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Sustainable emerging tech will shape space exploration

Future missions are likely to rely on Innovations that promote reusability, safety and longevity, according to a recent white paper from Forecast International.

The future of cosmic exploration will rely on emerging technologies that can reduce space debris, refuel satellites, and help reuse rockets, according to a white paper released on March 19 by Forecast International.

While the space industry and global governments alike have taken varying steps to address all three of these factors — SpaceX’s Falcon 9, for instance, includes a partially reusable rocket — the report argued that further technological development in these areas will be critical to long-term space operations. 

“Where once a spacecraft was launched with little care regarding where it would end its life or the rocket that carried it, now the world is generally pushing for a more sustainable way of placing objects in orbit,” the report said.

As the U.S. government and other entities put more objects into space, it becomes all the more critical to ensure that debris in low-Earth orbit — some 25,000 objects larger than 10 centimeters, according to the report — does not strike satellites and other spacecraft that could then create a cascading effect of destruction.

Governing bodies have taken some steps to establish “deorbiting guidelines” that call for satellites and other spacecraft to be decommissioned after a set period of time. The Federal Communications Commission, for example, adopted a new rule in 2022 “requiring satellite operators in low-Earth orbit to dispose of their satellites within 5 years of completing their missions.” But no set international policies exist, which means that future launches — as well as debris already in space — will pose a risk to new space missions.

The report highlighted debris management technologies that “are coming to market to address the junk in orbit,” including the use of lasers to change the path of space junk and a controlled system that “catches an object and adjusts its orbit so it reenters the atmosphere at a specific angle to concentrate debris falloff in a specific area.”

The growing use of reusable rockets will also decrease the amount of future junk put into space, according to the white paper. While only a portion of a spacecraft’s rockets are reusable by some private companies — currently limited to the first stage of a launch — other firms are also working to develop reusable upper stage rockets.

Developing satellites that can be refueled in space, as well as the technology to make that possible, will also extend the lifespan of such technology. The majority of modern satellites use a liquid propellant, the report noted, adding that “it makes fiscal sense to extend satellite life in space rather than purchasing a new spacecraft to replace an ‘empty’ one.”

Carter Palmer — Forecast International’s lead analyst for space systems and the author of the white paper — pointed to the intersection of the three key factors outlined in the report, noting that “you want to squeeze as much as you can out of the satellites you put in orbit.”

“As low-Earth orbit becomes more and more crowded, the chance of collision goes up,” Palmer told Nextgov/FCW. “If every two months you have to do a burn to get out of the way of a piece of space debris, then what does that do for the satellite? Well, that lowers the satellite’s mission lifespan. So by burning fuel, we're going to have to replace that satellite quicker, which is not the way forward. And ideally, satellite operators do not want to waste fuel on dodging things in orbit.”

Beyond the technologies outlined in the report, Palmer said that other innovations are poised to impact space exploration in the key areas he identified. He noted, for example, that most satellites currently use a hypergolic propellant that includes hydrazine — a highly toxic chemical — but that “a technology that’s coming down pike soon is a greener, safer hypergolic fuel.”

And while it's still too soon to fully comprehend the impact that artificial intelligence capabilities will have on space travel, Palmer said AI is likely going to help with efforts to mitigate space debris and “being able to see all these orbits and sort of predict where collisions will be.”

Forecast International is owned by Nextgov/FCW’s parent company, GovExec.