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The Implications of Space Technology

Written by TKS Boston student, Amelia Settembre.

Space… the final frontier.

For years upon years, mankind has stared up at the stars and wondered “what’s next?”

Now, we’re closer than ever to an answer. As we prepare to send humans into the vacuum known as ‘space’, there’s much we have to first understand about what’s out there, and what technology we’re developing to work with it.

Overview of Current Space Technologies:

Since space is so vast, we’ve been exploring it for years, and there’s still so much we don’t even understand yet. Despite this, here’s a rundown of the last 50 or so years working with space.

  • We’ve got satellites. These have come a long way since Russia first launched Sputnik in 1957. It lasted three weeks with batteries, then orbited for two more months before crashing back into the earth. These days, satellites can last anywhere from 5–15 years. Now, satellites have both commercial uses and government uses.

  • The International Space Station. By having a place to run tests in a microgravity environment, we have the ability to understand the properties of space and its effects on technology and humans. This has proven quite beneficial to us, seeing as we can use the data to be more successful during missions.

  • Humans in space. After sending people up to the ISS and launching them to the moon, scientists are starting to think broader and contemplate how far we can actually send humans. Right now, their bet’s on Mars, but who knows how far we’ll actually get in the future!
  • The Hubble Space Telescope. The Hubble telescope has been in space since 1990. Back then, it was the largest payload ever launched into space. Different from a telescope on Earth, Hubble has a much clearer view of deep space, allowing scientists to take better images of galaxies.
  • Most importantly, we have rockets. One of the most invaluable technologies we’ve got, without rockets, we’d have no way to leave the atmosphere. Rockets are fuel-powered devices attached to the spacecraft that accelerate it enough to escape Earth’s gravity and atmosphere.

That’s just a quick overview of what we’re doing, but in order to fully understand the depth of what we’re working with, we still have to understand what’s out there and where we fit into all of it.

What Is Space And What’s In It?

Space. Just the word sounds pretty vast, and to scientists, it equates to a whole lot of unknowns and variables. First of all, let’s start with a run-down of some of the more basic celestial bodies you can locate in space.

  • Planets. These vary drastically from each other, something which we can even see in our own universe. From gas giants to rocky, terrestrial worlds to ice giants, there are many different varieties of planets. The further out you get from our sun (or any star, for that matter), the less dense the planets are. We’re closer to the sun, leaving us on a rocky, terrestrial world. Earth is also considered a “goldilocks planet”, or a planet existing within the habitable zone of a star.
  • Stars. Despite how giant it feels to us, our beloved sun isn’t even close to the size other stars are. It’s a yellow dwarf. However, our galaxy is home to pulsars, red giants, neutron stars, and many more. Black holes, to some extent, are also considered to fall into the category of star, even though very little is still understood about them.

  • Asteroids. One of the most mind-boggling ideas with asteroids is their possibility to contain large deposits of valuable minerals (such as gold, platinum, or titanium), meaning we could greatly profit from asteroid mining. In fact, depending on how quickly space technology advances, it’s not impossible that mining asteroids would become a huge part of commercial advancement in our society.
  • Black holes. Although these could be considered stars, they fit better in their own category. Black holes are formed from stars that have burned through all of their fuel (i.e. hydrogen, helium, etc), and have collapsed down into a black hole. The main problem with black holes is that they tend to suck everything towards them, except for certain parts of the hole that “blow” the other celestial bodies away from the black hole (no one actually understands why this happens). Scientists can’t fully understand the black hole yet because of something called the event horizon, or a point which you can’t see past or track past on the black hole. Additionally, it’s theorized that black holes are the prominent center of most galaxies.

This obviously isn’t everything, but it’s enough to get started. Our solar system is a part of the Milky Way galaxy. While we mostly consider ourselves to be pretty close to the center of the galaxy, we’re really not. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth.

The Milky Way galaxy is a spiral galaxy, meaning it has a center and then “arms” that come off and curve around the center of the galaxy in a spiral shape. Our solar system is located on the edge of one of these arms, and we’re still working to understand why our galaxy hasn’t flown off the edge of the Milky Way just yet.

