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Exploring beyond horizons – Why should we travel to space?

Early on, humans started to venture into the unknown in search of new lands, resources or simply to satisfy their curiosity. These explorations started with discovering new continents and mapping uncharted territory. The flight evolution continued, when the Wright brothers were able to fly the world’s first motor-operated airplane in 1903. Later, in 194 Werner von Braun launched the V-2 rocket, which became the first artificial object to travel to space and popularized the idea of human space travel. In the current day and age, the desire for exploration has taken us beyond our planet’s orbit. The age-old questions “Are we alone? What else is out there?” has fascinated society for centuries. Humanity has been able to venture into space since October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched the satellite Sputnik to orbit Earth. The first earthly being to orbit our planet was the terrier mutt Laika in November 1957, which paved the way for space exploration.

The environmental conditions in space are obviously very different from Earth. The astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) exist in a state of microgravity, which enables scientists pioneering exploration into subjects like biology, physiology, fluid physics and combustion, material science, fundamental physics, and astrobiology under circumstances that cannot be replicated on earth. Some of these studies are expected to lead to significant innovations in the area of combustion and the understanding of different substances that can be used to enable new ways of low-pollution combustion for power plants, aircraft, improved crude oil recovery, and innovative air and water purification techniques. Moreover, due to minimal gravity, bones react differently in space and controlled experiments can be fast-tracked to research diseases like osteoporosis and muscle atrophy or general topics like nutrition and aging. Space research has the potential to significantly improve the development of advanced medical instruments. Furthermore, astronauts on the ISS also monitor the planet’s overall health, given their unique perspective beyond NASA’s satellite capabilities. The ISS gathers images and data to monitor the evolution of land masses, ecosystem changes, and population migration patterns. Their observations of water cycles and air quality help inform environmental research and climate science. Due to their unique perspective, the orbital images collected help to track major storms, fires, and other extreme weather events and natural disasters.

As the world’s population and industrialization have been rapidly growing within the last century,  resources like metals and ores on Earth have been declining drastically. Many people think that space mining can be a solution to this problem. Space mining describes the extraction of substances from asteroids or planets. It is estimated that there is at least 700$ billion worth of mineral wealth in the asteroid belt alone. Commercial extractions of these resources would not only bring the world a second gold rush, but extraterrestrial mining could enable the production of new technology and relieve the environmental and social damage surrounding mining processes on Earth. Ten years ago, space mining saw its first big boom. NASA founded asteroid-mining research, and the Colorado School of Mines even offered an asteroid-mining degree program. Back then, space mining seemed like a feasible money-making opportunity, enabled by the ‘SPACE Act’ from 2015. This bill was the first space resources law that allowed American companies all rights to extract bounty from celestial bodies. This sparked the creation of multiple private space-mining startups supported by big investors and even countries. Apart from that, countries like Japan and Scotland announced their own asteroid mining laws and investments. Following this initial boom, the businesses failed to convince investors to continue long-term funding as there could not be a real customer base for space mining in the following years. However, in the last two years, the space mining industry has become much more feasible than before. Due to improved technology, falling costs, and increased push from the private sector, some experts belief we can expect the biggest resource rush in history in the next decade. In 2020, NASA engaged in contracts that enable four companies to extract small amounts of lunar regolith by 2024. However, despite the current advancements, there are still substantial economic and geopolitical boundaries that hinder this process. 

So far, we have just talked about space exploration near Earth and the ISS in an area that has often been referred to as “near space” (in the lunar vicinity). Translunar space describes the vast expanse of space beyond the Earth-Moon system. Currently, the planet of interest is Mars, but why do we spend so many resources and efforts to breach into translunar space and other planets? Generally, explorations outside the Earth’s geomagnetic field belong to the territory of deep-space operations, which aims to explore potential threats to humankind and possible alternatives for living outside of Earth. Currently, NASA is working on an approach that allows human crews to live and work for extended time on Mars to become gradually independent from Earth. By sending humans to Mars, we hope to gain deeper knowledge about the geological evolution of Mars to develop research methods that can be applied to Earth. Due to current environmental crises and natural disasters, it is not too hard to imagine that the Earth will not be habitable forever. At one point, humankind will not be able to exist on Earth any longer, and the question is if we will be able to find an alternative until then. The challenge of learning how to live on a different planet is relevant for every nation around the world. It has the potential to create opportunities for collaboration around the common interest of survival and the preservation of humankind.

 According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), one of the primary goals of space exploration is to explore and challenge the boundaries and limits of science and technology. To be able to provide astronauts and cosmonauts with the necessary equipment to enable safe space travel, significant amounts of government funding have flown into the development of various technologies. The use of these technologies benefits more than just space exploration. We can thank space programs for GPS, accurate weather predictions, solar cells, ultraviolet filters in sunglasses, and much more. These developments have all fed back into the economy and greatly benefited life on Earth. To enable safe interplanetary travel, scientists are working on advanced bio-medical systems, medical devices supporting astronaut health, state-of-the-art robotics, and much more. As previously stated, in a couple of years, these innovations can likely be adapted with established technologies to be used commercially here on Earth. These technologies can foster the emergence of new industries, generating high-tech jobs and providing new opportunities for innovations and investments to improve the global economy. 

In conclusion, in upcoming years, deep-space travel will continue to encourage creative ways to address challenges, and the resulting applications will deliver unimaginable benefits and improvements to our daily lives. Ongoing advancements and explorations into deep space will foster innovation and give us a deeper understanding of our universe.


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