The future of space exploration | Nathan Pullicino

Without space exploration to help us push the boundaries of current technologies, we would miss out on having better, more affordable ones which benefit all of humankind

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Human and Robotic Exploration programme, Terrae Novae, is envisioned to lead space exploration using robots to gather scientific data and prepare Europe for human exploration.

Terrae Novae, meaning new worlds, refers to the three destinations being explored: Low Earth Orbit on the International Space Station, the Moon and Mars. The moon provides the technological, scientific, and socio-economic benefits of planetary exploration, while having the great advantage of being close-to-home. It is therefore the ideal environment on which to test new technologies which will allow humans to travel and survive longer and further in space.

While lunar exploration can be beneficial, it is also expensive, and there are limits to how much mass and power can be transported to and generated on the moon given our current technology.

Human and robotic survival on the moon would also require additional infrastructure to account for the harsher environment.

This is especially the case for long-term missions which require survival throughout the lunar night, where the temperature varies significantly from that during the lunar day. This means that any long-lasting infrastructure would have to survive freezing temperatures, and be able to properly dissipate heat.

Since the lunar night is about 14 days, and power generation relies heavily on solar power, there are limits to the activities which could take place on the moon. In the lunar night, any leftover power would have to be used for survival, making it harder to traverse the moon and gather data.

Since the moon is an extremely dusty environment, infrastructure may degrade over time as the dust may cause moving parts to function less effectively and cover solar panels. Therefore, space travel and survival is not as straightforward as one might think. Power production and distribution, both for survival and scientific gain, is of great interest to space agencies nowadays, which certainly opens a range of opportunities for interested companies throughout Europe.

To make the future of human and robotic exploration on the moon cost-effective, viable and beneficial, a large and modular lunar architecture is necessary. Ideally, the same lunar architecture would be able to accomplish multiple feats with minimal changes or additional infrastructure. For example, while there may be multiple missions which require mobility solutions such as rovers and robotic arms, the cost and time for the research, design and manufacturing of individual technologies would be extremely large. In cases where it is possible, ESA thus proposes the design of a single structure capable of successfully accomplishing all of these missions. If the required infrastructure is too large for a single landing, then there needs to be a way of connecting said infrastructure after multiple landings.

One way of reducing the material being launched from Earth would be to create those materials on the moon itself. In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) is a process in which the required materials are manufactured at the site in which they are needed.

Producing metals, oxygen and water on the moon and Mars is certainly possible in theory, however years of academic and industrial research is needed to make this a reality. This opens up several doors for chemists and engineers with a passion for space exploration who wish to push the boundaries of current technology.

With all the challenges that come with space exploration, a single organisation is not enough to provide the best possible results. Research and industrial involvement is critical in the development of such an architecture, thus space agencies nowadays have taken on more of an enabling role.

To create a project which best fits into the programme, a team within the agency must be aware of the various lunar missions envisioned, the lunar architecture required to accomplish the missions and how the different missions will interact. The team proposes means of accomplishing the targets presented in the programme by proposing missions and technologies and then works with interested and capable companies from all over Europe to produce an end-product.

The nature of this work varies from the writing of the mission and systems requirements; to being involved in the design of missions at the Concurrent Design Facility in which experts from different disciplines meet to study the feasibility of a concept; to overseeing contractors’ progress.

Apart from enabling European industry by funding projects and overseeing research, ESA also invests in the future of Europe. The agency gives the opportunity for young graduates from various disciplines to contribute to space exploration and gain critical skills which can be used throughout industry, academia and even within the agency itself.

The YPSat is a CubeSat being developed by young professionals at ESA which will launch on the maiden flight of Ariane 6 in 2024. The CubeSat will operate an imaging system to record fairing and payload separation of the rocket; and take in-orbit images of the Earth. While supported by ESA, this project is being worked on exclusively by young professionals who design, manufacture and test every aspect of the satellite.

With the broad nature of the challenges we are faced with when it comes to space exploration; and with there being so much that we simply don’t know when it comes to space, multi- disciplinary teams are needed. However, apart from experts in the science fields, companies also require experts in other fields such as business, law, marketing and communication. The growth of the space industry creates new opportunities for people to succeed and contribute to space exploration by doing what they are passionate about.

By doing so, it is not just those with a passion for space who benefit, but also everyone else. Without space exploration to help us push the boundaries of current technologies, we would miss out on having better, more affordable ones which benefit all of humankind. The internet, GPS, solar panels, air purifiers and artificial limbs are but a tiny fraction of the technology we wouldn’t have had it not been for space exploration.

Nathan Pullicino was hosted by ESA to work at the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) within the team which integrates, coordinates, and manages the development of studies and technologies for future exploration missions on the moon.