Another property of space to understand is the shape. What’s the shape of the universe? Since the universe is constantly expanding, there is no definite shape. However, the closest thing we’re going to get is the shape of the space-time continuum.

The biggest running theory is space-time being completely two-dimensional. Our perception of a three-dimensional might just be that, a perception, but we still have yet to understand why we see the world as three dimensional if we only exist in two-dimensional space.

Gravity (another important part of understanding the universe) would be pictured as a “dent” in space-time. Now, since objects with a greater mass have a greater gravity, they’ll also make larger dents in the space-time continuum. The real kicker here is actually black holes, a still very debated subject. You see, black holes are so dense that they have an innumerable mass, leaving us with a ginormous dent in space-time.

However, the idea of a flat space-time can also support worm-hole theories. It allows space-time to fold in on itself, meaning that where it touches there’s a seamless flow from one section of the universe to another section, or what we know as wormholes.

Despite this, there’s another theory of a spherical universe. However, much is still developing about this theory, mostly because it would throw off a lot of the going understanding of how our universe works.

Ignoring  the physics, this is essentially how the universe could possibly be shaped.

So to break it down: Space is the vacuum that extends between stars and planets.

Space And String Theory

So we’ve got ‘space’ down to a definition of a couple of words, but it’s a lot more complicated than just that. Astrophysics has relations with many other fields of science, but there’s one that always throws it for the loop. Quanta. The notorious quanta.

Quanta and astrophysics just don’t agree. This is because of the physics quanta adheres to its own set of laws, ones completely different from the physics the rest of scientific fields follow. We call the laws of quanta ‘quantum physics’.

“If [quantum theory] is correct, it signifies the end of physics as a science” — Albert Einstein

Einstein was drastically opposed to any idea at all of quantum physics, simply because the idea that physics had two different sets of laws drove him crazy.

It’s not like that for all scientists, though, and many called ‘string theorists’ spend their time trying to prove any connection at all between quanta and regular physics. There hasn’t been any success just yet, but scientists are still working hard to try and prove the relevance of string theory to the known universe.

So what does this have to do with space technology?

Well, to understand our future in the space field, we’re going to have to gain a greater understanding of our universe, and what the properties of space are. We’ll never understand it all, but before we can move past a certain point in our development, we’re going to have to make connections that we haven’t before. But enough about the future implications, let’s work with what we’ve got, starting with what gets us into space.

How Rockets Work

Rockets were invented way back when by the Chinese, who started using them around 1230 during war with the Mongols. They referred to these rockets as ‘arrows of flying fire’, and during the battle of Kai-Keng, they unleashed these terrifying weapons on their unsuspecting enemies. This would be the first official use of solid-propellent rockets in our world.

So flash-forwards a little less than 800 years, and we’re here in the present day, using rockets to launch men into space, propel satellites quickly into orbit and across our solar systems, and much, much more.

There are two different types of fuel that rockets use: either liquid fuel or solid fuel. Both are used in contemporary rockets, and different space associations have different preferences on which they like to use.

A rocket works with storing the fuel in a cylinder along with an oxidizer. Liquid fuel rockets also feature a pump in the inside, and both have combustion chambers from which hot gases shoot out of in exhaust.

Here’s a step-by-step process of what happens to get a rocket into the air (both fuel types).

  1. For a liquid fuel, the process starts off with the pump combining the oxidizer and the fuel. For the solid fuel, the heat starts to be added.
  2. Both fuels travel towards the combustion chamber, where very powerful chemical reactions occur.
  3. After this, hot gases shoot out the other end, the exhaust propelling the rocket forwards.

If the launch is successful, the rocket is airborne, but if the launch is unsuccessful, the scientists on the ground have to be prepared for that outcome. Since the technology is still being perfected, failed launches still occur, but we’re starting to lower that number.

Sticking with the rocket boosters, SpaceX has started to work on boosters that land the rocket, carefully bringing it back down to the ground to land and launch again. These “reusable boosters” use similar processes to push down on the ground as the craft is landing, allowing for a more gentle landing process.

