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Taking Off: New Frontiers in Space Tech

Posted by Hadley Menk on 26th May 2022

Science, tech, and space go hand in hand in the popular imagination – just watch any science-fiction movie. And despite all the technological achievements and discoveries over centuries of study, space still has the power to ‘wow’ us.

For instance, scientists at the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration recently captured the first-ever image of the supermassive black hole at the centre of our Milky Way galaxy. Done by linking eight radio observatories across the globe, the photograph gives astronomers new insights into the study of distant black holes.

A little closer to home, satellite technology continues to be an area of exciting innovation, opening up a huge variety of applications – from communications and defence to agriculture and meteorology, and even incorporating artificial intelligence.

New satellite technology

Satellites are becoming smaller, lighter, and cheaper to manufacture, increasing their accessibility to a variety of new companies. Australian start-up, Fleet Space, is even manufacturing the world’s first 3-D printed satellites, which will be used to send wireless signals to devices that make up the Internet of Things (IoT).

NASA already has a programme dedicated to the development of small satellites, dubbed ‘CubeSats’, which are based on standard units to make them cheaper to develop, transport, and deploy into space.

These satellites are used for a variety of purposes, including reducing risk for future lunar missions by orbiting around the moon and recording data to send back to Earth to help plan NASA’s 2025 Artemis moon mission.

Other small satellites have been deployed for earth mapping, astronomy, internet access, communication in remote areas, tracking ships and aircrafts, defence projects, meteorology, agriculture, and a variety of other uses.  

Clearing the space junk

But as the number of satellites orbiting the Earth increases, so too does the amount of ‘space junk’ – debris from defunct satellites and previous manned missions to space.

This debris can interfere with satellites that provide what are now essential services such as weather forecasting and GPS, as well as cause issues for future space missions and launches, including making navigation more challenging.

Collisions with debris can also be dangerous for manned missions. Because both the debris and spacecraft are travelling at high speeds (the equivalent of 15,700 miles per hour), colliding with even a tiny piece of orbital debris could cause significant damage to spacecraft. This has happened before, such as during the STS-7 mission in 1983 when a window on the U.S. space shuttle Challenger had to be replaced after colliding with a paint fleck.

The European Space Agency (ESA) estimates there are over 170 million pieces of debris in space. In 2025, the ESA plans to partner with Swiss start-up ClearSpace to launch ClearSpace-1, the first mission to remove debris from orbit.

Singapore-based company AstroScale is also in the process of developing technologies that destroy space debris by forcing it down into Earth’s atmosphere, where it will burn up.

Harnessing big data

All those satellites orbiting Earth produce a lot of data, which needs to be processed, analysed, and managed before it can be used. Start-ups such as US-based LeoLabs provide services for tracking and monitoring the satellites themselves, while Luxembourg-based Kleos provides customers with digestible data from satellites using application programming interfaces (APIs) that suit a customer’s needs.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are also being used to make sense of satellite data, including training AI to sense changes in satellite images taken of the same place. This kind of technology can detect environmental degradation, such as deforestation or the depletion of water reserves, or monitor the progression of humanitarian crises in remote places.

Technology designed for space is often at the cutting edge of innovation.  And with the cost of launching new satellites and other space technologies declining it’s more accessible than ever. With lots of new start-ups entering the scene looking to shake things up, the future of space tech is looking as exciting as ever.

Hadley Menk