You Don’t Have to be a Rocket Scientist
If you thought space was solely the domain of private billionaires and well funded space agencies, think again. Last year, students from Brown University from a range of disciplines including sculpture, engineering and international relations built a low-cost satellite using supplies available from your local hardware store.
The satellite is powered by 48 Energizer AA batteries and a $20 microprocessor and was launched less than a year ago.
Building a satellite on a tiny budget wasn’t their only ambition. Determined to reduce its chances of becoming space junk, they added a 3D-printed drag sail, which “popped open like an umbrella and is helping to push the satellite back down to Earth sooner”.
Last month, it was located roughly 470 kilometres above the Earth, while the other objects deployed with it were still at 500 kilometres or higher.
We thought this was pretty cool and were curious about what other student-led projects might be out there. Loads, as it turns out, for example:
The experiments of the four winning teams from German and Luxembourgish universities in Munich, Stuttgart, Hanover and Esch-Belval were launched in mid-March to the International Space Station, with 30 days to conduct research on the ISS. The students are researching neurons, plant symbioses and novel space technologies. Each team received funding of 20,000 euros from the German and Luxembourg Space Agencies.
Students at the University of Arizona constructed a cubesat, dubbed CatSat, to demonstrate what they hope will be the answer to high-speed, low-cost space communication and data transmission for small satellites. The project has been approved by NASA and they’re hoping to launch it later this year.
Recently announced as part of the Artemis Program, NASA’s Human Lander Challenge asks college students to solve the problem of dust thrown up during moon landings ("plume surface interaction"), which is not only a challenge during landing and ascent, but also threatens lunar infrastructure and scientific experiments. Students have until March 2024 to submit proposals.
Think Cosmic - Act Local
A company has recently announced that it can now 3D print solar panels from lunar regolith. The tech is proprietary and we only have the manufacturer's word at this stage that it works, so their claims have not yet been independently verified.
However, this, combined with an ongoing NASA project to 3D print batteries from both lunar regolith and Martian soil could make electricity production on the moon infinitely scalable.
In addition, NASA, together with manufacturer Axiom Space, has showcased the space suits that the upcoming manned mission to the moon will wear.
At the announcement, they were covered in a black fabric (they are white) to hide proprietary technology on the outer surface. This is likely a network of statically charged fibres or wires on the outside of the suit designed to repel lunar dust particles.
Although there are uses for 3D printing power infrastructure and for dust-repelling clothes on Earth as well, it may be some time before these innovations become available to consumers.
The Future of International Space Stations
The International Space Station (ISS) is operated by the US, Russian, European, Japanese and Canadian Space Agencies, with visiting astronauts from other participating nations, and has been continuously crewed since 2000.
The ISS has been invaluable for conducting a plethora of research, from studying the effects of microgravity on the human body and cutting-edge disease research to Earth environmental monitoring and much more.
But space stations don’t last forever, and last year NASA reaffirmed that the ISS would be deorbited in 2030 (it will fall into the Pacific Ocean). Also last year, Roscosmos threatened to cease cooperation following Western sanctions against Russia - a few months later announcing vaguely that it intended to pull out sometime after 2024. Last month, Canada recommitted to sticking it out until 2030.
Meanwhile, there are currently two cosmonauts on the ISS whose stay has been extended from six months to a year. Scheduled to return last month, they were stranded along with a US astronaut when the Soyuz capsule arriving to transport them back to Earth developed a coolant leak.
The much newer Chinese space station Tiangong was launched in 2021 and has been permanently crewed since June 2022. China began planning international cooperation on its space station with Europe and Russia as early as 2007, and in 2019 the Chinese Manned Space Agency (CMSA) selected experiments from these and other countries to be conducted on Tiangong.
China plans to keep the space station continuously inhabited for at least ten years and announced last month that it will soon select the first international personnel to join its taikonauts there.
It remains to be seen how international collaboration in the LEO scape will unfold in the 2030s and beyond. NASA says it intends to transition to commercially owned space stations by the time the ISS is decommissioned. Many other space agencies are likely to do the same. India is currently planning its own space station to be completed by 2035. And four of the original ISS partners have shifted their focus to the Artemis Program, led by the US, which aims to establish a human presence on the moon and launch missions to Mars from there in the longer term.
This program is governed by the Artemis Accords, an agreement signed by 23 countries so far, with the notable exceptions of China, Russia and India. Citizen Sourced Space Policy
Finally, the Canadian government last month opened suggestions and contributions to a review of its space regulatory framework, to all Canadian citizens. The move mirrors a similar consultative process that took place in New Zealand in late 2022.
Citing the wide-ranging impact of space development on the future of the country (and the world), the Canadian government invited its citizens to make themselves heard, while encouraging those participating to read up on existing regulations and treaties.
With a particular interest in hearing from those in academia, business and civil society, the call prompted some key questions that it believes need answering:
How do you view the current regulatory framework for space and how does it affect your organization?
If the Government of Canada were to modify the regulatory framework for space, what should the goals of that framework be and why?
What issues or activities require a new or changed approach and why?
What does the Government need to know to ensure that a modern regulatory framework enables space companies to prosper in Canada?
The trend towards citizen consultation on humanities future in space is an important one, given the reality that, whether we intend to go or not, space will profoundly impact all our lives.
Let's hope it continues.
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