Life in 2050: A Glimpse at Space in the Future - Part I
Welcome back to our "Life in 2050" series. Our previous installments explored how the world of warfare, economics, and life at home could drastically change by mid-century. For our fourth installment, we will be taking a look at what will be happening beyond Earth. This will include everything from Earth orbit to the very edge of the solar system... and beyond.
In the next three decades, human beings will enter the realm of space like never before. This is due in part to the way that public interest in space exploration has been revitalized, thanks to a number of exciting missions that have been mounted since the turn of the century and growing public engagement through social media.
There's also the way the commercial space sector (aka. NewSpace) has been growing by leaps and bounds. By leveraging new technologies and methods, various commercial entities have been reducing the costs of launching payloads to space. From this, they are providing less-expensive launch services and are even working towards offering flights to space.
Another major factor is the way that more national space agencies have become involved in the exploration of space. It's no longer a race between two superpowers but a much more cooperative endeavor involving six major participants - the US, the European Union, Russia, China, Japan, and India - along with commercial partners and many smaller agencies.
By mid-century, things will progress further. More nations will join the "space club," more space agencies will send astronauts to space, including to the Moon, and crewed missions to Mars will take place. Commercial entities will establish a permanent presence and will pursue many new kinds of space-related ventures.
Between now and 2050, Earth's orbital lanes will become a lot more crowded as the region known as Low Earth Orbit (LEO) is further commercialized. A lot of this crowding will be from the constellations of CubeSats, broadband internet, and telecommunication satellites that will launch between now and then.
According to the ESA's Space Debris Office (SDO), about 4,000 functioning satellites are currently in orbit. At the current rate at which new satellites are being added (around 990 per year), it's expected there will be 15,000 in orbit by 2028. Accounting for the rate of increase as satellites become smaller and cheaper to launch, it's possible the number of satellites could reach hundreds of thousands in the next few decades.
Similarly, estimates on the total value of the space industry by 2050 are difficult to predict. However, reports issued in 2017 by Morgan Stanley and Bank of America Merrill Lynch predict that the space industry will grow exponentially in the coming decades and reach a market value of $1.1 trillion by 2040 and almost $3 trillion by mid-century.
Between 1970 and 2000, the cost of launching payloads to space remained relatively steady. Using NASA's Space Shuttle, sending payloads to LEO cost around $25,000 per lb ($54,500 per kg). Today, it costs about $1,233 per lb ($2720 per kg) to send payloads to LEO using a Falcon 9 rocket, and $640 per lb ($1410 per kg) with a Falcon Heavy rocket - 20 to 40 times less.
As costs continue to plummet, space will become more accessible for both public and private organizations. This will also allow for the deployment of missions that were once considered too expensive, such as space-based solar power arrays. These satellites would gather solar energy 24/7 and beam it to ground stations using microwave arrays, providing cheap and abundant clean energy.
It's also predicted that space habitats will become a normal feature in orbit by mid-century. Some are likely to be expandable space stations like the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). Expandable habitats are smaller and lighter (hence, cheaper) to send to space, while the modular design allows for scalability - i.e., internal volume can be increased by adding more modules.
According to the 2019 SpaceWorks market forecast (9th ed.), crewed space stations could be worth as much as $50B between 2030 and 2050. There's also the burgeoning industry of space tourism, which is projected to grow considerably in the next few decades. In this case, commercial launch providers will conduct suborbital or orbital flights for paying customers.
Some examples include SpaceX, which hopes to provide commercial transportation using their Starship launch vehicle for intercontinental flights. Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic have spent over a decade developing the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane to fly passengers to space. Branson has also expressed interest in providing flights to orbit in the coming years - specifically to the ISS.
Blue Origin is also offering flights to suborbital altitudes in the near future, using the reusable New Shepard rocket. Once the New Glenn rocket is up and running, these services are likely to extend all the way to orbit. There have even been hints and intimations that flights to the Moon will be possible in the coming decades (more on that below).
Spaceplanes are also destined to become a common feature, used for both suborbital flights and flights to space. Examples today include Sierra Nevada Corp's Dream Chaser, the X-37B autonomous spaceplane, and the Reusable Experimental Spacecraft (Shǐyòng Shìyàn Hángtiān Qì) - China's answer to the X-37B.
In due course, China's Shenlong reusable robotic spaceplane will be added to the mix, as will the Skylon spaceplane currently being developed by Reaction Engines in the UK. These vehicles will provide cost-effective launch services for small payloads to orbit, as well as commercial crew missions to orbiting stations and habitats.
