Potpourri Edition: End of Year Updates
Happy Holidays everyone! With the end of 2018 fast approaching, I thought about writing a year-in-review piece. But, with so much happening in the Outer Space field, it’s hard to pick what to highlight. So instead, I am using this final post of 2018 to provide updates on subjects I have discussed before. Without further ado, in no particular order, here are the latest developments on a wide range of topics.
An Alien Visitor from another System: the ‘Oumuamua Mystery
In October, I described different classifications of Space Rocks. One of the most interesting recent discoveries in this area is an elongated cigar-like object known as ‘Oumuamua; while it is nothing new to discover a space rock from another star system, astronomers were still surprised by ‘Oumuamua because of its unique and odd shape. Since ‘Oumuamua’s discovery, scientists have been busy trying to figure out its origin. Researchers have been going back and forth on the classification of ‘Oumuamua as an asteroid or a comet; this dispute centers on the fact that while ‘Oumuamua has characteristics of a comet, it does not have a coma—that signature trailing tail.
Now, two researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics are advancing the theory that ‘Oumuamua is neither an asteroid nor a comet and is actually an alien lightsail. In their paper, Shmuel Bialy and Avi Loeb noted that ‘Oumuamua’s non-gravitational acceleration could be caused by solar radiation pressure (a propulsion method that can be achieved through a lightsail). If this is the case, “then ‘Oumuamua represents a new class of thin interstellar material, either produce naturally, through a yet unknown process . . . , or of an artificial origin. Considering an artificial origin, one possibility is that ‘Oumuamua is a lightsail, floating in interstellar space as a debris from an advanced technological equipment.”
However, by applying Occam’s razor (the simplest explanation tend to be true), many scientists are casting doubt on this foreign technology theory; rather, they believe the most likely explanation is that ‘Oumuamua is just another natural object that we haven’t seen before in the vastness of the universe.
A Visualization of the Incoming Traffic Jam in the Sky
This summer, I also provided my thoughts about the increasing likelihood of conflict between airline and space-launch operations due to the recent success of space-related commercial enterprises. In an article also aptly named “Gridlock in the Sky,” the Washington Post made a marvelous visual depiction of the traffic jam that was caused by SpaceX’s historic launch of Falcon Heavy in February. You can find the visualization here (potentially behind a paywall).
Forget LOP-G, Directly to the Moon
Earlier this year, I wrote about my justifications for continuing the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (“LOP-G”) Program as the proper next step to go to Mars. Late during the year, Robin Zubrin, the founder of the Mars Society, pinned a piece in the New Atlantis (“Moon Direct”) arguing that instead of constructing the LOP-G space station around the Moon, we should instead establish a permanent Moon base, which will serve as the staging grounds for an eventual mission to/settlement of Mars.
While at first glance it seems like Zubrin is arguing a diametrically opposite viewpoint form mine, we are actually more aligned than meets the eye; my ultimate point was that in order for us to successfully launch a manned mission to Mars, we must first establish a base either on or near the Moon, which can be accomplished with or without the LOP-G.
Nicknamed “Moon Direct,” Zubrin’s plan is for humanity to establish a permanent outpost that can serve as a starting point for manned missions to other celestial bodies in the solar system and beyond. Three phases are needed to accomplish this goal with the assistance of Falcon Heavy, Falcon 9, the Dragon Capsule, a newly designed Lunar Excursion Vehicle, and a vehicle/space station in low earth orbit.
Phase One would deliver the supplies needed to establish such a Moon base and a production facility that can turn the Moon’s water-ice deposit into hydrogen-oxygen rocket propellant. Phase Two would send a crewed mission to the Moon via the Lunar Excursion Vehicle to setup the base and initiate the propellant production facility. Once established, the Moon Direct Plan would enter the long-term operational Phase Three in which crewed trips from Earth to Moon would occur on a regular interval. With the experience gained from such repeatable missions, Zubrin argues that his plan would “restore the confidence of the human spaceflight program and enable it to take on the greater challenges awaiting [humanity] on Mars and beyond.” I tend to agree.
Space Tourism: So It Begins, or Did It?
Last year, I wrote about the legal conundrum surrounding the question of whether space tourists are astronauts. It looks like this issue will be gaining traction in the near future with Virgin Galactic, in December 2018, finally making its maiden voyage into “Outer Space.” I put quotes around “Outer Space” because a controversy is brewing on whether SpaceShipTwo actually reached “Outer Space” by achieving an altitude of 82.68 km (51.37 miles). The issue here is that there is no agreed-upon demarcation line for the beginning of Outer Space. While some (including the World Air Sports Federation) go by the Karman line (which is set at 100 km or 62 miles), others (NASA and the U.S. Air Force) go by 80 km or 50 miles. Hence, whether this is the actual beginning of space tourism is yet to be seen with one more legal definition that needs solving (which will also likely be the topic of a future blog post *February 2019 Update: see here for the post).
