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New Space Race Underway to Exploit Skies for Commercial Profit

Tech giants and startups pursuing bold plans such as selling space tourism, mining asteroids and beaming giant adverts

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Space, Commercial, Profit
A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket carrying a communication satellite lifts off from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., April 11, 2019. VOA

Half a century after astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon, a new space race is underway to exploit the skies for commercial profit.

Tech giants and startups pursuing bold plans such as selling space tourism, mining asteroids and beaming giant adverts into the skies are winning millions in investment with pledges to bring the stars into reach.

Annual revenues from space-related business, currently worth $350 billion, could nearly triple in size by 2040, estimates U.S. investment bank Morgan Stanley.

But the rapid growth of a market with seemingly boundless potential has sparked concerns about a lack of laws and potential conflicts over resources, prompting calls for more rules to govern humanity’s use of the cosmos.

Space, Commercial, Profit
Indian Space Research Organization’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle MkIII-M1 at its launch pad in Sriharikota, an island off India’s south-eastern coast, July 2019. VOA

“By 2040 (we believe) there will be 1,000 people living and working on the moon and 10,000 annual visitors,” said Aaron Sorenson, a spokesman from the Japanese lunar exploration startup ispace.

“Our company vision is to extend human presence into outer space. We believe that begins with the expansion of the earth’s economy to the moon,” he said.

Drops in launch costs brought about by technological advances such as the development of commercial reusable rockets have caught the interest of startups and investors.

Super-rich businesspeople including Tesla chief executive Elon Musk and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos who want to colonize space to support human life are pouring cash into cutting-edge private spacecraft.

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In addition, a resurgence in national space programs of countries such as India, which this week launched a rocket aiming to get a rover on the moon, as well as the United States and China could provide a source of funding for businesses.

Grand ambitions

Space hotels, cosmic business insurance, celestial advertising billboards, and in-space manufacturing are among the businesses being explored by firms hoping that technology will open up new horizons amid a boom of commercial space activity.

“I think very soon you are going to see major, traditional nonspace businesses taking notice,” said Sorenson, whose company is working to develop a high-frequency shuttle between earth and the moon.

Space, Commercial, Profit
Half a century after astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon, a new space race is underway to exploit the skies for commercial profit. Pixabay

Aerospace companies such as Musk’s SpaceX and Bezos’ Blue Origin are aiming to become the first private firm to launch a human into space.

A handful of firms have also been exploring the potential of mining asteroids for minerals and resources, a business that for now remains in the realm of science fiction but which space companies think could be possible in a decade or two.

Governments are positioning to take advantage of these new markets even before they become a reality.

The United States and Luxembourg have both passed legislation aiming to allow property rights on planets and create regulations to permit space mining, with Russia indicating earlier this year that it may follow suit.

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But it is doubtful whether some of the more futuristic firms have yet established a clear business model, said Ian Christensen from the Secure World Foundation, a space advocacy group.

Cluttered skies?

The rush of speculation in space has also revealed gaps in the international laws and treaties governing its use and sparked calls for greater oversight.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, with more than 100 nations party to the agreement, provides the main framework for space law, and says no nation can claim ownership of outer space and it must be free for use by all countries.

“In those days everybody thought that space was basically for a few states, for military purposes,” said Frans von der Dunk, a professor of space law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Nobody really foresaw the commercial development which we have seen since. So in that sense a lot needs to be clarified.”

Key questions include whether companies can claim ownership over space minerals, according to von der Dunk. If so, how should countries divide up access rights to ensure the spoils are shared fairly?

There is also debate about how to deal with the growing amount of “space junk” hurtling around the earth, such as broken satellites and spent rocket parts, which can cause serious damage to spacecraft.

“If it goes on like this then maybe 10 or 20 years from now it will be nearly impossible to conduct safe space operations because there’s so much junk floating around,” said von der Dunk.

Another worry is that plans by companies like Amazon and SpaceX to launch thousands of satellites will jam space with yet more clutter and increase the risk of collisions, said Christopher Newman, a space law and policy expert from Britain’s Northumbria University.

Clarifying the rules of doing business in space could benefit commercial operators by offering them stability and clearer costs and risks, say legal experts.

But the likelihood of world powers agreeing to any major new international space treaties or a body to referee disputes between nations are slim, Newman said.

He added that treaties that give away sovereignty are “out of fashion.”

Until a clearer picture emerges of the future of space infrastructure, he said, space players will continue to enjoy a degree of “anarchy.”

“Space is congested, competitive and contested … and it’s only going to get worse as the technology, orbital population and access to space all increase,” he said. (VOA)

Next Story

Robot Equipped with Emotion-Sensing Heads to International Space Station

Emotion-sensing Robot Heads to Space Station to Help Astronauts

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Robot
Bret Greenstein, IBM Global Vice President of Watson Internet of Things Offerings, holds a clone of an artificial intelligence bot named CIMON, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. VOA

An intelligent robot equipped with emotion-sensing voice detectors was headed to the International Space Station after launching from Florida on Thursday, becoming the latest artificial intelligence-powered astronaut workmate in orbit.

The Crew Interactive Mobile Companion 2, or CIMON 2, is a spherical droid with microphones, cameras and a slew of software to enable emotion recognition.

The droid was among 5,700 pounds (2,585 kg) of supplies and experiments aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, whose midday launch had been delayed from Wednesday because of high winds.

Create a companion

“The overall goal is to really create a true companion. The relationship between an astronaut and CIMON is really important,” Matthias Biniok, the lead architect for CIMON 2, told Reuters. “It’s trying to understand if the astronaut is sad, is he angry, joyful and so on.”

Based on algorithms built by information technology giant IBM Corp and data from CIMON 1, a nearly identical prototype that launched in 2018, CIMON 2 will be more sociable with crew members. It will test technologies that could prove crucial for future crewed missions in deep space, where long-term isolation and communication lags to Earth pose risks to astronauts’ mental health.

Robot companion
The overall goal of creating this robot is to create a true companion. (Representational Image). Lifetime Stock

While designed to help astronauts conduct scientific experiments, the English-speaking robot is also being trained to help mitigate groupthink — a behavioral phenomenon in which isolated groups of humans can be driven to make irrational decisions.

“Group-thinking is really dangerous,” Biniok said. In times of conflict or disagreement among astronauts, one of CIMON’s most important purposes would be to serve as “an objective outsider that you can talk to if you’re alone, or could actually help let the group collaborate again,” he said.

Inspired by Professor Simon, HAL

Engineers have said CIMON’s concept was inspired by a 1940s science fiction comic series set in space, where a sentient, brain-shaped robot named Professor Simon mentors an astronaut named Captain Future. CIMON 2 also parallels HAL, the sentient computer in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” film.

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SpaceX is the first private company to fly to the space station, a $100 billion project of 15 nations. Along with CIMON 2, the cargo aboard its 19th resupply mission to the orbital research lab included 40 live mice that will show scientists how muscles change in the microgravity of space. (VOA)