Gateways to space
Barring any further extensions, the International Space Station (ISS) is due to retire around 2024. Given the immense benefits that the ISS has provided during its many decades of service, it won't be long before this vacuum is filled. China launched the first module of its Tiangong Space Station (Tiangong-3) in April of 2021, which will be followed by two more next year.
Russia also has plans to build its own space station after 2024, incumbent upon its exit from the ISS Program. According to a statement issued on April 12th, 2021, to mark the 60th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's historic flight, Russia would be pursuing a new space strategy over the next decade (2025-2035).
Shortly thereafter, Dmitry Rogozin - Chief of the Russian space agency (Roscosmos) - stated that "[t]he first core module of the new Russian orbital station is in the works." Other details included that it was Russian space corporation Energia that was building the module and that it would be "ready for launch" by 2025.
By 2050, these stations are likely to have long-since retired and served as the stepping stones towards larger and more advanced stations. Some notable features, which will help ensure humanity's long-term presence in orbit, will include rotating pinwheel designs, 3D printers, refueling stations, and autonomous robotic arms (for docking and departure).
To get a sneak-peak of what these stations would look like, consider NASA’s Nautilus-X rotating torus concept. Presently, NASA is still investigating the possibility of attaching a torus to the ISS to validate the effectiveness of simulated gravity. Similar torii could be integrated into spaceships for the sake of ensuring astronaut health during long-duration flights.
There is also the Gateway Foundation‘s proposal for a commercial pinwheel station in orbit that would facilitate the commercialization of LEO and crewed missions to the Moon and Mars. The design of the Gateway calls for an inner and outer torus section, the innermost simulated lunar gravity (0.165 g), and the outermost simulating Martian gravity (0.38 g).
To realize the construction of this space station, the Gateway Foundation established the Orbital Assembly Corporation (OAC) - the world's first large-scale orbital construction company. In the coming years, they will be joined by many other ventures, all of which are sure to rely on 3D printing and robotic assemblers in orbit to build facilities rapidly and cheaply.
By 2050, multiple pinwheel space stations - or other concepts that use rotating sections to simulate gravity - could exist in Earth orbit. These stations will serve as gateways, allowing for regular trips to the Moon and other locations in deep space.
To the Moon (to stay)
By 2024, NASA intends to send the "first woman and next man" to the Moon as part of the Artemis Program. Beyond this, NASA plans to deploy key pieces of infrastructure that will allow for a "sustained program of lunar exploration." In short, NASA plans to go beyond "footprints and flags" (the Apollo Program) with Artemis and establish a permanent human presence on the Moon.
The first missions in the program - Artemis I (Nov. 4th, 2021) and Artemis II (Aug 2023) - will consist of two circumlunar flights (one uncrewed and one crewed) designed to test the SLS and Orion. Artemis III, the first crewed mission to the lunar surface since 1972, will follow in October of 2024 using a Human Landing System (HLS) developed by SpaceX (subject to legal challenge).
Also scheduled for 2024 is the launch of the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO), which are the core elements of the Lunar Gateway. Paired with a reusable lunar lander, this orbital habitat will allow for long-duration missions to the lunar surface.
Between 2024 and 2030, NASA plans to mount six more missions (Artemis IV through IX) that will add elements to the Gateway. This will include the International Habitation Module (I-HAB), the European System Providing Refueling, Infrastructure and Telecommunications (ESPRIT), and possibly more.
Similarly, NASA is planning on constructing a facility in the Moon's South-Pole Aitken Basin to enable long-term missions - the Artemis Base Camp. Similar plans have been proposed by the European Space Agency (ESA), which has been talking about creating an International Moon Village in the same region for years.
This base would act as a spiritual successor to the ISS and would have rotating crews of astronauts from all participant agencies - like the ESA, NASA, JAXA, and possibly China and Russia. Meanwhile, Russia and China recently announced that they would be partnering to create their own lunar station to rival NASA's facilities.
Known as the International Scientific Lunar Station (ISLS), this lunar base could constitute an orbital habitat (like the Gateway) or a surface base. According to a statement issued (in Mandarin) by the China National Space Administration (CNSA):
"The ILRS is a comprehensive scientific experiment base with the capability of long-term autonomous operation, built on the lunar surface and/or [in] lunar orbit that will carry out multi-disciplinary and multi-objective scientific research activities such as lunar exploration and utilization, lunar-based observation, basic scientific experiments, and technical verification."
Several commercial space companies have been contracted to send payloads to the Moon through NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS). Beyond that, there are a number of companies that are looking to conduct their own lunar missions. This includes SpaceX, which plans on using the Starship to fly a crew of artists around the Moon in 2023 - the #dearMoon project.
