Traffic Jams on Mars, Space Cops, and the Future of Deep Space Travel

May 30, 2017
Chad Anderson
Kelsey Tollefson
May 30, 2017
Chad Anderson
Kelsey Tollefson
Executive Editor
John Lenker

Recent years have witnessed a flurry of economic activity and interest in deep space travel. As visions of private cislunar space stations begin to take shape, an unprecedented number of countries and commercial ventures—like Space Angels-funded Astrobotic—are preparing to visit the Moon. Other ventures and agencies are developing the technology we’ll need to reach Mars, while still others—like Space Angels-funded Planetary Resources—are targeting asteroids. Each of these deep space destinations—the cislunar region, the Moon itself, near-Earth asteroids, and Mars—represents an intriguing new market opportunity for today’s space industry. While many of these upcoming missions are in the pursuit of scientific knowledge and exploration, a significant portion of planned missions have commercial interests in mind.

Commercial companies have accelerated the timeline for fascinating deep space missions, which are now likely much closer than many people think. As the space industry looks toward the future, aspects of existing infrastructure—both technological, and legal—must be brought up to speed. In order to support an increase in the volume of spacecraft in deep space regions, current long-distance communications relays must improve. Furthermore, in order for commercial space to reach its full potential, global space legislation must evolve to accommodate this evolving industry’s unique regulatory needs.

An increasing number of missions to deep space destinations will test existing space infrastructure.

Image credit: Cislunar Next

Cislunar space—that is, the region between the Earth and the Moon—is considered by some to be a “proving ground” for further deep space missions. Technology destined for deeper space missions will undergo extensive testing in the cislunar region before advancing to other areas of strategic interest. These regions include the surface of the moon itself, near-Earth asteroids, and—ultimately—Mars.

Related reading: Cold Surface, Hot Market - Commercial Lunar Gaining Traction

At face value, commercial companies are using cislunar space and other proving ground arenas in order to demonstrate the viability of their proprietary technologies and services. In February of this year, SpaceX announced that they are planning to fly two private astronauts around the Moon as early as late 2018. This first private deep space mission will launch after SpaceX has proven their crew-rated Dragon 2 spacecraft by shuttling astronauts to the International Space Station. For their part, government agencies like NASA currently view the cislunar region as an ideal trial environment for long-term life off-planet; a destination simultaneously near enough in the event of emergency, and remote enough to provide their astronauts a realistic approximation of life in more distant orbits.

The fact is, a human presence in deep space is fast approaching. As a preliminary step towards this monumental goal, a host of robotic missions will launch towards Mars in July of 2020. Rovers from NASA and the European Space Agency; landers from SpaceX and the Chinese National Space Administration; orbiting spacecraft from Indian and Japanese agencies—these payloads and more are preparing for their long flights to the Red Planet.

When these missions approach Mars in the fall of 2020, SpaceX’s (possible) pair of Red Dragon landers will perform a particularly closely-watched arrival. Red Dragon will be the largest lander to touch down on the Martian surface, and will employ a clever “supersonic retro-propulsion” technique to ensure a smooth landing. If successful, Red Dragon’s heavy-load landing capabilities will be highly encouraging for future cargo—and crew—missions to Mars.

Image credit: NASA / Image of Mars taken by Hubble Telescope, 2016.

As we anticipate this exciting next step in space exploration, it’s worth noting that when this Martian pilgrimage occurs in the fall of 2020, the planets will quite literally align. We’re not being overly dramatic: Every couple of years (approximately 26 months), Mars and the Earth reach a point in their respective orbits such that the distance between the two is significantly reduced (otherwise known as “opposition”). As the two planets make their separate ways around the sun, the distance between Mars and the Earth varies immensely—from about 35 million miles, to nearly 250 million miles separating the two celestial bodies. In October of 2020, Mars will be at its closest point to Earth in two years—just under 36 million miles away. In order to intercept the Red Planet near this convenient orbit, missions will launch in July and head towards Mars’ anticipated position.

This opposition period is an opportunity for ambitious parties to get their spacecraft to Martian territory for as little fuel—and money—as possible. It also saves time in transit: Spacecraft launched at the appropriate point in orbit can reach Mars in a quarter of the time it would take at other points in the cycle. Given the limited information on effects of long duration space travel, coupled with the dangers of long-term exposure to cosmic radiation, this reduction in flight time is of vital importance.

