Life in 2050: A Glimpse at Space in the Future - Part II

By 2050, humanity will also have explored Mars, the outer solar system, and have sent probes to the nearest star.
Matthew S. Williams

Hello, and welcome back to our "Life in 2050" series. In our other installments, we explored how the world of warfare, economics, and life at home could drastically change by mid-century. In the previous installment, we began to look at how space exploration and commercial space activities would be changing as well.

This includes the commercialization of Low Earth Orbit (LEO), orbital gateway stations, bases on the Moon, asteroid mining, and the industrialization of the Earth-Moon system. However, humanity's future in space reaches far beyond that and could include missions to Mars, the outer solar system, and telescopes observing the earliest moments of the universe.

Exploration will also be mirrored in terms of commercial exploitation and (perhaps) even the creation of settlements on other planets. Between the Moon, Mars, the main asteroid belt, and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, there are many tantalizing locations where humans could establish self-sustaining cities that would allow for further expansion and exploration.

We may even find life in our own cosmic backyard and explore the closest stars to our Sun. With any luck, we may also obtain the first definitive evidence that there is life beyond our solar system, and perhaps see that it is looking back at us. All this and more is expected to become a reality by 2050 - or, at least, to be well on its way to becoming a reality.

Forward unto Mars

Mars will be a major focal point for space agencies over the next three decades. In addition to increased robotic exploration, three major space agencies are planning to send astronauts to Mars between the 2030s and 2060s. NASA is expected to lead the way with its "Moon to Mars" program, which will build on Project Artemis, the Lunar Gateway, and other key components.

 Life in 2050: A Glimpse at Space in the Future - Part II
The Deep Space Transport approaching Mars. Source: Boeing

For instance, NASA will be using the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft to send astronauts back to the Moon starting in 2024. The core of the Gateway - the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) - will also be launched by 2024 using a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.

Paired with a reusable lunar lander, this orbital habitat will allow for long-duration missions to the lunar surface. Between 2024 and 2028, NASA also intends to add the International Habitation Module (I-HAB), the European System Providing Refueling, Infrastructure and Telecommunications (ESPRIT), and possibly more modules to the Gateway.

But the greatest addition will be the Deep-Space Transport (DST), which is to be added to the Gateway by the early 2030s. The design of the DST calls for a reusable spacecraft that relies on Solar-Electric Propulsion (SEP) and has a crew module that can support astronauts for the six to nine-month journey to Mars (or is capable of being paired with the Orion spacecraft).

The DST will fly astronauts from lunar orbit to Mars, where they will rendezvous with a second station - like Lockheed Martin's Mars Base Camp concept. This station will also be paired with a reusable lander that will take the astronauts to and from the surface of Mars. If all goes as planned, NASA will have conducted the first human exploration missions to Mars before the 2030s are over.

Roscosmos and the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) have announced similar plans to send crews to Mars by way of the Moon. While not a lot of details have been forthcoming, Roscosmos has stated that such a mission would likely happen in the 2040-2045 timeframe.

China, meanwhile, emphasizes that it plans to send robotic missions to Mars well into the 2030s, followed by the first crewed missions between 2040 and 2060. Both space agencies conducted training exercises - the Mars500 simulations - between 2007 and 2011 to see how astronauts would contend with the long-term isolation that such missions would entail.

Elon Musk has also been quite vocal about his plans to send humans to Mars during the 2020s. It was for this purpose that he founded SpaceX in 2001 and has been working towards the realization of the Starship super-heavy flight system. Initially, this system was known as the Mars Colonial Transporter, which reflected its ultimate purpose.

Once the Starship is certified for commercial and human spaceflight, Musk plans to conduct regular launches to the Moon and Mars. Previously, Musk indicated that SpaceX was targetted a launch window for 2022, where two Starships would fly to Mars.

 Life in 2050: A Glimpse at Space in the Future - Part II
The Mars Base Camp concept. Source: Lockheed Martin

This mission would scout for water sources and land cargo, power, mining, and life support systems on the surface for future missions. The first crewed mission would take place by 2024, with two Starships transporting equipment and supplies, a propellant production plant, and a crew to begin work on a base.

Subsequent missions would follow every two years during a period of "opposition," when Earth and Mars are closest to each other, in terms of their orbit around the Sun. As with many past estimates by Musk, these timetables have proven a bit optimistic. However, Musk maintains that Starships could be making regular trips to Mars sometime this decade.

