The World in 2050 Essay
In 2000 I was awarded $5,000 in an essay competition sponsored by Royal Dutch Shell and The Economist newspaper. That cash formed the core money which funded my journey around the world, starting five years later, as recorded in The Jolly Pilgrim.
The essay competition’s theme was to predict some aspect of the world in 2050. My chosen topic was space exploration.
The space industry and space exploration
By Peter Baker, 2000
Like the computer and telecommunications industries in the twentieth century, over recent decades the space industry (along with biotechnology) has come to symbolise humanity’s technological cutting-edge. We now take for granted re-entry vehicles which are as reliable as conventional aeroplanes, zero-G factories producing ‘smart’ materials and a tourist industry which puts more people into space every year, just for the fun of it.
In the past 50 years, satellite launching, zero-G manufacturing and space tourism have all gone from emergent industries to established multi-trillion-Euro business sectors. In this article we take a look at the current state of play, at some of the likely technological innovations that will be forthcoming over the coming decades and at the missions to explore the solar system which are currently on the drawing board.
We got the power
Despite enormous advances in engine technology since the emergence of space flight 100 years ago, there remains two problems central to doing business in space: getting there (historically the growth of space-based industries has closely shadowed the cost per unit weight of getting mass into orbit) and getting anywhere else once you’re there. Two new tools in our technological armoury are close to facilitating breakthroughs on both those fronts.
As fusion power comes to dominate power production on earth, aerospace companies are attempting to refine existing reactor designs, in order to fit them inside launch vehicles and spacecraft. Once that has been done, fusion engines look to become the power source of choice for orbital and near-Earth spacecraft, thereby bringing down the cost of space travel significantly. This will make a range of new space-based activities economically feasible.
The main problem with getting spacecraft between planets and asteroids is the prohibitive amount of fuel you have to take into space with you. Ion engines, which work by stripping the electrons from xenon atoms and using them for propulsion, require the least fuel per unit thrust of any engine that can currently be made. Their main disadvantage is that they accelerate and decelerate very slowly. However, it is ion engines that are being used on the new Earth-Mars-Earth freighters that will soon be ferrying equipment between the two planets. These freighters will effectively be put into slow, complicated orbits that require small amounts of thrust over long periods of time. Ion engines are perfect for this, and they will require very infrequent refuelling.
A place for having fun …
There are now over 100 manufacturing, scientific and leisure facilities in orbit around the Moon and Earth. Over the coming decade, the cost of building such structures will continue to fall. This will drive increases in space-based tourism and manufacturing.
Currently, the majority of space tourists only get into space for a few hours, to have a look around. This is all very well, but the industry’s goal is to build off-planet leisure facilities for the mass market. Among the logistic issues implicit to such a goal is that until significant amounts of water can be extracted from the Moon’s crust or from asteroids (see below), keeping people in space for prolonged periods in relative comfort will remain extremely expensive. Once water no longer needs to be ferried from Earth, better recycling technology and the ability to create larger habitable spaces will allow tourists to not only get into space, but also to stay there for a while and ‘do things’, maybe even go for a space walk or two.
… and making things
Researchers continue to discover useful goods which require zero-G environments to produce, and manufacturers can’t get orbital factories built fast enough. The development of larger working spaces will lead to larger volumes dedicated to space-based mass production. While getting materials up and finished goods down is still a problem, manufacturers don’t require the expensive pressurised environments necessary for the tourist industry, as the work is all automated and controlled by the same AIs which have taken over most non-strategic decision making in terrestrial manufacturing.
Some observers believe that the current high growth levels in zero-G production will continue until it represents an appreciable fraction of total global manufacturing. Whether you agree with that depends on your faith in a number of emergent technologies.
Right now, the only manufacturing processes in space are ones which require zero-G environments. Eventually space-based manufacturers are likely to find that there’s a limit to the number of such production processes and the trend towards orbital manufacturing will tail off. However, some analysts argue that with the world economy growing a trend rate of 2.5 percent, it will ultimately be necessary to move the bulk of Earth’s productive needs off-planet. Environmentalists point out that, now solar and fusion technology have largely brought to a close the era of large-scale polluting energy production, terrestrial manufacturing is the major source of environmental contamination. Many are already lobbying to get the movement of polluting manufacturing off-planet onto the policy agenda.
Two developments could, over the next 100 years, make that feasible – asteroid mining and space ladder.
Asteroid mining is already well understood and technically feasible. The international Asteroid Mapping Program (AMP) is close to having mapped the location, size, orbit and rough chemical composition of every body more than ten meters across, out to the orbit of Jupiter. The asteroid belt contains every element found on Earth and represents an enormous resource for space-based activities.
Once a legal framework is in place for allowing companies to collect material from the asteroid belt, the existence of the AMP will allow even more detailed studies to be completed and, shortly thereafter, resource-gathering missions. These will use fleets of AI-controlled robotic landers and (probably ion engine fitted) space freighters to bring material back to Earth, the Moon and various orbital facilities. This should eliminate the need to lift raw materials from Earth, provide a limitless supply of water and metals, and mean that all future spacecraft production will take place in-orbit.