The complicated nature of planetary orbits also creates a limited window of opportunity for those who would visit Mars. If a piece of technology isn’t ready to go, or if something goes wrong, the launch window closes fast. At this point in the development of commercial space (and deeper space exploration in a broader sense), failing to launch during 2020’s Mars opposition will mean an extra two years of downtime before it’s reasonable to try again.

As NASA’s Deep Space Network nears capacity, the need for new communications infrastructure becomes more urgent.  

Image credit: NASA / JPL

As a vehicle travels into deep space, a core concern for operators is maintaining a secure, reliable, high-speed line of communication between the craft and ground control. It is this crucial connection which enables command and control of the spacecraft, in order to get the technology where it’s intended to go.

NASA’s Deep Space Network, or DSN, is the agency’s current solution for ultra-long-distance radio communications. By building three ground stations at equidistant points around the globe, NASA is able to ensure that their space-bound assets are in constant contact with ground control. The DSN currently facilitates communications between the Earth and dozens of spacecraft, including probes as far-flung as Cassini (currently orbiting Saturn, and perfecting a tricky dive maneuver through the planet’s icy rings). The DSN provides data relay for NASA and non-NASA missions alike—although ESA, Roscosmos, JAXA, China, and ISRO all operate their own versions of the deep space communications network.

The DSN has, until now, been able to manage the volume of data it relays from in-space assets. However, as the number of deep-space missions is projected to increase in the years ahead, the DSN’s capabilities will be put to the test. Multiple rovers operating on the Martian surface will need to transmit an unprecedented volume of tracking and telemetry data back to Earth. The data relay must also be capable of handling simultaneous two-way communication between a growing number of international ground stations and their respective Martian rovers.

In order to support in-space “trade routes” and commercial space activities, government agencies like NASA are developing solutions to enhance a key component of existing in-space infrastructure: deep space communications relays. A prime example of a cooperative solution is the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), a spacecraft launched in partnership between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Roscosmos. NASA added their own technology to the international effort, and incorporated two Electra Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) radios into the TGO. The new radio transmitters represent double the throughput capacity of MRO’s current radio relay link. A successful test relay of data from Mars rovers Opportunity and Curiosity was announced in late November 2016.

While additional UHF radios in orbit around Mars will be welcome capacity for data throughput, it doesn’t answer lingering issues of transmission prioritization. Because they are the only deep space communication service available to US-based space companies, access to NASA’s DSN is prioritized to government-funded missions, or missions of national interest (as determined by NASA). What’s more, this access is expensive. Emerging commercial deep space companies, therefore, find themselves saddled with unsustainable communications costs, or worse—with no real plans for how they will communicate with their spacecraft during high-stakes long-distance missions.

The fact remains that NASA has multiple long-distance scientific endeavors underway, and the DSN can only transmit so much data. Looking ahead, as load demands rise in tandem with the needs of commercial ventures, how will this new influx of spacecraft access reliable, low-cost communications relays in deep space?

A reasonable way to address the growing needs of the commercial space industry is to look to that very industry to develop solutions. In order to truly expand into deep space, commercial companies must develop viable, efficient satellite relay alternatives to the DSN or other state-run communication networks. This particular service represents a high value (and underserved) component of critical infrastructure within the space industry—and as such, is the subject of major interest among startups and forward-thinking space investors.

Space legislation is adapting to support a growing off-Earth economy.

Image credit: US Senate Commerce Committee

If an in-space economy is going to succeed in the long term, and on a grand scale, there will need to be a modern, measured legal framework in place to support its development. Current international space law is based on the a document called Outer Space Treaty, or the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. This venerable global agreement was written in 1967, during the height of the Apollo era—and hasn’t been updated since. Since the dawn of the entrepreneurial space age in the late ‘00s, it has become increasingly clear that the guidelines put in place fifty years ago will not be sufficient during this next stage of space exploration.

The first step towards a modern legal framework for commercial spacewas taken in October 2004, with the passage of the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act.This piece of legislation set the stage for advances in private space tourism, and enabled the conception of the Ansari X-Prize. This is widely considered a key milestone; one which marks the advent of today’s entrepreneurial space industry.

