Govt agencies apart, several private players from Elon Musk’s SpaceX to India’s Team Indus, are making space less mysterious and more accessible.
In the next few years, as many as 14 different missions on or near the Moon and 13 Mars-related missions — apart from several others of asteroids and planets of the solar system — are in the pipeline. This is just between the US, Japan, China, India, Russia and Europe. And if we talk about money, over 70 countries have budgets totalling over $41.8 billion for space programmes, double the number from just 10 years ago. Space exploration in recent times is making giant strides, especially with the involvement of private players. Something that was once left to governments is now an open field, with players battling among themNselves to be the pioneers in space exploration.
When Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002, it was, at best, a millionaire’s flight of fancy.
Today, SpaceX is synonymous with modern-day space exploration and has grown from something of a pipe dream into a company that could possibly take the first man to Mars. His latest programme aims to launch two private citizens for a space trip around the Moon by the end of 2018. On Sunday, SpaceX is also scheduled to make its first military launch, with a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office, which makes and operates spy satellites for the US. Musk’s major rival is Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. In a rough parallel with his fellow billionaire, Bezos is building a fleet of reusable rockets that could, as soon as 2018, begin launching space tourists to the edge of space to take an alien’s view of the globe.
He’s also building even bigger rockets capable of reaching orbital speeds, which could one day vie with Musk’s SpaceX to deliver cargo to Earth orbit – or even to the Moon. As per reports, Bezos anticipates spending upward of $2.5 billion to complete development of his latest rocket, dubbed New Glenn. Not to be outdone, Robert Bigelow, an American real estate mogul who now operates an eponymous company dedicated to aerospace, has proposed a space station in lunar orbit that would support operations on the moon’s surface as well as voyages beyond, such as to Mars. Bigelow Aerospace has already launched three private space-habitat prototypes into orbit — including the first inflatable space-station module. And, as per reports, they have performed well in their missions so far, as per reports.
US-headquartered United Launch Alliance (ULA) – a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Boeing Defense, Space & Security – has also presented its Cislunar-1,000 vision, aimed at having a thousand people living and working in space by 2045. Recently, a ULA rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, US, carrying supplies and science experiments to the International Space Station. The mission was ULA’s 119th consecutive successful launch.
British scientist Stephen Hawking recently said he will travel into space after business magnate Richard Branson offered him a seat on Virgin Galactic, the world’s first commercial spaceline. Virgin Galactic aims to fly six customers aboard its SpaceShipTwo, at a cost of $250,000 per seat, by the end of next year. A plane called WhiteKnightTwo will carry SpaceShipTwo to an altitude of 50,000 ft and then drop it; at that point, the spacecraft’s onboard rocket engine will kick on, blasting the vehicle to suborbital space.
In comparison to the US, China’s space programme has historically served as a state-driven enterprise to demonstrate the nation’s technological prowess. All that is somewhat changing now, as the country is now looking to its space programme to pay economic dividends as well. In the past couple of years, a number of Chinese space start-ups have emerged, largely with the backing of universities and hedge funds. For instance, OneSpace is developing a 59-tonne launch vehicle that it plans to launch in 2018. ExPace, founded early last year, plans to market its solid-fueled Kuaizhou rocket to those looking to loft small satellites into orbit. Likewise, Landspace — launched in 2015 — claims it will conduct its first commercial launch this year. But then again, almost all of these ventures are based on or have the backing of government agencies.
China is also tying up with the European Space Agency (ESA) on a project that could see tourists walking on the surface of the Moon. The plan hopes to have robots on the Moon in the 2020s to begin building a village. Tian Yulong, secretary general of the China National Space Administration, confirmed his country is “discussing cooperation“ with the ESA on building an international village there. Professor Jiao Weixin, of the School of Earth and Space Sciences in Peking University, believes the village will eventually turn into a city and could one day become an affordable tourist destination.
As far as expenditures go, the exact value of China’s spending on its space programmes is not yet in the public domain, but some analysts say its civilian space budget could be around $3 billion annually in recent years. This is a fraction of the $19.3 billion the US allocated to Nasa in 2016. “Necessity is always the mother of invention. There is now a growing need for space infrastructure to play a bigger role in a country’s developmental activities — be it roads, connectivity, weather prediction, etc. Now, since there is a demand in the market, companies working in and around the domain are also getting more active,” says Rahul Narayan of Axiom Research Labs, whose Team Indus is currently working on a historic project — the world’s first privately-funded mission to not only build and ‘soft-land’ a spacecraft on the Moon but also have a ‘rover’ traverse on its surface and send back images and videos.
Team Indus’ mission is part of the Google XPrize Lunar Challenge. Five teams, including Team Indus, are the finalists. The others are SpaceIL (Israel), Moon Express (US), Synergy Moon (an international team made up of members from over 15 different nations), and Hakuto (Japan). Although Team Indus says it will need up to $65 million to complete the mission, others have not yet specified their expenses. However, estimates say teams could spend anything between $5 million and $80 million.