Space ladder (currently found only in science fiction books and not on the drawing boards of engineers) would (in theory) be super-strong cables fixed to the equator, leading to space stations in geocentric orbit. Ironically, their construction would call for space-manufactured, super-strong, carbon-based nanomaterials, but when (and if) they become feasible they will precipitate a revolution in terms of what is feasible in space. A working space ladder would reduce the cost of getting mass into orbit at least 100-fold. The initial investment would be enormous, but Bukht Limited, an Indian engineering company, is looking to test a prototype design in the next ten years. Watch this space.
From the Moon to Mars
Initial efforts to put permanent robotic bases on the Moon are largely complete. The coming generation of manned ‘ecosphere’ moon bases, capable of producing their own food, will come online as efforts to extract water from the Moon’s crust reach completion. At that point the Moon will start to as a port for interplanetary travel and a base for space tourism. For the time being, however, the main reason for human activity there has been as a testing station.
Just as the International Space Station (which went online nearly 50 years ago) did with zero-G living, the astronauts, cosmonauts and taikonauts doing tours at moon bases have provided a mountain of data regarding the medical and physiological issues encountered by human crews of semi-permanent extra-terrestrial faculties. This data has been invaluable in helping to plan what is rapidly becoming the focus for government-backed space programs – the establishment of a permanent base on Mars.
There are two overwhelming reasons why Mars is a great place for humans. The first is that its gravity is similar to the Earth’s, which means it should be possible to live there with minimal physiological problems. The second is its enormous exploitable resources, the most important of which is water. Mars is the only body in the solar system that could sustain a planetary ecosystem and act as a second cradle for human civilisation. All the others are either too big, too small, or too hot.
The single robotic station is largely complete. Humans arrive (this time to stay) in the next decade, at which point their first tasks will be to secure a water supply and commence food production. When that is done, and an Earth-Mars-Earth freighter system is in place, the colonisation of the surface could in theory proceed apace.
There may also eventually be working bases on Europa and other water-rich bodies, but it is unlikely significant numbers of people will ever live permanently anywhere other than the Earth or Mars. Indeed it’s unlikely any other body could sustain large permanent human populations. Mars will be the first, and by far the most important, stepping stone in our exploration of the solar system. To even go beyond Mars requires a completely new class of space mission.
Onwards and outwards
The next giant leap mankind will take into the cosmos will be the joint Chinese/Japanese project to land men on the surface of Europa in 2085. The distances involved are staggering, far further than from Earth to Mars. Consequently, the project engineers are designing a new generation of interplanetary vehicle. The planned spacecraft will effectively be a travelling village in space, able to support humans for years, in theory even decades.
The trip to Europa will be an enormous logistical achievement, in keeping with the first moon landings of the 1960’s/70’s and the human landings on Mars which have taken place over the past five years. As Stephen Hartley of the Devlin Planetary Engineering Centre, part of Durham University, recently pointed out: if all the spacecraft in use today were canoes, then the spacecraft taking men to Europa would be a galleon. That galleon’s maiden voyage will open up a new era of deep space flights into the solar system, which will likely last for hundreds of years.
Next – the stars?
While one group of scientists and engineers begins the slow process of exploring our solar system, another group is looking even further afield – to our sun’s nearest neighbours and their associated solar systems.
Thanks to planet-finding satellite arrays, and the blossoming of extrasolar planet science in recent decades, we already have a detailed understanding as to the size and chemical make up of the nearest extrasolar systems. However, physically getting a probe inside one of these systems would provide scientists with a tidal wave of new data to go with their so far tantalising results.
A succession of increasingly sophisticated interstellar probes have been launched to nearby stars in the last 10 years. However, the return signals from even the first of those thus far launched is centuries from returning useful data to Earth. The introduction of spacecraft-based fusion engines should allow probes to be built which can reach the nearest stars within decades. A new breed of fusion-powered, very‑long‑range robotic spacecraft are now being built that will travel at appreciable fractions of the speed of light and be controlled by onboard AIs capable of reacting intelligently to what they find when they arrive at their target system.
The first of these probes – NASA’s Battuta – should arrive at Proxima Centuri in under fifty years. If all goes well, fusion-powered probes could be returning data from our nearest stellar neighbours shortly after the beginning of the next century.
The last big question that will start to be seriously debated in the lifetime of people alive today is whether it will be feasible, or for that matter moral, to terraform (cause massive artificial environmental alteration to) Mars, with a view to making it habitable, or at least more habitable.
Such an operation is, for the time being, academic – the logistics involved are well beyond any megaproject so far undertaken by humankind. But as Simon Peace of the Gupta Institute, a think tank, summed up ‘Once there is a scientific consensus that terraforming Mars is feasible and it is established beyond reasonable doubt that no native life exists there, the public pressure to begin the terraforming process will start to build’.
Space technology moves on apace. The last 50 years has seen space go from the preserve of a few government-funded agencies, aerospace companies and scientists to a place directly and indirectly exploited by thousands of businesses, and into which many ordinary people can reasonably expect to travel during their lives. The coming century will see ever more sophisticated space technology, the first permanent population movement off Earth and the beginning of mankind’s exploration of the deep solar system. One day soon we may all be going to the stars.