Monday , May 17 2021
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Reasons for optimism – Space

Summary:
In 1956 the then Astronomer Royal, Sir Richard van der Riet Woolley, was widely quoted saying, “Space travel is utter bilge.” When the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched a year later, he was asked if he stood by his remarks and replied, “It depends what you mean by utter bilge.” I forgave Sir Richard when he taught me to play croquet three years later, but I’m not sure the space industry ever did.The conquest of space has enabled us to do things that were impossible or at least very difficult to do on Earth. Communication satellites that beamed television from fixed geostationary orbits were among the first big money-spinners. Although still classified to some degree, military reconnaissance satellites have given each side detailed information about the other, and have

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In 1956 the then Astronomer Royal, Sir Richard van der Riet Woolley, was widely quoted saying, “Space travel is utter bilge.” When the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched a year later, he was asked if he stood by his remarks and replied, “It depends what you mean by utter bilge.” I forgave Sir Richard when he taught me to play croquet three years later, but I’m not sure the space industry ever did.

The conquest of space has enabled us to do things that were impossible or at least very difficult to do on Earth. Communication satellites that beamed television from fixed geostationary orbits were among the first big money-spinners. Although still classified to some degree, military reconnaissance satellites have given each side detailed information about the other, and have probably made the world a safer place. No more dangerous and provocative spy plane flights over hostile territory were needed, since the information could be safely gleaned from orbit.

Satellites have enabled us to gain information about the Earth below them and the universe beyond them. They have enabled us to map pollution and rainforest depletion, to measure icecap shrinkage and expansion, to track illegal shipping activity, and to monitor the progress by rogue states to develop nuclear weapons and missile capability.

The Hubble space telescope has given us more insights into the working of the universe and its early origins than Sir Richard could even have dreamed about when he made his comment 65 years ago. When the James Webb Space Telescope, planned to be launched in October, is operational, it will far exceed the capabilities of the Hubble telescope it will replace. 

Space offers the chance to step up communications by making high speed internet available in most of the world via hundreds of small low orbit satellites. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has already put more than 1,300 of his Starlink satellites into orbit, and plans rapid expansion of his 10,000 existing users. It is particularly useful in remote areas that would otherwise lack connectivity.

Intriguingly, space tourism looks set to become a significant source of revenue as costs and prices come down. The only non-government space travellers so far have been seven multi-millionaires sent by Space Adventures aboard Soyuz launch vehicles to the International Space Station at a cost exceeding $20m per trip. The SpaceX Crew Dragon and the Boeing Starliner have been approved to take private astronauts into orbit and to the International Space Station at much less cost, and even cheaper sub-orbital flights by firms such as Virgin Galactic are planned to give passengers the space experience for about $250,000.

Companies have been formed somewhat prematurely “to exploit the mineral resources of the asteroid belt.” While some asteroids are known to contain large deposits of valuable minerals, the costs of extracting and transporting them is currently far beyond any value that could be gained from such operations. More plausible, perhaps might be the future harvesting of ice asteroids to provide water for future space activities.

We can be optimistic that some means of reaching outer space by means other than rocket power might be developed to achieve dramatic cost reductions. There are proposals to site rail guns up mountain slopes to achieve the requited velocities using ground-based power. The ultimate prize would be the space elevator, with its cars ascending to the geostationary point 22,500 miles high. The materials with the necessary strength have yet to be developed, but they might soon be. It looks as though space will be an important part of human achievement and activity for decades, if not centuries, to come, and will continue to bring us new knowledge and new excitement.

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