A more recent estimate indicates that the scout mission could take place by 2024 and a crewed mission by 2026. In January 2020, Musk indicated that SpaceX's long-term goal is to build 100 Starships a year for 10 years to create a fleet of 1000. This fleet would then haul 100 megatons of cargo to Mars or 100,000 people every two years.

After 20 years, Musk claims that it would be possible to create a sustainable city on Mars, which he hopes would reach a population of 1 million people by 2050. This city, and other proposed settlements, could lead to the rise of a Martian economy - with its own cryptocurrency ("Marscoin"), a tourism industry, and perhaps a mining industry.

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With the necessary infrastructure - such as orbital stations and refueling depots - regular flights to and from Earth would be possible. All of this could eventually lead to the recognition of Mars as a "free planet," with its own representation at the United Nations, or an autonomous government.

Interplanetary transit network

While fully-reusable launch vehicles and spaceplanes will revolutionize transportation on Earth (allowing for suborbital intercontinental flights), interplanetary transportation could also be a reality by 2050. This will be facilitated by the rise of fusion rockets by the mid-2030s, which could cut the travel time to Mars down to just 90 days (1/3 the time it takes using conventional thrusters).

Nuclear reactors were investigated and tested as a possible means of propulsion throughout the Cold War era. One example of results from this experimentation was the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA), developed jointly by NASA and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). As part of Project Rover, NERVA was one of several concepts tested and validated between 1961 and 1973.

Unfortunately, the program was canceled in 1973 before any flight tests could take place, as part of the shift that began shortly after the end of the Apollo Era. In recent years, with the renewed interest in missions that go beyond LEO, space agencies around the world have taken a fresh look at these devices and are working on their own updated versions.

They also come in various forms, but the most common proposals fall under the general heading of either nuclear-thermal or nuclear-electric propulsion (NEP/NEC). For the former, a slow-fission reactor is used to heat hydrogen fuel, and the resulting plasma is directed through nozzles to generate thrust.

In the case of the latter, the nuclear reactor generates electricity, which is then used to power an engine - most likely, a Hall-Effect thruster (aka. ion engine). This concept builds on NASA's successful implementation of Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP), which will see considerable use with NASA's proposed missions to Mars.

With a network of "rapid transit" between Earth, the Moon, and Mars, humanity will be able to expand the commercialization and industrialization of the Earth-Moon system to include Mars and its moons (Phobos and Deimos). While it's unlikely that Mars will be a major commercial center by 2050, it's entirely possible that the foundations of this possible future will be established by then.

"The high frontier"

Beyond Gateways in Earth orbit, settlements on the Moon, and a potential city on Mars, the commercial space industry and non-profit space organizations also have plans to create massive colonies in space. These plans build on proposals made since the early 20th century, particularly the works of Gerard K. O'Neil, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Werhner von Braun, and others.

These include the O'Neil Cylinder, a long tube-shaped structure that rotates to simulate gravity for its inhabitants. Similarly, the Von Braun Wheel (aka. Stanford Torus) calls for a pinwheel-shaped station that spins to simulate gravity in one or more rings. Other elaborations on these concepts have been suggested as an alternative to settling on planets.

During the 2017, Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop, Ukrainian astrophysicist Valeriy Yakovlev explained why rotating habitats in space were preferable to settling (and terraforming) Mars:

"It is usually associated with the creation of colonies on the surface of Mars and planetary satellites. However, a radical obstacle to this is the unavailability of human beings to live in conditions of the reduced gravity of the Moon and Mars, being in their earthly bodies, at least in the next decades. The hope for [medical developments] will not cancel the physical degradation of the muscles, bones, and the whole organism.

"The rehabilitation in centrifuges is [a] less expedient solution compared with the ship-biosphere where it is possible to provide a substantially constant imitation of the normal gravity and protection from any harmful influences of the space environment. If the path of space exploration is to create a colony on Mars and furthermore the subsequent attempts to terraform the planet, it will lead to the unjustified loss of time and money and increase the known risks of human civilization."

