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Space Exploration in the era of Privatisation

  • IASbaba
  • December 7, 2020
  • 0
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S&T/ INTERNATIONAL/ ECONOMY

Topic: General Studies 2,3:

  • Science and Technology- developments and their applications and effects in everyday life. 
  • Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors
  • Indian Economy and issues relating to planning, mobilization, of resources

Space Exploration in the era of Privatisation

Context: The most stunning instance of a collaboration between public enterprises and the private sector in recent times is that between NASA and SpaceX.

Recent achievements by Space X

  • The launch of the Crew Dragon spacecraft  which carried to the International Space Station four astronauts.
  • The launch of 60 more Starlink Internet relay satellites into the orbit. The total number of such satellites sent up by the company equals 955. These, and thousands more like these, are designed for the purpose of providing broadband services to people anywhere on Earth.

Structural changes that are reshaping the global space activity.

  • Through the second half of the 20th century, outer space was the sole preserve of national space programmes driven by government-funding, direction and management
  • As military uses of space and prestige projects like Moon-landing emerged, major private sector entities already in the aviation industry won space contracts in the US but under overall guidance & control of NASA & Pentagon
  • The last decades of the 20th century saw significant expansion of satellite-based telecommunication, navigation, broadcasting and mapping, and lent a significant commercial dimension to the space sector. 
  • As a result, private sector companies (Ex: Space X) started playing major role in the sector like independent Space launches. Hired for a resupply mission for the space station, Space X now launches more rockets every year than NASA
  • The entry of private sector has begun to drive down the cost-per-launch through innovations such as reusable rockets.
  • As the digital revolution in the 21st century transformed the world economy, the commercial space sector has begun to grow in leaps and bounds. 
  • The global space business is now estimated to be around $ 400 billion and is expected easily rise to at least trillion dollars by 2040. This has made private sector participation attractive and inevitable.

What does the commercialisation of the space sector mean in practical terms?

  • Space Sector Revolutionized: With its reusable rockets, large capsules to carry payloads and crew and competitive pricing, SpaceX has revolutionised the space sector. 
  • Technology has brought down the Cost: The price tag for reaching low Earth orbit has declined by a factor of 20 in a decade. NASA’s space shuttle cost about $54,500 per kg; now, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 advertises a cost of $2,720 per kg. 
  • Increased Market: According to a Bank of America Report, the $350 billion space market today will touch $2.7 trillion by 2050.  In a decade, 80,000 such satellites could be in space compared to less than 3,000 at present
  • Telecom Revolution: The aim of Starlink exercise is to provide Internet services that link any point on Earth to any other point. Targeting coverage in northern U.S. and Canada by end of 2020, the aim is to have the globe covered by 2021. This will be the new telecom revolution then, in the context of India, reaching out to rural areas as never before.

What is the picture in India?

  • Shift in Focus of ISRO: There has also been a shift from a mandated focus on utilitarian projects to those focused on exploring space and our planetary neighbours, the Moon, the Sun and so on. 
  • Increasing role of Private Players: As a result of shift in ISRO’s focus, we have seen the yielding of governmental control over the space industry bit by bit, starting from hiring of vendors and active outsourcing of rocket components to the present idea of allowing external agencies to use ISRO facilities. 

Would curiosity-driven science survive in the era of privatisation?

  • The cargo version of Dragon-2 spacecraft is the upgraded version of Dragon. It is a reusable spacecraft capable of returning significant cargo to the Earth from the International Space Station.
  • At least in the case of its launch, planned for December 5, it seems that curiosity-driven science would not only survive, but would rather be enhanced. 
  • This spacecraft is not just carrying payloads for scientific experiments, but is also sporting a new commercially owned and operated ‘airlock’. 
  • An airlock is like a doorway, and the new Nanoracks Bishop Airlock Module, built by a Texas-based company, Nanoracks LLC, is an improvement over what was used earlier. 
  • New Airlock will allow larger payloads to move in and out of the spacecraft, considerably expanding the scope of experiment design and structure.
  • This mission also carries interesting experiments, one of which is a mixture of meteorite samples and microbes, aimed at seeing how the microbes can be used for biomining on asteroids. Another experiment aims at studying how changes in gravity can affect cardiovascular tissue
  • So, while there is room for curiosity-driven science, there is also the aspect of utility in the event of more humans travelling to space.

Connecting the dots:

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