How Satellites Work

Satellite. That’s a pretty common word. They’re responsible for our internet, for our communications, and for gathering data of other planets. That’s a lot. But how exactly do they work?

Well, satellites mainly use radio waves for sending the information. When used orbiting the Earth, satellites are pretty efficient, but when gathering data from other planets, it takes much longer.

  • It takes around 21 minutes to get information from Mars
  • Usually, 5 hours to hear back from our satellite on Pluto
  • And the one that just crossed the threshold of our solar system takes the better part of the day

By no means are satellites perfect. They work by sending radio waves from an antenna on the satellite to a dish receiver on the other side, which picks up the messages and sends them to a computer in an understandable format. Satellites have had many different purposes over the years, going from communications to data receiving to spying.

To that end, there’s even a type of sensor that can be hooked up to a satellite that scans for different amounts of metals on planets. The data is interpreted by spikes in the readings, which demonstrate the amount of a particular metal on the planet’s surface.

This may prove to be especially useful for commercial asteroid mining in the future since being able to scan asteroids for amounts of metals would increase the productivity potential mining tenfold.

Another problem we have with satellites is that the radio waves can be obstructed by asteroids or planets or even dust clouds (to some extent). So because we can’t have direct communications and we use radio waves, it’s still pretty easy to block messages from either being transmitted or received. We still have a ways to go, but technology is still evolving pretty quickly.

A Chinese company built a quantum satellite dubbed ‘Micius’ and launched it in 2016. This satellite was designed to orbit 1.200 kilometres above the surface of the Earth, using entangled qubits to send messages very quickly from the satellite to the Earth’s surface. Better yet, no obstructions could block the transmission because of the entangled nature of the particles. Of course, we’re still moving forwards in the field, and Micius is by no means the be-all-end-all for our future with satellites.

Humans In Space

So that’s how some of the actual technology works, but what do we need to sustain humans in space safely?

Well, as humans, we have requirements that we don’t even think of necessarily. What first comes to mind is food, shelter, water, and maybe air. Of course, we still require these in space, but there’s a whole lot more that we require in outer space. Here are two main problems we face when sending humans into space.

  • Gravity. Without gravity, human bone mass decreases drastically. When returning to Earth after extended periods of time in space, astronauts have to work hard to strengthen their muscles and sometimes even have to learn to walk again due to loss of bone density. In space, humans are subjected to large amounts of exercise in order to stay fit. Additionally, we’re developing the idea of artificial gravity by creating a rotating spacecraft.
  • Magnetosphere. What else is in space? Cosmic rays. These are waves of heat that shoot off of our sun and surrounding stars. However, they have adverse effects on humans. So what does this have to do with our magnetosphere? Well, our magnetic field blocks the rays from coming and frying our earth. In space, though, there isn’t a magnetosphere blocking us from the harmful rays, so we’re subjected to all kinds of harmful radiation. As of now, we use strong and dense metals to block out the majority of the radiation, but months in space would still leave us with large amounts of radiation.

As of now, there’s still a lot we don’t know, and still solutions we haven’t developed, but we’re working. So at some point, humans may have solutions to these problems, but we’ll always still be working and innovating.

TL;DR: Takeaways

  • Some of our current technologies in the space field are satellites, rockets, deep-space telescopes, and the international space station.
  • There’s a lot of celestial bodies in space, but the most basic of these include planets, stars, asteroids, and black holes.
  • Space is essentially the vacuum that extends between stars and planets.
  • One of the main scientific problems is making the connection between quanta and the physics of our known universe. So far, this hasn’t been accomplished.
  • Humans in space go up against the loss of not only food, water, air, and shelter, but also gravity and our magnetosphere.

In short: there’s still so much we don’t understand about the universe, and we’ll never give up the search to learn and comprehend our universe. In the immortal words of Gene Cernan,

“Curiosity is the essence of our existence”

We won’t give up our endeavours because these endeavours make us who we are. We’re humans.