 Life in 2050: A Glimpse at Space in the Future - Part II
Source: Alexander Preuss

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and Blue Origin, has also voiced his preference for building habitats in space rather than colonizing Mars and other bodies. In February of 2019, during a speech before the Yale Club, Bezos referenced O'Neil Cylinders and why he thought they were the way of the future:

"The solar system can support a trillion humans, and then we'd have 1,000 Mozarts and 1,000 Einsteins. Think how incredible and dynamic that civilization will be... I don't think we'll live on planets, by the way. I think we'll live in giant O'Neal-style space colonies. Gerard O'Neil, decades ago, came up with this idea."

These facilities would both benefit and aid from the creation of a thriving space construction and asteroid mining industry. By the midway mark of the 21st century, much of our mining and manufacturing could be taking place beyond Earth. By accessing the abundant resources of space, we could reduce the stress on our environment while also ushering in a period of post-scarcity.

Asteroid exploration

A number of missions are scheduled to explore asteroids in the solar system in the next decades too. There's the Lucy probe, which is planned to launch on Oct. 16, 2021, on a twelve-year journey to study seven different asteroids. The first will be located in the main asteroid belt, followed by six of Jupiter's "Trojans" - asteroids that share the planet's orbit around the Sun.

These asteroids are among the oldest objects in the solar system and are composed of material left over from the protoplanetary disk. The mission is therefore named in honor of the hominid skeleton "Lucy" - the remains of the Australopithecus woman found in Ethiopia in 1974 - because the mission will be studying the "fossils of planet formation."

There's also the Psyche mission, which will launch in August of 2022 and arrive around the main belt asteroid of the same name (16 Psyche) by 2026. This metallic asteroid is thought to be the remains of a protoplanet's core that became exposed after a massive collision. The study of this asteroid is therefore expected to reveal information about early planet formation.

In addition, the study of this body could shed light on how planetary magnetic fields operate, which are key to planetary habitability. There has also been considerable discussion about how Psyche could prove to be a very lucrative prospect for asteroid mining, since it contains abundant amounts of iron, nickel, and precious metals, with an estimated value of $10 quintillion USD (that's 10×1018 dollars),

By 2050, with sufficient infrastructure established between the Earth-Moon system and Mars, asteroid prospectors are likely to begin looking to the main belt. While asteroid mining and industrial operations are not likely to be established in this region until the latter half of the century, it's a safe bet that the commercial space industry will be looking to expand there.

 Life in 2050: A Glimpse at Space in the Future - Part II
Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

"Ocean worlds" explorers

A number of missions are scheduled to take place between the 2030s and 2050 that will search for life in the outer solar system. These missions will focus on "Ocean Worlds," which refers to moons and planetoids in the solar system that are thought to have warm-water oceans beneath their icy surfaces.

Examples include three of Jupiter's Galilean moons, Europa, Ganymede, and possibly Callisto; Saturn's moons Titan, Enceladus, Dione, and possibly Mimas; Neptune's largest moon Triton, and maybe even Pluto. Uranus' moons Titania, Oberon, and Ariel are also thought to be promising in this regard.

Due to the powerful gravity of their parent planets, these moons are thought to experience tidal heating in their interiors. This is suspected to lead to hydrothermal activity, which allows for oceans to exist at their core-mantle boundaries. This same hydrothermal activity could also be providing the necessary energy and chemical elements for basic life forms.

In other cases, such as Uranus' satellites, it is the decay of radioactive elements in their rocky/metallic interiors that could be responsible. Assuming the presence of enough salt and ammonia, all of these moons are thought to be able to maintain surface oceans that could harbor life.

Currently, the majority of astrobiological research here in the solar system is focused on Mars, which is considered the most habitable place beyond Earth and likely once had liquid water flowing on its surface. However, there are many in the scientific community who believe that extraterrestrial life is more likely to be found inside the moons.

At present, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) plan to dispatch robotic missions to explore some of these satellites. First, there's the European Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE), which will launch in June of 2022 and arrive around Jupiter by October of 2029. Once there, it will study Callisto, Ganymede, and Europa, with a focus on Ganymede.

This will be followed by NASA's Europa Clipper, an orbiter scheduled to launch by October 10, 2024, and arrive around Europa by April 11, 2030. Once there, the Clipper mission will gather data on the moon's composition and evolution. Other objectives include examining plume activities to learn more about the interior and scouting possible locations for a future lander mission.

Known as the Europa Lander, this proposal calls for a follow-up mission that would launch separately in 2027. It would arrive by the early 2030s and examine Europa's surface ice and its plume activity (and maybe obtain samples), the purpose of which will be to look for biosignatures that came from Europa's interior.

