After decades of not much happening with humans in space, or at least it has been a bit quiet, things are getting quite exciting again (watch the video below while reading).
As you might expect, the real progress is happening close to home.
For a start, SpaceX has been given the green light to transport humans – to and from the ISS. This is likely to increase space traffic somewhat.
The problem with increasing space traffic is the junk it leaves behind, not to mention the obstacles that hundreds of satellites being put into orbit by Elon Musk, the Chinese and Russians create. The problem with space junk, like the junk on Earth, is that it will destroy the environment and if it falls out of the sky, it could cause some serious damage here on Earth.
The good news is that, like the junk on Earth, once commercial companies see a way forward, then things begin to move. And, yes, there is a company that believes that it can collect the junk and turn it into materials for space stations. The company, Nanoracks is keen on the defunct upper stages of rockets as being suitable for building habitats in space. And next May they are hitching a ride on a SpaceX mission to grab some and see if they can build things while in orbit.
Meanwhile, on the moon, it turns out that the Chinese planted a plant and it has grown two leaves, which is pretty extraordinary given the lack of, well, anything except moon soil.
Given all this coming together, it is beginning to look as if we will be buzzing about our space backyard pretty soon, building things on the moon, building a bigger, better International Space Station (which is now due to be decommissioned in 2028) and generally laying the groundwork for an economy in space. Nokia recently won the contract to build a 4G network on the moon.
All of which is fine. It increases the area in which we can make a mess and leave our rubbish lying about – but what then?
It turns out that the nine-year-long study of our galaxy by the people at NASA and Seti have some good if slightly scary news. There may be as many as 300 million habitable planets in the galaxy, 30 of which are in our galactic backyard – within 30 light-years.
30 light years would seem to put a dampener on getting out there to say hello but what we don’t know is the true potential of building rockets and spacecraft – or anything – in space. Already the ISS is working with a microbe that can mine precious metals in space and we know we can grab stuff off asteroids, which may contain elements that we simply do not know about but which could provide a step-change in the exploration of space. None of that tricky mucking about with gravity, for a start.
All of this may still feel a bit slow – although it really isn’t when you consider what is being achieved – but there definitely a feeling of something quite extraordinary coming together and with the extra impetus from commercial players, it almost seems that we are on the brink of a next big phase in our exploration of space.