Asteroid Mining: Finally focusing on the Horse in front of the Cart
In 2017, I wrote about the legal challenges surrounding an emerging industry: asteroid mining. For many companies in this sector, 2018 has proven to be unkind. While the Outer Space visionary, Elon Musk, has called it bogus in the past, the space mining industry has the potential to create the world’s first trillionaire. However, recent developments in this sector has led many to believe that it will take a lot more time before this industry can truly take off.
For instance, Planetary Resources Inc., once a darling in this sector, has been brought by ConsenSys, Inc., a blockchain company with issues of its own (now undergoing a 13% lay-off of its workforce). Planetary Resources’ main competitor, Deep Space Industries, is also taking a step back on asteroid mining and instead focusing on the development of spacecraft that can actually make it commercially viable to travel and explore an asteroid.
While the industry is going back to the basics, this is arguably not a bad thing. I believe that asteroid mining will eventually become a very lucrative industry, but today’s technology and infrastructure is not yet sufficient to support the growth of this sector; there are still many challenges researchers need to solve (e.g., efficient Outer Space transportation, mining, and refinement methods) before asteroid mining can become a commercially viable enterprise. Before this industry can learn how to run, it must learn how to walk; the fact that major players in this industry are finally awaking up to these issues is a good baby step forward for the eventual success of this sector.
Space Force: A New Command as the First Step
When President Trump first announced his plans for a Space Force, I wrote that different political, bureaucratic, and legal forces will make this new branch of the military more of a fiction than reality in the short run. While it remains to see whether the White House will include funding for the Space Force as a part of its 2020 budget request, President Trump has now ordered the Defense Department to reestablish the U.S. Space Command. This Command had been in existence from 1985 to 2002 but was disbanded after 9/11 in favor of the creation of the U.S. Northern Command to focus on the protection of the homeland. According to the Associated Press, the command would eventually be made up of 1,600 personnel and could cost as much as $800 million over the next five years.
Revising Old Rules on Space Debris
One of my first posts was inspired by the movie, Gravity, and focused on an eventual issue that we will need to address in Outer Space: Space Debris. While this will not be an easy problem to solve, it looks like the U.S. Federal Government is finally taking notice of this challenge. In November 2018, the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates satellite communication, launched its first comprehensive review and overhaul of its orbital debris rules since their adoption in 2004.
FCC’s proposed changes would improve the disclosure of debris mitigation plans when companies are applying for satellite licenses. The new rules would also require companies that seek to operate satellites in orbits above 650 kilometers (the approximate attitude at which objects would take longer than 25 years to deorbit) to justify their need for such long-term high-attitude operations.
During the November meeting that approved this notice of proposed rulemaking, three of the four FCC commissioners questioned whether the FCC should be the agency in charge of regulating rules surrounding space debris. However, the lone Democratic commission member, Jessica Rosenworcel, disagreed and believes that more could be done, and that “[i]nstead of moving forward aggressively, [FCC] backtrack[ed] and add[ed] confusing language about whether or not this work should even continue in these halls. This is not the leadership we need as we embark on a new era in space.”
ITU Getting Ready for a Busy Orbital Parking Lot
Speaking of potentially blanketing low earth orbits, in 2018, SpaceX received FCC’s approval in two separate orders to launch a constellation of nearly 12,000 low-Earth orbit satellites as a part of its Starlink System: a $10 billion plan to blanket the earth with “constant, global internet coverage from orbit.”
However, SpaceX will still need to receive the International Telecommunications Union’s approval as well. In my first official piece of #TheSpaceBar, I provided a procedural (and looking back now, a probably too complicated) look on ITU and regulations behind its management of orbital slots for satellites. With the approval of this constellation, Outer Space has the potential to get more crowded very quickly: FCC’s approvals are subject to the company launching half of the approved satellites within 6 years; this means SpaceX will need to launch nearly 6,000 satellites into orbit by 2024.
In other SpaceX news, there is a mission update to my opinion piece on how Falcon Heavy’s successful launch earlier this year symbolizes the arrival of the New Space Age. The roadster payload that was part of the inaugural launch of Falcon Heavy has reached its farthest point from the Sun: a distance of 1.66 Astronomical Units (about 248.3 million km). Also, in other news, SpaceX’s next heavy-duty rocket has been renamed from BFR to Starship. Though, this raises an interesting question as Merriam-Webster defines Starship as “a spacecraft designed for interstellar travel.” Can you really call it a starship if it can only do intrastellar travel and not interstellar travel?
Could Solar Radiation Pressure Explain ‘Oumuamua’s Peculiar Acceleration: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1810.11490.pdf
FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking: In the Matters of Mitigation of Orbital Debris in the New Space Age: https://docs.fcc.gov/public/attachments/FCC-18-159A1.pdf
How the Space Mining Industry came Down to Earth: http://fortune.com/2018/11/24/asteroid-mining-space-planetary-resources/
SpaceX Starlink: Here’s everything you need to know: https://www.digitaltrends.com/cool-tech/what-is-spacex-starlink/
Text of a Memorandum from the President to the Secretary of Defense Regarding the Establishment of the United States Space Command: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/text-memorandum-president-secretary-defense-regarding-establishment-united-states-space-command/
Virgin Galactic “Reaches” Outer Space: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h8T9mVkGh3s