Next up is the Dragonfly mission, a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) drone that will explore Titan for signs of possible life. This vehicle relies on four rotors and is powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) - aka. a nuclear battery. This will allow the Dragonfly to study Titan's surface and atmosphere to learn more about its mysterious environment.

This mission is currently being developed at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) and will launch in June 2027, arriving at Titan by 2034 (and landing on the surface by 2036). Its objectives include the study of Titan's methane lakes, atmosphere, rich prebiotic surface environment, and organic chemistry (which could be indications of life).

NASA has also entertained the idea of conducting an astrobiology mission to Enceladus that would follow up on the Cassini mission's accomplishments. If realized, the Enceladus Life Finder (ELF) would examine the plumes emanating from the moon's southern polar region to look for biosignatures that would indicate the presence of life inside the moon.

In 2018, NASA signed an agreement with Breakthrough Initiatives (BI) to develop a mission concept known as Breakthrough Enceladus. The mission would launch sometime in the 2020s, arriving around Enceladus about a decade later. Alongside other mission concepts, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn would be a focal point in the search for extraterrestrial life throughout the 2030s.

With any luck, these missions could lead to the discovery of compelling evidence of life beyond Earth. Or they might find enough evidence to suggest that more ambitious missions are needed, such as a deep-sea submarine for Europa, the Titan Mare Explorer (TME), and other concepts that are also being considered. By 2050, we may learn that life can thrive in all kinds of exotic environments.

Going interstellar

By 2050, it's also possible that the first interstellar missions will be sent to explore the nearest star systems to our Sun. In all likelihood, the first mission to go would be Breakthrough Starshot, a program established by Breakthrough Initiatives for a gram-scale spacecraft (dubbed the StarChip) that would be towed by a large lightsail.

The smartphone-sized StarChip would be equipped with tiny sensors, a guidance and navigation system, tiny thrusters, and a radio antenna. It would then be accelerated by an Earth-based laser array to 20 percent the speed of light (37,282 mps; 60,000 km/s), allowing it to reach the Alpha Centauri (4.37 light-years away) system in just 20 years.

Astronomers have already confirmed the presence of two exoplanets around the system's trinary (Proxima Centauri), one of which (Proxima b) is considered potentially habitable. A recent study conducted by an international team affiliated with BI found that Alpha Centauri could also have a potentially habitable planet orbiting it (which is yet to be confirmed).

According to statements made in 2016 by Breakthrough Initiatives founder Yuri Milner, Starshot could be ready to launch by 2036. This means that the people of Earth would be getting the first images and data from the mission by 2060. This data could include the first up-close look of a habitable planet beyond Earth, and who knows what else?

New observatories

In November 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will finally be launched into space. This next-generation space observatory will have the highest infrared resolution and sensitivity of any space telescope to date. This will allow it to see farther out into space (and hence, back in time) to some of the earliest events in cosmic history.

In 2022, the ESA will launch Euclid, the successor to the Gaia Observatory - which will obtain data on two billion galaxies across 10 billion light-years of space. This will be used to create a 3D map of the local area of the universe to provide vital clues about the role of dark matter and dark energy in cosmic evolution.

These will be followed by the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope - or Roman Space Telescope (RST) for short - which is scheduled to launch sometime in 2025. With the same sensitivity as Hubble, but over 100 times the surveying power, the RST will identify tens of thousands of exoplanets and investigate many of the same cosmic mysteries as the JWST.

In 2026, the ESA will launch its Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO) observatory. Using a series of small, optically fast, wide-field telescopes, PLATO will search for exoplanets and characterize their atmospheres to determine if they could be habitable. Beyond these missions, there are other next-generation observatories being considered for the 2030s.

These include NASA's Origins Space Telescope (OST), the Habitable Exoplanet Imager (HabEx), which have a proposed launch date of 2035. There's also the Lynx X-ray Surveyor that could launch in 2036, followed by the Large Ultraviolet/Optical/Infrared Surveyor (LUVOIR) in 2039. These missions would take over from NASA's Great Observatories satellites and build on their accomplishments.

NASA and other space agencies are also working towards the realization of in-space assembly (ISA) of space telescopes, where individual components will be sent to orbit and assembled there. There's also the concept of observatories made up of swarms of smaller telescope mirrors ("swarm telescopes") that would be capable of assembling themselves autonomously.

