Science in space and international collaboration
Space exploration beyond Earth’s orbit, including research into solar system formation and the search for Earth-like planets and exoplanets, leads to a better understanding of how our universe was formed and of fundamental scientific principles. National or regional initiatives like the Curiosity Rover or the European Extremely Large Telescope have already emerged. However, international collaboration is increasingly indispensable to sustain scientific programmes, for technological and economic reasons: ESA partnered with NASA for Jason and with ROSCOMOS for ExoMars; the US Orion spacecraft uses a service module from the European ATV; and the James Webb Telescope, designed to replace Hubble, involves 20 countries.
Suborbital flights are expected to travel at an altitude of around 100 km above sea level (Karman line). Though several private companies such as Virgin Galactic (VSS) or Blue Origin (New Shepard capsule) are currently testing suborbital flight vehicles, no manned flights (apart from SpaceShip 1, winner of the Ansari Prize in 2004) have yet been made. This technology looks promising, both to enable scientific experiments in microgravity and for space tourism. Legislative changes are currently being made in order to ensure the seamless introduction of these new methods.
Privatisation of the ISS
With over €100bn invested in it by the five leading space agencies (NASA, ROSCOSMOS, JAXA, ESA and CSA), the ISS was first launched into orbit in the late 2000s. Serving as a microgravity laboratory, the ISS has been the venue for experiments in biology, physics and astronomy. However, the private sector is gradually taking over the ownership and managing role of the station, formerly the domain of space agencies. Certain activities have already been outsourced and new commercial activities are emerging: inflatable space habitats (Bigelow), deployment of cubesats (NanoRacks), hosting of external payloads (Bartholomeo), space manufacturing (Made in Space), etc. As the ISS is expected to retire by 2024- 2028, the opportunities for private players to invest in this project are expanding as public investment is expected to decrease.
Gradual involvement of commercial players and PPP
Exploration missions and space outpost maintenance are very expensive, and space agencies struggle to finance all their scientific programmes. Commercial players can thus be valuable partners to share investments and risks. Current potential opportunities for these types of synergies include the development of commercial space habitats under NASA’s NextSTEP programme, the construction of infrastructure in microgravity, realisation of partnerships to be the first customers of commercial missions and, more generally, the allocation of competitive grants for the industry to develop equipment.
The Moon as a gateway for Deep Space exploration
The global space exploration roadmap shared by worldwide space agencies envisions ambitious missions to the Moon and Mars as the next steps. The Earth’s gravity well raises strong space mechanics barriers, making these missions extremely expensive and challenging. The Lunar Orbit Platform Gateway, often presented as the “next ISS”, would allow the agencies to overcome this challenge. In addition to being a science driver, it represents a new opportunity for global cooperation on an endeavour that will benefit all humankind.
Use of Space resources
The development of exploration activities will require an increasing amount of equipment to be transported, with strong constraints on mission feasibility in terms of both engineering and cost. The use of in-situ resources (volatiles and solids) for propellant and infrastructure manufacturing will be key to the success of this endeavour. The first step to which being the enhancement of our knowledge of the elements available on the Moon and near-Earth asteroids, followed by the development of the necessary mining and processing technologies.