Traveling and living in the artificial atmosphere of a spacecraft, and guiding uncrewed satellites in their orbits around Earth and on missions to other stellar bodies call for specialized and creative technologies. While devised for specific, space-related purposes, many of these creations, or their spinoff products, find commercial markets here on Earth. As well, new industries are increasingly springing up to specifically exploit extraterrestrial materials and opportunities for commercial gain.
From Space to the Marketplace
Space programs have been a rich source of inventions that went on to great commercial success here on Earth. The household television satellite dish, which captures television signals beamed from orbiting satellites (their commercial function itself a spinoff benefit of orbital space travel), were originally invented to correct errors in the signals from spacecraft. Medical imaging of our internal organs and modern eye examination methods arose from the technologies developed to enhance stellar images. Another feature of our everyday lives, bar coding, arose from the need for inventory control of the myriad of spacecraft parts. The ear thermometer owes its existence to the technology developed to detect infrared emission from newly born stars. Smoke detectors were invented to detect noxious vapors in the Skylab Earth-orbiting station launched in 1973. Computer software utilized for the design and analysis of spacecraft now enables automobile makers to virtually design an automobile prior to building a prototype. Cordless vacuum cleaners, trimmers, drills and grass shears would not exist if not for the need for self-contained power tools used by Apollo astronauts on the Moon. The joystick controller used by computer game enthusiasts and disabled people was developed for the Apollo Lunar Rover. Finally, research to squeeze a function into machines of molecular dimensions has spawned an explosion of research and activity into nanotechnology. The usefulness of nanotechnology ranges from tiny but extremely powerful computers to data storage on molecular tape to molecular robots capable of operations within a human. These examples are but several of many.
This legacy continues. Some space industries directly address the needs of present-day space exploration. Such direct applications may, like the above examples, find spin-off benefits in the "real world" of tomorrow. Other industries reflect a view of space as an exploitable entrepreneurial commodity. A tangible example of space science is the Space Vacuum Epitaxy Center (SVEC) at the University of Houston. Since the late 1990s, SVEC has been researching the means by which scientific experiments could be done in the vacuum of space. So far, the research has yielded fifteen new technologies with commercial potential. As an example, research to construct thin films of material in space has led to the use of lasers in telecommunications and environmental testing. Another spinoff of the center's research has been an electric wire that can transport up to 100 times more current than standard copper wires.
The Potential of Space
Space travel, to this point, mainly has been the domain of large space agencies. But, befitting its allure to our sense of adventure, space travel is a potentially huge industry. Various companies are exploring the feasibility of small, reusable spacecraft for both travel (suborbital flights could cut hours off of currently lengthy airplane trips), space tourism, and as transport vehicles for other space industries.
Another facet of space that holds commercial appeal is the energy possibilities of celestial bodies. Drilling technologies for mining operations and the use of satellites, lunar installations, or vast banks of mirrors deployed in space to collect solar power are just three examples. The use of solar panels as a power generating system arose out of the need to power orbiting satellites. Now, this technology is being refined to permit the construction of large banks of panels on the surface of the Moon, with materials mined from the lunar crust, such as silicon. The lunar panels would supply energy to a waiting Earth and could also be ferried to Mars for use in human expeditions to that planet. The Moon is also a potentially plentiful source of helium-3, an isotope that is rare on Earth. Helium-3 is a promising fuel for fusion reactors. Indeed, it has been estimated that lunar reserves of helium-3 could generate 10,000 times as much energy as Earth's entire remaining reserves of fossil fuel. Helium-3 also has an advantage of being non-radioactive, either before or after use. Thus, commercial interests are considering the Moon as a source of fuel for not only lunar missions but for an energy-hungry Earth. Harrison Schmitt, a former Apollo astronaut, is involved in efforts to commercialize the extraction of helium-3 from the Moon.
The prospect of mining the Moon and planets such as Mars is appealing to space agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), because it would eliminate the need to send all materials required for a space sojourn with the departing spacecraft. This idea has created opportunities for commercial ventures. For example, there are plans for the construction of a lunar rover that would extract the material for rocket fuel on return journeys from the Moon. Similar ideas are being studied for future human missions to Mars, because local production of fuel for the return journey would greatly reduce the weight and volume of material to be carried on the outbound journey to Mars.
Another substance that potentially can be harvested from the Moon is oxygen. The Moon's crust is composed of a material known as regolith . Much of the regolith is enriched with oxides of silicon, from which oxygen can be extracted. In fact, upwards of 46 percent of the weight of the lunar surface may be comprised of oxygen. While much less hydrogen is present, it is there in quantities enough to produce water. In addition, evidence from the Clementine and Lunar Prospector missions to the Moon suggest that it may also be possible to extract water from more direct sources on the Moon.
The availability of similar reserves on Mars, and hence the commercial potential of mining the planet, is less clear. However, the 2001 Mars Odyssey probe is designed to gather information about the surface chemistry of the planet. More information will be obtained from the Reconnaissance Orbiter, scheduled for launch in 2005, and, beginning in 2007, from mobile laboratories that will be landed at chosen sites on the surface of Mars.
Space as a Manufacturing Facility
Another lucrative niche that space offers is in manufacturing. The low or zero gravity of space enables the growth of crystals, semiconductor films, and protein assemblies that are structurally perfect. An orbiting vacuum cleaner is being devised that would sweep away orbital dust as it is towed by a spacecraft, leaving an environment in its wake that would support such high-tech manufacturing efforts.
Finally, one pressing need on the extended forays in orbit that will be the norm on the International Space Station is the need for a source of uncontaminated water. The present and future technologies that will ensure a ready supply of drinkable water, obtained from sources as varied as sweat, exhaled water vapor, and urine, will surely find a place on Earth. Particularly in desert climates, the ability to recycle water more intensively will be valuable and life saving.
see also Made in Space (volume 1); Made with Space Technology (volume 1); Natural Resources (volume 4); Space Resources (volume 4).
Globus, Al, David Bailey, Jie Han, Richard Jaffe, Creon Levit, Ralph Merkle, and Deepak Srivastava. "NASA Applications of Molecular Nanotechnology."Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 51 (1998):145-152.
"Mars Exploration: Goal 4—Prepare for the Human Exploration of Mars."Mars Exploration. Jet Propulsion Laboratory.<http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/science/human/index.html>.
"Space Industries." Space Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 23, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/space-industries
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