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World Space Week 2021 - 7 Points to Understand

Updated: Feb 8, 2022

Since 1999, at the initiative of the United Nations General Assembly, World Space Week has been held from 4 to 10 October, defined as "an international celebration of science and technology and their contribution to improving the human condition". This year the theme of the event is the role of women in the space sector.

The start and end dates of the World Week were chosen based on two important events in the history of Space: the launch of the first man-made Earth satellite, Sputnik 1 (4 October 1957) and the entry into force of the Outer Space Treaty (10 October 1967) regulating the exploration and use of celestial bodies.

Our Research Centre, through its analysts, wants to give a contribution focused on the prospects of space exploration (from new lunar missions to space tourism, passing through mining on celestial bodies) and its consequences (space debris, first of all). Enjoy!

1. To the Moon and beyond: Mars is waiting for us


Moon, 384 thousand km average distance from Earth. Mars, 54.6 million km (minimum distance). Today, ambitious missions such as the Artemis Program promise to lay the foundations for human presence in these two celestial bodies so far away, starting with our satellite. Starting with the release of scientific materials via missions without human personnel, we will later see missions with astronauts helping to create refueling stations that use the ice on the surface and in regolith, of which the Moon is completely covered. 3D printing and exploitation of in situ resources will be essential to ensure the success and expansion of the first outposts (here the various phases of the Artemis Program).

Once a self-sustaining base is established on the Moon, it will be much more feasible to launch manned missions to Red Planet, which is still too far away for economically viable missions as large as Artemis. The next decade is sure to be very exciting!

2. Towards the ocean of stars: space tourism

turismo spaziale

Since entrepreneur Dennis Tito paid $20 million for an 8-day stay at the International Space Station in 2001, the space tourism industry has advanced greatly. The idea of being able to get close, albeit imperceptibly, to the ocean of stars above us sends a shiver down the spine of virtually anyone. In order to make it economically accessible to those who are not eccentric super billionaires (see the DearMoon mission undertaken by the first space tourist travelling around the Moon, the Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa), work is already underway to build reusable rockets, such as SpaceX's Falcon 9 (only the first module) or Blue Origin's New Sheperd, which can only perform suborbital flights. Another aspect to take into account will be the cost of staying in space, from life support to food or wifi. NASA has recently reopened the ISS to the idea of having paying guests; the cost, however, would amount (all inclusive) to about $ 35,000 per day. Companies, such as Bigelow Aerospace, have already sprung up, aiming to simplify the structure of the orbiting stations by providing inflatable modules less complicated to manage than the ISS.

The main question remains: how long will space tourism remain reserved for the super rich?

3. The Fourth Domain Gold Rush: Space Mining

space mining_estrazione_terre rare

Of the 83 stable, non-radioactive elements in the periodic table, at least 70 are found in the phone you're probably reading this article from. About 60 different types of metals go into the average cell phone, with so-called rare earth elements playing a particularly important role, with as many as 16 being used out of the 17 that exist.

Technological advancement comes at an increasingly unsustainable cost to humanity, to the point that a future in which we will extract the resources useful for advancement no longer from the Earth, but from the Moon and asteroids in the NEO (Near Earth Objects) category, is becoming increasingly likely.

The new gold rush of the fourth environment will engage both states and individuals, but the main challenge for the world will be to ensure equal access to space resources, and to bring such an abundance of resources into global markets without further widening the growing social and economic gap.

4. Impresa ed Europa: le start-up nel settore spaziale


Although space is, historically, a sector reserved for States, space agencies and - recently - for big corporations, the path seems to be paved also for startups. Specifically, European start-ups in the tech sectors are increasingly numerous and increasingly funded by investors. The space sector is no exception, thanks both to a great deal of trust on the part of the private sector and to the fundamental support of the European Space Agency (ESA). The European Commission's CASSINI project envisages an investment of one billion euros in the sector, added to the initiatives of HORIZON 2020 and other European mechanisms. The new ESA Business Incubation Centers now have over 300 start-ups in their incubators, with a new one to be opened in Turin; while the Italian programme, the Primo Space venture capital fund, supported by ASI and the government, is to invest 58 million euros in Italian start-ups. Globally, more than €500 million is being invested by private individuals in European space start-ups in 2020, according to ESPI. We can count among the most illustrious examples D-Orbit, "made in Italy", which aims to optimize both the costs and the environmental impact of the launch of satellites, and Relativity Space, Relativity Space, which promises to make the first launch of a rocket created entirely with 3D printing.

