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Space has fascinated human’s imagination for long. Since the launch of the first artificial satellite Sputnik,in 1957 by the erstwhile USSR, significant progress towards developing technologies for conducting multiple activities in space has taken place. Presently, human beings are trying to reach new heights up into the outer space and are found attempting to reveal the mysteries of the universe.Various countries in the world are investing in space programmes to explore multiple scientific, technological, industrial and security benefits. The key focus of such investments has been to gain socio-economic returns. These technologies are found mainly being used for the purposes of education, weather forecasting, telemedicine, and environmental monitoring and agriculture assistance.

 

In the 21st century, the development of advanced and innovative space technologies has become critical for humanities’ future growth. Developments are found taking place in all areas related to space technologies: ground infrastructure, satellites, sensors and rockets. The broad approach has been to evolve technologies, which could assist developments in science, improve upon the existing services of communication, navigation, weather and climate monitoring, remote sensing etc. Also, states have been found keen to explore and understand the Earth and the solar system. With space tourism becoming a reality, a significant amount of effort has been found to be made by a few towards development of more effective, affordable, andsustainable technologies.

 

The 1991 Gulf War has made many countries aware about the military relevance of space technologies. Using space technologies for navigation, communication and reconnaissance purposes, both during peacetime and wartime, has acquired global acceptance and is not found in violation of any international legal regime. This ‘militarisation of space’ is demanding developments/up-gradation in technologies in various areas. States have been found to invest inthe development of spy satellites of various shapes and sizes and for multiple functions. InJanuary 2007, China conducted an anti-satellite test (ASAT) by using a kinetic kill vehicle technology to kill their aging satellite. This Chinese act was unethical and has ended up creating a significant amount of debris in the outer space (and adding to the existing debris). This idea of using technologies to intentionally hamper satellite operations amounts to ‘weaponisation of space’. It has also increased the possibilities of states opting for putting weapons in the space. All this is leading to engaging scientific community for the purposes of designing and developing technologies for counter-space purposes.

 

The Chelyabinsk meteor hit which occurred on 15 February 2013 has raised concerns about asteroids hitting the Earth in the future. This near-Earth asteroid had entered the Earth’s atmosphere over the Russian region and had created significant amount of damage and injured approximately 15,000 people. It has been estimated to have caused over US$30 million in damages. Naturally, states are keen to device methods to address such challenges in the future.

 

Today, various developments and investments in space technologies are needed to be viewed on the above backdrop. Presently, the focus of technology development appears to be varied owing to the nature of challenges. Broadly, it could be argued that the technology focus is multipronged, from rocket technologies to adapting various developments in other technological fields. The focus is both on finding hardware as well as software solutions. States like the US, France, Russia and Japan are also found engaging the private industry significantly towards the efforts of conducting research and development.

 

Rocket technology is one area where there is a continuous focus to upgrade the existing launch vehicles. In the recent past India has succeeded inthe development of cryogenic engines. However, present Indian capability is restricted only to put 2 tonnes of payload into the geostationary orbit. Currently, investments are being made to upgrade this technology. Also, a private company called Space-X has demonstrated their capabilities to undertake a satellite launch in the geo orbit. Other major players like Arian Space, etc. are also in the process of upgrading their launch systems. Russia is keen to develop a launcher which could lift around 100 tonnes of payload in a single launch to the low earth orbit. They want to undertake such launches for the purpose of developing future space stations. In regard to space-station developments, China has also been found testing various techniques and technologies. Their investments are primarily in the arena of mechanical and automatic docking systems, development of mechanical arms etc.

 

Currently, the focus of human stay in space is being debated at two levels. One is to stay on the space-stations (which are in Low Earth Orbits, around 400km above the Erath) and other is more about futuristic human visits (and stay) on Moon and Mars (the distances are 4 lakh km and much beyond that). It may be noted that the region beyond the 1 lakh km altitude above the Earth’s surface is known as deep-space region. The scientific community is currently engagedin developing technologies (and upgrading the existing ones) to make human visits to deep space possible. The one-way human travel to Mars would require approximately 300 days and the two-way travel would take almost double of that. For human substance aimed at such visits, various efforts are being made to develop technologies involving multiple aspects from food to sanitation technologies. A few scientific groups have also been found working on issues related to growing of vegetables on Moon/Mars keeping in view the possibility of human colonization of these regions in the future. Also, robotic vehicles are being developed for providing logistic supply to the missions undertaken in deep-space.

 

The biggest challenge to undertake any space mission either robotic or human is the weight factor; more the weight more the challenges. Launching equipment into space is an expensive business and it approximately costs $10,000 to lift around half a kg of weight into the orbit. Hence, there has always been an effort to find ways to reduce the overall weight for any mission and for this purpose the scientific community is working on various smart materials. Also, smart materials are required for various space missions particularly for the planetary missions to withstand high radiation and corrosive environments and varying pressures ranges. Nanotechnology also plays an important role to reduce the mass and size of the spacecraft and payloads. This technology has various utilities and it is relevant for materials and sensor development and also developing more efficient solar cells and even lightweight spacesuits for human use.

 

Sensors are the heart of any satellite. Particularly, in case of remote sensing satellites, constant effort exists to improve on this technology. It is important to have sensors that are capable of collecting accurate Earth observations in all-weather conductions both during day and night. Also, they should be able to provide exact information in varying terrain features (deserts, forestsand snow peaks). For some years now, technologies like synthetic aperture radar (SAR) are found to be put in use for such purposes and further research is in progress in this area. Also, it is expected that states must be developing specific sensor technologies for the purpose of use in spy satellites. Robotics is another technology which is finding significant amount of utility is various space related activities.Understating the necessity of satellite assistance for disaster management, specific satellites are being developed for such purposes and also for constant monitoring of various climate and topographic futures. Commutations and radar technologies are making significant progress in various activities related to space from ground infrastructure to deep space communications.

 

Space tourism has already become a reality to a certain extent and presently few private players are found to be making significant investments to take this idea of tourism to the next level. For this purpose, spacecraftfor carrying passengers are being developed essentially to provide the experience of weightlessness. Also, space ports are being developed for undertaking such missions. Innovative technologies are alsobeing developed to cater for futuristic space hotels.

 

Space debris is a ‘curse’ for various operational satellite systems and further increase in space debris is expected to increase the probability of accidental collisions in space. Presently, significant amount of efforts are being directed towards resolving this problem. Such efforts include various fanciful ideas (like space net, space lasso, etc.) on the one hand and development of satellite hardening technologies on the other. Space based solar power is another area where research is being undertaken to check the feasibility of such an idea as an answer to resolve the current energy crises and also few prototypes are getting developed for experimentation.

 

Small satellites are expected to be the future of the satellite business and various state and private players are found to be working on various related technologies. Near-space systems include blimps, aerostats, high altitude balloons, etc. and are expected to provide limited alternative to the actual satellites. Such systems are found under the process of research and development.

 

There is a limited knowledge available about the development of military related technologies by the states (for obvious reasons). However, apart from spy satellites where the efforts are focused towards upgrading the systems meant for gathering signals, electronic, communication and imagery based intelligence, there is also some work being carried out in respect of spy planes, counter-space capabilities like kinetic kill technologies, ground and space based jamming, etc.

 

Over a period of time significant amount of technological developments have been witnessed in the space arena; however the human race has major space ambitions and is even keen to colonize other planets. All this demands more investments for the future in the arena of space technologies. All in all it could be argued that the importance of space technologies for the purposes of national and economic security is found to be increasing day by day and would continue to increase in the future.

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.