technology

Is the billionaires’ space race worth it?


This mission feels oriented to promote tourism of some kind, rather than scientific information (Picture: Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Earlier this month, Richard Branson blasted off to near space.

Today, it’s Jeff Bezos’s turn to take flight in the New Shepard capsule taking off from his base in the Texan desert

This mission is the first of his Blue Origins company with astronauts onboard; it will take them vertically up to an altitude above 100km before the capsule then descends on parachutes to the ground.

All in all, taking approximately 11 minutes. 

It requires no pilot and includes large windows allowing the passengers to view outside and see below: the Earth, its curvature appearing and the darkening sky. 

The crew includes Jeff Bezos himself, his brother Mark, Wally Funk – a pioneering female aviator and, at 82, soon to become the oldest person to fly into space – as well as 18-year-old physics student Oliver Daemon: an interesting gathering of individuals, underlining that this mission is oriented to promote tourism of some kind, rather than scientific information.

As an astronomer, scientist and life-long science fiction fan, I’m feeling that such an extensive and expensive project should somehow benefit our society, but I really struggle to see that yet. 

With Branson’s Virgin Galactic Unity 22 reaching near space and New Shepard set to enter space, this has been dubbed by some as a ‘space race’, carried out this time by billionaires instead of countries and their trained astronauts. 

But the term ‘space race’ doesn’t capture it, really. Both simply take passengers to extreme altitudes for a brief moment, for them to then safely return to Earth, knocking at the door of space rather than stepping in to stay. 

There is a need for far more robust legislation to manage the space environment (Picture: PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

It is indeed a much grander task to enter into a stable orbit around Earth. So, at the moment, this remains a jumping competition to touch space by both Branson and Bezos.

If they actually entered into orbit, this would allow them to work for a prolonged time in microgravity, place satellites and eventually build space stations. All things that would introduce more scientific as well as commercial potential.

But today’s voyage is a rather expensive jump indeed, given the rather steep fees to pay for such an experience, with Virgin Galactic already stating prices to be more than $250,000 and Blue Origin’s New Shepard seats having been auctioned off for $28million in June. So we will need to hold our breath as this is not really an option for our next summer holiday plans. 

Also, the space experience itself is rather brief if at all present. It includes roughly a few minutes of weightlessness, better described as microgravity. Rather something experienced through freefall rather than being only marginally influenced by Earth’s gravitational pull. 

That said, why not see such weightlessness at home for the price of £0? Stack a few books on top of each other with a long very thin strip of paper in between them and just a bit poking out at the side. 

It’s tricky if not impossible to pull the paper out without ripping it. That’s gravity pushing the heavy books down. 

Now keep hold of that strip of paper and push the books off the table. After the crash of books, you’ll note that you are holding the paper in your hand without a tear to be seen. You have just witnessed weightlessness through freefall for free.

But I digress; returning to the above outlined rivals, there is one more: Elon Musk. Since 2012, his SpaceX spacecraft has delivered cargo to and from the International Space Station – then began transporting people to the orbiting laboratory under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program last year.

His Starlink program is well-developed to provide global internet coverage using thousands of low Earth-orbiting small satellites.

And herein, lies my largest concern. This is not so much about a race into space but one where private companies are now pushing into space, making low earth orbit part of our home ever more reachable and affordable. 

And, as with all remote, rather untouched regions, as they become more accessible by humans so do they become more tainted, endangered and require protection. 

We have to be aware of our responsibilities and moral obligation to look after space. The Starlink program has illustrated that there is a substantial need to be more vigilant regarding the impact such missions might have.

We have seen how these satellites were substantially brighter than anticipated, becoming rather an eyesore in the sky with huge trails moving across the sky already. Imagine how astronomers will struggle to avoid negative impacts upon their work.

Then you have to imagine the swarm of low-cost satellites. If they are not functioning to a high enough quality and are not responsibly deorbited when damaged, that will pose a substantial danger for other missions in space by increasing space junk.

But even healthy satellites in these amounts might be prone to collisions, as illustrated in September 2019 with an European Space Agency (ESA) satellite having to alter orbit to avoid a Starlink satellite after it reportedly declined to carry out orbital changes, according to Holger Krag, who heads ESA’s Space Debris Office.

Space X later said that this was due to a bug in their paging system, which prevented them from being alerted to the heightened risk of collision and thus working with ESA to fix it.

There is a need for far more robust legislation to manage the space environment.

Be it ensuring the security of already established satellites, the guarantee of responsibly deorbiting missions, the safety of people on the ground, limiting environmental impacts of the missions but also the realisation that whatever happens in these low earth orbits affect all of us on Earth by scarring the dark night sky that we so cherish.

I am an astronomer and excited observer of all things space, especially supporting the need for human space missions. So I’ll be tuning into Bezos’s first journey, dreaming where this might lead to, though not saving up for a ticket yet.

But I remain sceptical regarding the ventures to the edge of space we are seeing currently and their future benefits.

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing jess.austin@metro.co.uk

Share your views in the comments below.


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