5. National Space Programmes: what future?

Space Agencies

In the history of space exploration, the thinking of the average person always goes towards the 'Big Programme', i.e. the long project with a well-defined goal that brings important results. The Apollo Programme comes to mind first, but also the Shuttle and Mercury Programmes, or the Soviet Sputnik, Vostok and Energy Programmes.

The exponential increase in development costs and the decrease in displaced state funds have halted this trend, therefore National Agencies have started to focus on smaller projects, relying more and more on the private sector. In terms of resources, funds, and human personnel deployed in the space sector, we can only place the United States in first place. A key role for Europe is played by the ESA and the European Union (space programme 2021-2027), which have only recently been rationalising their work (e.g. Agenda 2025).

Out of 72 globally existing space agencies, only 18 have the capacity to launch their own rockets. In the immediate future, we can expect to see programs such as Artemis, a springboard for future private partnerships, with the intermediate goal of turning the Moon into a commercial and logistic supply hub, with immense economic potential. Fruit of international agreements in which Italy is also part, it is only the first of potential future similar projects; the final goal is to make the Moon a fully operational base to start missions to Mars and, above all, to drastically reduce the costs of space missions. Despite the birth of the Artemis Programme and the expansion of Chinese space programmes such as Tiangong, it is doubtful that the development model of the space sector will return to the past. However, the involvement of the private sector will allow a more flexible development of technologies and means, capable of adapting to multiple needs and missions.

6. Italy and Space

Selfie of Luca Parmitano, the first Italian in command of the International Space Station

Italy has always been a respectable space power, among the most important members of ESA and with its own national space agency, ASI; however, is going through a period of governance reform in the sector. Despite the naturally limited economic means of not being a major power, our Country has many strategic industries and experience in the space field: we Italians are skilled engineers, and we have brought to shine among the stars our flag, printed on modules that will be used during the Artemis Program, as well as the drill - built by Leonardo and until recently exhibited at the National Museum of Science in Milan - that will be used in the Exomars mission, operational from 2022. In addition, our relationship as a member of the European Union and ESA will allow us to expand our know-how in the field of telecommunications, geolocation and important European space exploration programmes. Meanwhile, the expansion of our national satellite programmes continues, thanks to collaboration with our Armed Forces.

The economic return of every euro invested in the sector, according to a joint study by ASI and the Department of Economics of the University of Roma Tre, is 11 euros. The fact that space is now a sector with wide opportunities for profitability is undoubted, it remains to be seen who and to what extent, in our country, will be willing to invest in it, and how this will change our economy, our university studies, our habits and our ambitions, in addition to the view we can enjoy looking at celestial bodies that do not contain - for now - any human trace.

7. Space and Sustainability: Space debris

Like all human activities, the space industry leaves traces of its passage. With space debris, specifically, we mean everything orbiting the Earth, created by man and no longer useful to him, from old satellites in disuse, to small fragments that dart at very high speeds risking to damage - succeeding, sometimes - even orbiting objects still operational (at this link, constantly updated, the figures provided by the Space Debris Office). These objects or parts of them wander through space uncontrolled at extremely high speeds (up to 25,000 km/h). In Low Earth Orbit (LEO), where there are many civil satellites, debris moves at a speed of between 8 and 10 km/s. Objects of less than one centimetre can cause extensive damage, those of 10 cm have the capacity to render a satellite inoperative.

In addition to the economic damages that this phenomenon causes, the environmental ones are not to be underestimated; if we don't act in time, there could come a time when the debris are so many that it would be no longer possible to leave the planet. There is no shortage of discussions and theories on mechanisms for recovery and disposal of debris, as well as more and more innovative technologies that minimize the future emission of space debris. Even the space, although it seems distant and immense, has its own balance, and if we want to succeed in the venture of being an interplanetary species, even the space industry must be made sustainable.


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