlikely that some experiments would be funded by the peer review panels of science funding agencies.
Space Junk Concerns
There are also major concerns about the risks posed by an increase in the general number of space missions, particularly as space junk is already a major problem in low Earth orbit. In 1978, NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler described the ”Kessler Syndrome” – in which any collision in space can lead to many more collisions of debris, destroying multiple spacecraft, or even Most spacecraft in low Earth orbit may be destroyed.
Since 1999, the ISS has had to try to avoid large pieces of space junk 32 times. Recently, the danger has increased due to the huge increase in the number of vehicles in low Earth orbit. In particular, since 2019, SpaceX and its competitors, such as OneWeb and Amazon Kuiper, have launched programs to launch thousands of satellites into low Earth orbit to provide Internet access.
However, currently less than 0.5 percent of Internet traffic is carried by satellite communications. Despite potential benefits for unconnected people in rural areas, upfront and subscription costs mean that Starlink’s current customers constitute less than 0.02 percent of the global population. These include many cruise ships, private jets and luxury yachts.
Another area of great concern is the environmental impact of sending more people into space. This would increase the climate impacts of space activities by orders of magnitude. This will further increase the problems the society is already facing.
Currently, the richest one percent of people are emitting almost 100 times more CO2 than the poorest 10 percent. Internationally, policymakers are becoming increasingly aware that some populations around the world may be more severely affected by climate change than others. They are also aware of the pressures and instability resulting from mass migration due to climate change. Space tourism increases this inequality.
There are other serious environmental concerns as well. Launches, especially with solid rocket boosters, cause stratospheric ozone depletion. There are also worrying levels of atmospheric pollution by metals due to so many launches and so much re-entry of debris.
This is an area that is growing at an astonishing pace. At first glance, it seems that we can use the excitement and wonder of space travel to fund new opportunities for science and develop technology that is of great benefit to mankind.
However, it would be wise to take the time to carefully consider the potential consequences. The financial model of commercial human spaceflight is sensitive to just one failure, as proven by the recent Titan submersible explosion.
Even more importantly, activities in low Earth orbit are extremely valuable, yet vulnerable resources. They provide us with environmental and disaster monitoring systems, weather and climate monitoring, vegetation and crop growth measurements, geolocation and navigation (like GPS) as well as communications.
Despite my previous comments about their main arguments not being scientific, space stations like the ISS have provided some unique opportunities for working in zero gravity. For example, there have been some notable impacts in medicine and materials research.
We should not destroy vital resources in low Earth orbit with space junk. And we cannot ignore the impacts on the climate and environmental systems.
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