In 2016, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos indicated that his company would develop a heavy-launch rocket for lunar missions - the New Armstrong. Blue Origin is also developing a lunar lander known as Blue Moon, which would be capable of sending cargo and crews to the Moon.
Using these systems, Musk and Bezos hope to offer launch and transportation services to the Moon. Both men have also indicated that lunar facilities would be a "logical next step for humanity" as well. While the timelines on this are not yet clear, both intend to take major steps during this decade and the next.
By 2050, it is entirely possible that these efforts will have given rise to a thriving "lunar tourism" industry. This could take the form of week-long travel packages that people would book in advance, staying in company facilities on the surface, and conducting "moonwalks" before returning home.
While only the super-wealthy will be able to afford these services initially, the associated costs will decline over time as lunar tourism became an established industry. As Robert A. Heinlein famously put it in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, "There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch" (aka. "TANSTAAFL!").
Another commercial lunar activity that is expected to become a reality is lunar mining. Human exploration in the near future will be responsible for scouting out resources, which include water ice, minerals, and Helium-3 for fuel. As a consequence, the exploitation of lunar resources could become a major commercial venture and export market.
In accordance with the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, any and all bodies in space are to remain free of any national appropriation of sovereignty. This means that no one can lay claim to land on the Moon or in space, not as long as they are a state actor. However, the treaty does not specifically forbid private companies from laying claim to bodies or any resources extracted. The "Moon Agreement," which was ratified in 1984, provides that the Moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of "mankind" and that an international regime should be established to govern the exploitation of such resources when such exploitation is about to become feasible.
While the legality of lunar mining has always been unclear and controversial, the issue was simplified somewhat in 2015 with the signing of the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act into law. This was followed by the executive order signed by President Trump in April of 2020, which legalized prospecting and harvesting resources from space.
Industry in Earth-Moon space
The legalities of lunar mining raise another controversial subject, which is the near-future possibility of asteroid mining. In accordance with the Outer Space Treaty, asteroids are also exempt from national appropriation. But in recent years, many companies have emerged with the intent of prospecting Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs) and extracting resources from them.
Asteroids designated as NEAs are those whose orbits bring them within 1.3 Astronomical Units (AU) - or 120.8 million miles (194.4 million km) - of Earth. The majority of these objects originated in the Main Asteroid Belt and were kicked out of their orbits either because of collisions with other asteroids or due to the gravitational influence of Jupiter.
These asteroids fall into one of three broad categories based on their composition. They are:
C-type (chondrite): the most common type of asteroid, composed largely of clay and silicate rocks. These asteroids are dark in appearance and are the most ancient objects in the Solar System.
S-type ("stony"): these asteroids are similar in composition to rocky planets, consisting of outer layers of silicate minerals and nickel-iron closer to the center.
The M-types ("metallic"): these asteroids are mainly made up of iron-nickel, which can become differentiated between a denser core and lighter outer layers. In some cases, they experience lava flows where molten metal erupts onto the surface.
As of September 2016, there are 711 known NEAs with an estimated value exceeding $100 trillion USD. Whereas critics have noted that these estimates fail to take into account the actual profit margins (value of ore minus the associated expenses), the situation has changed drastically in recent years.
Thanks to the declining cost of sending payloads and crews to space, we are nearing the point where asteroid mining would be profitable. When paired with a robust spacecraft-building and servicing industry in orbit, asteroid mining is likely to reach beyond profitability and become an extremely lucrative industry.
In time, the Earth-Moon system could also include a Space Elevator, an orbital space platform tethered to Earth's surface and kept rigid through a counterweight and the planet's rotation. Alternately, humanity may realize a Lunar Elevator, a similar structure tethered to the Moon and extending inward towards Earth (kept rigid by Earth's gravity well).
For engineers, the stumbling block that has always made the concept sound in theory (but impossible to realize) has been the tether itself. Prior to the creation of carbon nanotubes and graphene, no known material was even close to having the tensile strength required. In time, further advances in materials science are likely to lead to a breakthrough in this area.
One of the major benefits of a Space Elevator would be the way it drastically lowers the cost of sending payloads to space. According to The Spaceward Foundation, current space elevator proposals will be able to lift payloads to LEO at a starting cost of around $100 per lb ($220 per kg). With costs like that, it will be possible to commercialize the entire Earth-Moon system.
And that's not all! Beyond Earth and the Moon, humanity will be taking some very big steps in the coming decades. With crewed missions to Mars, robotic missions to the outer solar system, next-generation space telescopes, and even the first interstellar missions, space will truly become the "final frontier" - and in more ways than one.
What should be our response to the first contact with extraterrestrial civilizations? We speak to the scientists who analyzed current SETI approaches.