The space race is on – but not between countries

by Peter Griffin / 13 March, 2018

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The launch of SpaceX Falcon Heavy: capable of carrying 63 tonnes. Photo/Getty Images

In the next 10 years, some of our biggest innovations will happen off the planet.

Somewhere in the solar system, a red convertible sports car is orbiting the sun, with a spacesuit-clad mannequin in the driver’s seat and the words “don’t panic” etched on the dashboard. On a different orbit sails Humanity Star, a shiny satellite that will blink ostentatiously across the night sky for nine months until it is sucked back to Earth, burning up in our atmosphere.

Both are absurd expressions of ego. But we can forgive Elon Musk for ejecting his Tesla Roadster into space and Kiwi Peter Beck for his giant disco ball because of what they have achieved.

For the first time in my lifetime, the space race is really on, not between countries but between companies vying to launch constellations of microsatellites, mine asteroids for precious metals and send humans back to the moon and on to Mars. In the next decade, some of the biggest feats of innovation will happen off the planet.

Last month, local start-up Rocket Lab successfully released small satellites into orbit with its Electron rocket blasting off from a launchpad on Hawke’s Bay’s Mahia Peninsula – the first time this has been done from New Zealand.

Last week, the largest rocket in the world, the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, took off from the same Cape Canaveral pad that Nasa used to send three astronauts to the moon nearly 50 years ago.

The rockets are at opposite ends of the scale when it comes to physical design but together signal major advances for life on Earth and the prospects of manned space exploration.

Elon Musk. Photo/Getty Images

Rocket Lab’s rockets are ideal for getting small satellites into space quickly and at relatively low cost. Its target market is the growing number of companies wanting to develop constellations of microsatellites around Earth to look back at the planet as well as gaze out at the universe.

The ones focused on Earth can supply high-quality images of the planet’s surface in real time, use sensors to measure soil moisture and weather fluctuations and form broadband networks to send data around the world.

Spire, the Glasgow-based company that had two satellites launched into orbit from the Electron rocket, is a good example of what can be done in space on a modest budget. Spire began with a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign in 2012 that raised US$117,000, allowing it to develop and launch a CubeSat.

By piggybacking on other rocket launches and having its CubeSats deployed from the International Space Station, the company has created a network of about 40 satellites that gather meteorological data and monitor shipping traffic by tracking their GPS signals.

For the first time, New Zealand companies and our research institutions can afford to launch their own satellites, rather than having to rely on others for data on everything from climatic conditions to earthquakes. That’s the exciting promise and is the reason the Government set up the Centre for Space Science Technology, based in Alexandra.

Musk’s ambitions are more elaborate – and more expensive. A Falcon Heavy launch costs US$90 million, but he claims it can carry about 63,000kg of cargo “direct to Pluto and beyond”.

The most impressive aspect of the Falcon Heavy launch was seeing the two side rocket boosters that thrust it into space gently touch back down on the launchpad. These huge boosters can now be refurbished and reused, reducing the cost of subsequent launches and the amount of space junk falling back to Earth.

Musk wants to send astronauts into low Earth orbit in the SpaceX Dragon craft by the end of 2018. Then it will be the moon and eventually Mars.

A new generation of companies deserve the rewards of their risk-taking. But at the same time, the commercial space race needs to avoid the monopolistic tendencies that our big tech companies have displayed on Earth.

A moonshot for the rich and powerful only is about as useful as a sports car in space.

This article was first published in the February 24, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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