Experts will tell you that the 2020s are set to be the dawn of the second great spacefaring age of humankind. Since the experimental flights of the 20th Century and the lapse in public interest and political will that subsequently left space scientists struggling to keep going, technology has come a long way, and now there’s a big push forward into the era of advanced orbital laboratories, space tourism and commercial exploitation of Lunar resources and asteroids.
This means that a lot more space vehicles are being built and space station designs constructed, with several different companies involved. There are a lot of different ideas out there, but certain technologies are vital to all of them.
Critical to the success of any space venture is the power system used. Earth-to-orbit vehicles are increasingly moving away from heavily polluting early technologies towards variants on conventional jet fuel, as improved efficiency helps them to overcome the effects of gravity more easily.
Once in space, however, there are really only two options.
Space stations and vehicles that only need to move slowly primarily use solar arrays to generate power. Without an atmosphere in the way, these work more efficiently than they do on Earth, and improved battery technology is adding to their usefulness.
Smaller units, like satellites, tend to use nuclear fuel, as do those which need to cover long distances at reasonable speeds, such as asteroid interceptors and those being designed for Lunar missions.
Every spacecraft that carries human beings needs to be able to maintain a breathable atmosphere. This requires CO2 scrubbers to recycle air so that it can be made breathable again, and filters to remove toxins and, to the best extent possible, preserve sterile conditions.
This process needs to be adaptable to take into account changes in the number of people on board and the presence of any animals or plants, often present for scientific purposes.
With thinkers like Dylan Taylor, the CEO of Voyager Space Holdings, increasingly keen to put civilians in orbit and perhaps even take them to the Moon, the focus is now on comfort and freshness as well as the basics of survival.
Life would not be possible in space – and many instruments would cease to function – without adequate radiation shielding.
This is, by nature, bulky and heavy so adds to the challenges of getting into orbit, whether it’s used on the vehicle that carries it there or is being supplied for the purposes of shielding craft built in space.
At present, the best available technology is still considered by many to be inadequate for the purposes of long haul space flights, such as journeys to and from Mars, but work is continually underway to develop better solutions.
In order to ensure that all of the above function properly and are adequately maintained over time, spacecraft need excellent monitoring software connected to sensor arrays with significant back-up capacity inbuilt.
Whereas most spacecraft computer systems need to be modular in order to ensure that problems with one don’t trigger problems in another, monitoring software needs to be able to identify issues in every part of the vessel, making automatic adjustments where appropriate and alerting humans when more complex work is needed.
Although space is vast, there is a lot of debris orbiting the Earth today and this means that every spacecraft can expect to incur minor damage at some point.
With rescue very difficult to achieve, vehicles need autonomous self-repair systems and, where they are crewed, the necessary support to enable humans to make repairs.
This includes equipment for spacewalks, once treated as an emergency measure, but now having become much safer, a routine part of maintaining craft intended to be in use over the long term.
On a state of the art spacecraft with technologies like those discussed above, you might expect only the very latest communications equipment to be present, but you’d be wrong.
While up to date communications technologies are used, and it’s now commonplace to see astronauts sending videos to the internet or talking live to classes of schoolchildren from orbit, every craft also retains analog communications equipment.
This is because analog signals degrade gracefully and travel better, making them much more reliable in the event of something going wrong. In a precarious environment, it’s often the simplest technologies that save lives.
New technologies are being developed all the time to make traveling in space safer, more comfortable and more affordable, and to help it meet the changing demands of commercial operation and the scientific missions that lie ahead.
Some variant on the above technologies will always be needed, however, and it’s where we can improve in these areas that we can really make leaps towards the big goals of establishing off-world colonies and exploring our solar system.