How the space domain will look in two decades – such as a sustainable city on Mars and infrastructure on the Moon - has been the focus of a discussion by experts in tech industry and defence including guest speakers from Elon Musk’s Space X company and the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dtsl).
Tom Ochinero, SpaceX’s Vice President of Commercial Sales, Dr Mathew Broadhead, Space Programme Senior Principal Advisor at Dstl, and Claudia Mendzil, Programme Director at Seraphim Space Camp, were among guest speakers at the fourth episode of the DSEI Integrated Space series “Space in 2040”, hosted by Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI), posted online on July 5.
What Is The Future Of Space?
Space, it seems, is the wrong word for it.
The black void beyond our planet may still be largely empty, but it is rapidly filling up and this trend is set to continue – something that should (and now does) interest our military.
The story of space, or more specifically of human stuff in space, has in recent decades gone from nothing to rather a lot in a short time - a bit like the Big Bang in microcosm, as it were.
That was essentially the point made by Dr Broadhead at Dstl as he summarised the last 20 years of space history in the panel discussion with fellow space experts, which examined recent space history and the implications for the future including for the defence sector.
Loot In Space
Of course, in a way, it was the military that was first involved in space.
However, since 2001, the situation has been not so much a space odyssey as a space oddity. A mishmash of multiple government and private players have now entered the arena, the latter venturing out in search of profits that can be made off the back of the prior government exploration.
In the discussion, Dr Broadhead pointed out that this has all happened in ways that were mainly unforeseen. Companies, for instance, are making money out of the surveillance and tracking of other technology already orbiting Earth. They have also made novel use of already-existing kit, such as repurposing a literally out-of-this-world weapon known as a space harpoon and using it to retrieve and remove floating junk – space whaling, as it were.
Dr McDonald noted that universities and students are building their own spacecraft, that movies are now being filmed on the ISS (International Space Station) and that the barrier to accessing space is coming down.
Tom Ochinero spoke about the participation of SpaceX and how this is likely to continue to generate the presence of humans, and human activities and technology, in space, saying that we are “looking forward to having a sustainable city on Mars”.
He added that these would include a presence on the moon, with all the economies that entail to sustain people in these locations, adding:
“I think Space X is primarily focused on building the transportation pieces, as you know, and the big key there is Starship, and that’s our big inter-planetary transporter.”
Meanwhile, as the barrier for entry into space has been coming down, as Ms Mendzil noted that funds for space technology and the space sector generally are increasing, meaning that the current trend towards more players in space will only continue too.
Airspace Versus Space Space
Malcolm McDonald said it was instructive to compare and contrast the way space exploration is happening with the historical development of regulated airspace here on Earth.
Regulation of the latter was able to develop naturally, bit by bit, as each country opted into a system whereby the air above their sovereign territory was placed under their governance.
But the situation with space is not analogous because it involves going “from zero to complete global agreement, and the current political environment really makes that very challenging.”
What this potentially means is that just as space went from being an arena only open to the Cold War superpowers to one where commercial and other small-time players are increasingly present, it could also tip back towards a more militarised environment.
Dr Broadhead also pointed out that whereas military-turned-commercial tech is now commonplace, commercial space technologies could very easily be weaponised.
Panel host Dr Michael Holden,of DSEI, highlighted that the Integrated Review deals specifically at one point with the issue of the military in space.
Dr Broadhead said that he saw two possible futures: one where regulation of space is arrived at naturally somehow, by world governments coming together to devise a scheme that will work.
The other more pessimistic possibility he outlined is one where some tragedy occurs in space (such as space craft crashing into each other.) If many people died in such a tragedy, it could spark public outrage and increase public awareness, and these in turn might then be the catalysts for change that bring about international regulation of the arena by the governments of major powers.
However, Dr Broadhead added that, in terms of risk,, a “more nuanced approach is needed than thinking about the End-of-the-World scenarios”, saying that:
“From a military perspective, you go to space to provide surveillance, reconnaissance, satellite communications and position navigation timing.
“You don’t go there for the domain itself. You go there to provide those services to other parts of the Forces, so the risk actually needs to carry over to the users of those services and how they then prosecute their military missions based on them.”
The Fog Of Complexity
Dr Broadhead also outlined the sheer difficulties of dealing with and thinking about space. The fact that our colonisation of it is still in its early stages, means we are not yet capable of getting the detailed and precise picture we need to understand it, he said:
“I don’t think we have that nuanced understanding of, for example, when something fails, is it due to a systematic failure of your satellite, is it due to a … space weather event or is it due to some sort of nefarious act?
“Do we have absolute confidence, from a defence perspective, that we understand all the risks that contribute to (these possible scenarios), and then which one it is so we can attribute it?”
Dr McDonald added that simply waiting for the arena of space to regulate itself, and for potentially tense and difficult military challenges to be averted, is not possible either, adding:
“I think we need to be thinking from a technical perspective, from an engineering perspective, how do we actually operate in that environment where it is contested, where there isn’t the regulation, because I think if we just sit back and wait for it, it’ll be too late.”
The panellists did, however, suggest that there might be ways through the complexity.
Dr McDonald suggested that the use of smaller, more-numerous space craft and technology might aid the stability of our efforts in space. The reason is that if one is taken out by either a military confrontation or accident, this will be less damaging for a company’s or a government’s overall space operations.
SpaceX’s Tom Ochinero added that it was as difficult to launch small craft into space as it was big craft. Thus, more spaceships and technological assets going into orbit could increase complexity, at least in other ways. It also seems obvious to wonder if this might increase the risk of orbital collisions.
Building Blocks To Space
Dr Broadhead outlined the two key areas that should increase if we are to improve our space operations, with neither one involving technology.
His first building block was people, but he said that space has only become an important topic within defence within the last five years - a trend that led to it being a part of last year’s Integrated Review. The government’s space goals, now that it has them, must next be filled with the right people, he suggested, adding:
“Space is inherently an exciting subject … it’s something that people want to do, and so the challenge for us then becomes how do we then draw that enthusiasm through education but also through a willingness to work for defence in space. So, space – massively inspiring – yet there occasionally is a reticence to work for defence, particularly for certain graduates and graduate engineers.”
The second building block is cooperation, and specifically for cooperation between the Ministry of Defence and the private enterprise. He said: "
“I think we owe industry a story in this country as to how we want to run space and military space. And that conversation needs to grow.”
He also said this should include ongoing cooperation between allies, such as NATO members, and that the ideal place for the world to get to by 2040 is to have a "coalition of the willing … in space" that enables the responsible use of the domain overall, yet also allows for military use when conflicts arise.