Of course, there are also many ground-based observatories that will be operational within the next decade. Examples include the Vera C Rubin Observatory - formerly known as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) - which will gather its first light in 2022/2023. Using a three-mirror 27.5 ft (8.4 m) Simonyi Survey Telescope, this observatory will photograph the entire sky every few nights.

In addition to exploring the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy, Rubin will also take an inventory of objects in the solar system, map out the Milky Way, and monitor supernovae, fast radio bursts (FRBs), gamma-ray bursts, and other "transient events." It will also contribute immensely to the study of interstellar objects (like 'Oumuamua) a rapidly growing field.

Other soon-to-be-operational observatories include the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) and the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) in Chile, which are scheduled to be ready by 2025 and 2029 (respectively). There's also the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) in Hawaii, which is expected to gather its first images by 2027.

These observatories will be equipped with cutting-edge optics, interferometers, coronographs, and adaptive optics. The resulting sensitivity and resolution will allow for direct imaging studies of exoplanets, allowing astronomers to characterize their atmospheres and conclude whether or not they could support life (as we know it).

Before 2050, the ESO is likely to reconsider its plans for the Overwhelmingly Large Telescope (OWL), which will have an aperture measuring ~330 ft (100 m) and sensitivity beyond any existing telescope. In the realm of radio astronomy, existing projects and new arrays will expand the search for life and its origins in the cosmos.

In 2018, the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) began observing the cosmos with its one-hundred, 65 ft (20 m) cylindrical parabolic reflector dishes. In 2020, China's Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) - the world's largest single-aperture radio telescope - also became fully operational for the first time.

These telescopes will prove instrumental in the coming years and decades as they investigate the cosmic mysteries associated with neutral hydrogen, fast-radio-bursts (FRBs), pulsars, and quasars.  They will also be vital to the Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) network and the ongoing Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

Speaking of which, Breakthrough Listen will have finished its survey of the local universe by 2026. However, the analysis of the gathered data (which will be shared with the public in a series of data releases) is likely to last for much longer. What's more, follow-up studies will likely continue well into the 2030s and 2040s wherever Listen finds identifies potential technosignatures.

There are also plans for a successor to the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico. Known as the Next-Generation Very Large Array (ngVLA), it will consist of two-hundred and forty-four, 59 ft (18 m) radio dishes spread over an area of about 5,505 mi (8,860 km), with an additional nineteen, 20 ft (6 m) dishes that make up a short-spacing array at the center.

Similarly, the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) will have completed construction by 2030. This massive radio telescope will be made up of radio telescopes located in Australia and South Africa that will be capable of gathering radio data from a section of the sky that measures 1 square km (~1 million m²; 10.76 million ft²).

These observatories will pick up where the venerable Arecibo Observatory and VLA left off, conducting research related to the SETI, and investigating cosmic mysteries like star system formation, gravitational waves, black holes, and the distribution of the chemical building blocks of life throughout the cosmos.

 Life in 2050: A Glimpse at Space in the Future - Part II
Source: NASA

Between now and the middle of this century, some very exciting things will (or are expected) to happen in space. Space agencies, partnered with private space consortiums, will create vital infrastructure between Earth and the Moon and extend the reach of human exploration all the way to Mars.

The private space sector will grow to commercialize Low Earth Orbit, the Earth-Moon System, and create the foundations of a lunar (and maybe even Martian) economy. From this foundation, humanity will be able to become a truly "interplanetary species" and will begin planning ventures to the outer Solar System.

Humanity will also return to the Moon after forty years, and not as a single nation. More and more space agencies will place boots on the lunar surface by 2050 and establish bases that will allow them to stay. Mars will follow, with China, Russia, the ESA, and India all putting boots on the Red Planet before the 2050s are over.

Next-generation space telescopes and ground-based observatories will peer farther into space (and back in time) than ever before. Astronomers and cosmologists will update their theories on how galaxies and the large-scale structure of the cosmos evolved, and perhaps discover how life in our universe emerged.

Tens of thousands of new exoplanets for study, the ability to characterize exoplanet environments, the first confirmed habitable planets, and possibly the first evidence of life beyond Earth. While it may be too much to hope for, it's possible that these search efforts will even discover the first evidence of intelligent life beyond Earth.

In fact, you could say that space is where the most exciting changes will be happening in the next three decades.

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