When Space Goes Small

Space tech startups are pushing us a little closer to the final frontier.

AsianScientist (July 17, 2017) – Out in deep space, a massive colony spaceship is being built. But it will never serve its intended purpose. To avert a catastrophe that could imperil humanity’s very existence, a band of renegades has commandeered it for an emergency mission to a far-off location.

This is the situation midway through the second season of The Expanse, a television series that takes its space technology very seriously. Instead of the giant vessel simply going on its way, we actually get a glimpse of the fictional technology used to reorient it along its new trajectory.

A flotilla of ‘tugs’—tiny remote-controlled robots—swarm out of the main station and latch onto the behemoth, maneuvering it precisely into position through the sheer strength of their number. As the launch sequence begins, they detach and, job done, swoop back to home base in graceful formation. It’s a scene that is completely non-essential to the plot, but yet remains etched in my memory.

In the vision of the future presented in The Expanse, robot swarms, Mars colonies, interplanetary travel, asteroid mining and artificial gravity are just a few of the marvels that science and technology have made routine. Get to the end and you can’t help but wonder: will reality ever catch up?

The democratization of space

Space buffs, there is reason to be optimistic.

“A few years ago, people didn’t see space as an industry where startups could play the game; now that is changing,” said Mr Nobu Okada, founder and CEO of Singapore-based startup Astroscale.

Okada was speaking at ARISE, an artificial intelligence (AI)-themed event organized by SGInnovate, which I attended in May.

While the final frontier used to be the domain of national space agencies, advances in fields such as AI, the Internet of Things (IoT), and satellite technology have dramatically lowered entry barriers for smaller players, he added.

Singapore, for example, doesn’t have a national space program, but it does have a growing space tech scene that is tackling important problems facing the industry.

Take waste management, for instance. Space desperately needs a janitor—the junkyard of jettisoned rocket stages, old satellites and other assorted bits and pieces orbiting Earth is now large enough that it threatens both manned and unmanned spacecraft.

Astroscale is the only company in the world to take on this rather unglamorous but critical challenge—it’s developing small craft that can capture pieces of debris and take them out of orbit, allowing them to burn up on re-entry.

Talking across the void

If humanity is to traverse the expanse of space, we also need to be able to communicate across it.

Spacecraft now use radio waves to talk to each other and to Earth. But with the need to beam large amounts of data across vast distances, this technology is fast becoming inadequate.

Transcelestial Technologies—another Singapore-based startup—is working on an upgrade: it’s developing a network of satellite-mounted lasers that will be able to transfer data a thousand times faster than radio waves.

“Laser communications is an old scientific concept,” Transcelestial’s co-founder and CEO Mr Rohit Jha told me in an email. “But it’s only in the last two to three years that developments in opto-electronics and silicon photonics have allowed us to build scalable and reliable systems for doing it.”

While space agencies have demonstrated laser communications from big satellites in orbit, this has been an expensive endeavor—to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, said Jha.

Transcelestial transmissions

By contrast, Transcelestial’s laser communication satellites take a leaf from CubeSats (miniature, commercially available satellites), and measure just 30 x 10 x 10 centimeters. They also incorporate off-the-shelf technologies from the fiber-optics, astronomical observation and medical diagnostics industries to achieve faster connection speeds more cheaply, said Jha.

Transcelestial’s first two ‘nano-satellites’ are scheduled to launch in 2019, with the aim of demonstrating laser communications in devices of that size, said Jha. If all goes well, the company plans to scale up to a constellation of 150-200 satellites in low-Earth orbit—a network that will be able to connect any two points on the planet.

And beyond that?

“Our long-term goals involve extending the link from near Earth to deep space, and to provide extremely high-bandwidth connections to upcoming lunar bases, asteroid mining rovers and Mars colonizing efforts,” said Jha.

The expanse, here we come.

This article is from a monthly column called The Bug Report. Click here to see the other articles in this series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Shutterstock.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Shuzhen received a PhD degree from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, USA, where she studied the immune response of mosquito vectors to dengue virus.

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