The next major shift in American space policy came in November 2015, when President Obama signed congressional bill H.R.2662 into law. The Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA) provides commercial space ventures with stable industry regulations—and encourages private sector investment in space companies. Article four of the CSLCA, the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015,  is especially important for space mining outfits like Space Angels-funded venture Planetary Resources. This article enables commercial ventures to profit from the resources they recover in space (in accordance with existing terrestrial trade laws).

Promisingly, plans are in motion to continue bringing space law into the modern age. In the spring of 2017, the U.S. Senate Space Subcommittee reaffirmed federal-level commitment to advancing industry interests by announcing a series of hearings, dedicated to evaluating the current state of the American space industry. The first two hearings, discussing domestic regulatory barriers and the impact of international agreements, took place in April and May respectively (the third hearing, which will be devoted to the merits of public-private partnerships, is forthcoming). At the most recent hearing on May 23rd, private space executives and legal experts offered their take on the value of the Outer Space Treaty—with many arguing that commercial space ventures may be better served by enacting new laws and regulations, rather than making changes to the original document.

The CSLCA is considered a major step towards allowing private property rights off-planet. Other nations have taken notice of the United States’ new legal stance on space, and have incorporated similar articles into their domestic legislation. In November of 2016, Luxembourg adopted the Draft Law on the Exploration and Use of Space Resources. Given the nation’s interest in developing space mining as an industry, this move is, perhaps, unsurprising. The United Arab Emirates has also incorporated commercial space activities into its new national space policy, a move which the UAE hopes will provide a “stable and sustainable environment” for its emerging space companies.

Related reading: Asteroid Prospects III - In Pursuit of a Thriving Space Economy

Once the laws themselves are agreed upon, the next challenge lies in enforcing them. After all, coordinating the police force of a single city is complicated enough—establishing an off-planet constabulary is a different matter entirely.  Who will enforce these new laws? The answer will likely to be an Earth-based governing body—with international representation—using various scanning and monitoring technologies to keep orbits safe, clean, and secure.

The United States Air Force has already taken steps to ensure they are able to track the movements of other objects in orbit. The USAF has been developing a Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP), which uses a network of high-tech surveillance satellites to relay data on the size, location, and trajectory of spacecraft in geosynchronous orbits. The GSSAP satellites are able to navigate to and monitor other satellites, and can even perform on-orbit “wellness checks”: In the summer of 2016, the USAF sent a GSSAP satellite to “check on a Navy communications satellite” that had malfunctioned on its way to orbit—not unlike a Coast Guard vessel responding to a drifting ship at sea. The GSSAP currently has four satellites active in geosynchronous orbit, with two additional units on order with Orbital ATK.

The notion of a global, unified space regulatory body is ambitious, to be sure. But the gears are already in motion. As agencies and private companies prepare to demonstrate their deep-space technologies in the various proving grounds between our Earth and Mars, prudent governments are evaluating their established legal frameworks regulating in-space activities. The legal precedents that will soon be set in cislunar space may one day impact the economic development of Mars, by providing a framework for the way space commerce is conducted—and the avenues by which economic interests are protected in an entirely new environment.

Current infrastructure must be modernized in order to support large-scale sustainable growth.

Image credit: SpaceX

Over the next few years, we will witness a monumental shift within the space industry towards deep space travel and commercial spaceflight. As an unprecedented number of players prepare to take flight, the legal framework regulating in-space activities must be evaluated. While individual nations––most notably, the United States, Luxembourg, and the United Arab Emirates––have adopted legislation designed to enable commercial activities in space, global legislation is still several decades out of date. In order to foster a truly sustainable off-planet economy, we will need new standards to preserve and support this next frontier of human activity.

In order to support the anticipated increase in spacefaring vessels, the infrastructure facilitating deep space communications must also be improved. As NASA and other agencies look for ways to bolster their existing deep space communications relays, commercial companies may be in the best position to provide a viable solution. Early-stage investors will be watching closely to see whether innovative space startups move to take advantage of this major opportunity.

There’s never been a more exciting time to get involved in commercial space. If you’re ready to start investing in private space companies, we invite you to apply for membership to Space Angels.

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