Last month, the field of space exploration saw new advancements with the launch of two privately-funded space flights, Virgin Galactic Unity 22 and Blue Origin NS-16. Several Rutgers professors discussed this recent progression of the aerospace industry and the commercialization of space exploration as a whole.
“I think the fact that we have the private sector going to space is important because they have … jump-started the exploration again … They’re developing technologies that are going to be very useful for us and they are also setting up standards,” said Assimina Pelegri, a professor and undergraduate director in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. “All of this buzz that is happening right now helps the long-term exploration that we seek for the humankind.”
Haym Benaroya, a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, said the commercialization of space exploration has allowed for technological advancements to develop more efficiently since company profits can be used to progress the research of governmental institutions such as NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense.
He said new space exploration technologies have advanced the field of science as a whole by exploring how humans can survive in the conditions of outer space. These advancements include examining lunar bases on the moon and developing them to have people live there semi-permanently or permanently.
Laurent Burlion, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, discussed other technological developments, stating that most of them are based on autonomous control technology. He said these advancements will call for new sensors, data decision-making processes and a control algorithm to be developed.
Benaroya said that regular and successful launches conducted by companies will allow for more private companies to confidently put their resources into creating equipment that can be used for space explorations.
“Having more launches without major accidents also means that the insurance will come down a lot, making access to space less expensive,” Benaroya said. “Say a company puts a satellite into orbit, they’d like to know that if something goes wrong with the satellite, they can send up replacement parts, or they can send up astronauts to repair it.”
Burlion said that he was fascinated that both the Virgin Galactic Unity 22 and Blue Origin NS-16 launches were conducted in the same month after years of research and development. Similarities in both launches included offering a few minutes in space and microgravity, which appealed to the tourism aspect of the privatization of space exploration, he said.
In addition to advancements, the professors also discussed several risks involved with the increased commercialization of space exploration. Burlion said the main risk at hand is for humans to be able to travel safely through space.
Pelegri said that radiation exposure, for example, was an identifiable risk when it came to humans traveling in space in existing suborbital space stations. She also said that as humans travel to space, they would need to be respectful of the limited resources that are available there.
As for future explorations, Pelegri said that energy sustainability was a technological development that would need to be taken into consideration. She also said that much of these advancements toward sustainability in outer space could be applied to improving sustainability and the preservation of resources such as food and water on Earth, as well.
“One of the things that, for example, NASA is looking at right now, is thermonuclear power because you need to be able to power up, get out of the atmosphere and then have sustainable energy,” she said. “We cannot really use the chemical propulsion that we’re using right now. We have to find something that is more sustainable.”