Space exploration has led to various significant and impactful discoveries for humanity. Although the human venture to space is just mere 60 years old, the progress in discoveries and space technologies has been exponential.
Since the first rocket launch by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.), or the Soviet Union, on October 4, 1957, there has been immense growth and development in the means of space travel. Today, there are six major space stations across the world launching hundreds of space programs at once while researching and developing more enhanced space technologies.
Currently, the most powerful space agencies in the world include the China National Space Administration (CNSA), the European Space Agency (ESA), the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Russian Federal Space Agency (RFSA). All these agencies have the capability of independently launching and recovering multiple satellites, developing and deploying cryogenic rocket engines, operating space probes, and extraterrestrial landing capabilities.
Important Technologies used for Space Exploration
For the success of space exploration missions, various equipment, experts, technologies, and resources are involved. From the successful launching of spacecraft to the sustainability of the mission, every step requires highly efficient tools, technologies, and technicians. This article is further going to explore the key technologies enabling successful space missions.
- Space propulsion- The method used to accelerate spacecraft and artificial satellites into space is known as space propulsion. The space propulsion system includes an engine, propellants, pumps, nozzles, tanks, and powerhead. The primary function of the system is to provide thrust, which helps in the functioning of the launch vehicle or satellite.
In propulsion systems, the fluid (either solid, liquid, or electric) reacts to initiate acceleration and provide force in the system. The space propulsion systems can be summarized in three categories: namely, “escape propulsion”, which is used in the launch vehicle to escape the Earth’s surface; “in-space propulsion”, which is equipped in the satellites for orbit maneuvering; and “deep space propulsion” which is used to move further in the space from the designated orbit of the satellite. Currently, launch vehicles rely on mature technologies such as solid propulsion, liquid propulsion, and a combination of both, wherein there have been tremendous efforts by the manufacturing companies to develop advanced propulsion technologies in satellites.
Owing to increasing efforts from commercial space companies as well as space agencies to develop more efficient, less toxic, and enhanced space propulsion systems, there is growth in the space propulsion market. Various other factors, such as the development of cost-efficient propulsion technologies and advancements in the 3D printing technology for developing the components of space propulsion systems, are also propelling the market growth.
According to the BIS Research market report, the global space propulsion system market projects to grow at a CAGR of 11.76% during the forecast period from 2020 to 2025.
- Spacesuit technology– Along with suitable spacecraft, space suites are equally important for missions involving humans. Now, the spacesuits are technologically quite advanced. Spacesuits allow astronauts to exist in extreme temperatures and conditions that humans would normally not be able to survive in for more than a couple of seconds. Additionally, it provides sufficient oxygen to breathe while in space and contains water during spacewalks. The suits also protect astronauts from injuries from space dust, radiation in space, and bright sunlight and allow them to walk on surfaces with restricted gravitational conditions. Without these intricate spacesuits, humans would not be able to survive in space.
- Communication technology – Without proper communication between the space station and satellite/spacecraft in space, the purpose of the space mission is lost, and it can also lead to catastrophic dangers. Communicating from space involves more than pointing a ‘ ‘spacecraft’s antenna at the Earth to receive transmissions from the spacecraft. Network engineers carefully plan communications between ground stations and missions, ensuring that antennas are ready to receive data as spacecraft pass overhead.
Various technologies such as radio waves and microwaves are used to establish proper communication between the two entities. Currently, NASA’s communication capability is mainly based on radiofrequency technology that can support our spacecraft to the fringes of the solar system and beyond.
Moving forward, the challenge is to increase current data rates- 300 Mbps in LEO to about 6 Mbps at Mars. It is necessary to support numerous missions for space science, Earth science, and exploration of the universe. Technologies such as optical communications, RF, including antennas and ground-based Earth stations, surface networks, cognitive networks, access links, reprogrammable communications systems, advanced antenna technology, transmit array concepts, and communications in support of launch services are very important to the future of exploration and science activities of the space agencies.
In the past few decades, the space industry has been witnessing various initiatives by space organizations and governments across the world. The space industry is currently driven by a series of missions, which are utilizing resources to create value and benefit society globally in terms of understanding, exploring, researching, managing, and utilizing space. Currently, the space industry includes the collection of critical technologies such as communication, remote sensing, and global positioning satellites. Space activities were a government-dominated sector; however, the initiatives from both the government and the private sectors are expanding the opportunities for various nations to develop cutting-edge space technologies.