Emerging Technologies

Where will space technology take us by 2030, and what does this mean for life on Earth?

An undated artist's rendering depicts a solar storm hitting Mars and stripping ions from the planet's upper atmosphere in this NASA handout released November 5, 2015.

'More nations are now within reach of space than ever before' Image: REUTERS/NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Handout via Reuters

George Whitesides
Chairman, Space Advisory Board, Virgin Galactic
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Space technologies will one day take us to asteroids, Mars and back to the moon, and the impact of these missions will be felt back on Earth, says George Whitesides, Chief Executive Officer at Virgin Galactic and co-chair of the Global Future Council on Space Technologies. In this interview, he explains how the latest developments in space technologies will help bring about revolutions in wifi access, travel and beyond.

What is the state of space technology today?

We are at an exciting moment. What we see are several converging trends that will change how we approach space technologies, at a rate of innovation that we haven’t seen in a long time.

The power of miniaturization, for example, is having a huge impact on satellites. It’s becoming easier to put more capabilities into smaller packages. Constellations of small satellites are allowing for both new capabilities as well as existing capabilities at much lower costs.

The exploration of space is also becoming global. More nations are now within reach of space than ever before, while the influx of entrepreneurial capital is driving innovation and new technologies in the private sector.

What excites me most about space technologies is that it's an opportunity for us to put the best of humanity forward into the future. It enables international cooperation, courage, boldness and entrepreneurship. We are doing things for the benefit for the planet.

We live on the spaceship Earth. Space technologies help us understand our mothership. The climate, peace and security, energy issues: these are all things space technologies can play a key role in.

Image: Reuters

How will your Global Future Council be contributing to the conversation?

We have a very impressive group of people from around the globe and a diversity of professions.

We will certainly want to look at how we make space exploration sustainable, for business, government and science. We need to ensure the long term sustainability of the space environment. It’s particularly important now with so many new actors coming into the field.

We will also be looking at how we should react to trends such as space property rights and space debris.

What are the challenges for sustainability in space?

The issue of sustainability in space is really crucial. When we talk about sustainability in space, there are a variety of issues.

There is no nationally owned sector of space. It’s all shared, so the responsibility is global. This is the same thing here on Earth, when you look at international waters. The pollution in our waters is an international problem. In space, we have a growing amount of debris that comes from old satellites, launch vehicle stages, collisions and so on. It is very hard to clean up areas of space that have been filled with debris.

Radio frequency is another shared resource which is actually being handled rather well right now, but it will continue to be something we need to pay attention to.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off on a supply mission to the International Space Station from historic launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., February 19, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Skipper     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTSZEN4
Image: REUTERS/Joe Skipper

What other key trends should we be aware of?

A lot of people are looking at launch vehicles and reusability. Right now we don’t use space launch vehicles very efficiently. Imagine if we threw away an airplane after every flight. That’s how space flight works today. These are amazing, precision engineered vehicles and we essentially throw them away after one use. The prospect of getting better reusable vehicles could reduce costs substantially and have a dramatic impact on increasing space access.

Small vehicles are also showing enormous potential. Those are being tailored to smaller satellites. This all leads to what we call "disaggregation", or the idea that you can accomplish certain goals in space technologies in multiple small units rather than in a single large one. GPS is a good example of this.

Multiple small satellites also reduce the chance of failure. By simple numbers, if one satellite goes down, the system is not significantly affected as a whole.

Many companies are seeking to provide global communications and broadband via space, and this approach to constellations of small satellites is going to help make that possible.

Image: Reuters

Where do you think we’ll be by 2030?

The perspective of space is truly important to the future of our planet. Before we can act on any particular policy, it is helpful to shift our worldview to a planetary perspective. It’s a crucial element in solving the challenges facing us.

You'll see vehicles taking people into space, but also on high speed journeys around the planet. We might be making our first human journeys to Mars, to an asteroid and possibly a return to the moon.

Back here on Earth we will see benefits ranging from a better understanding of the climate to ubiquitous broadband. Global access to broadband would bring billions into the global economy, spurring development.

Space science will continue to make great advances. Finding new planets around other stars, perhaps showing signs of organic material, and also identifying other resources in our solar system are very possible. Perhaps, by then, we may even have found signs of actual life outside our planet.

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