Tech Track: Commercial opportunities in space set for blast-off
JOHANNESBURG - There are three interesting pieces of news related to space, one far and two nearby.
In 1977 two spacecraft were launched to examine the outer planets, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. They did their tasks successfully, but kept travelling away.
They have now been speeding through space for 43 years. They both left our Solar System and are now racing through interstellar space, going in different directions. When they left the Solar System they were both able to send back the interesting news that there is actually a boundary at the edge of our Sun’s influence.
They effectively passed a “wall” into interstellar space, and have been continuously sending back information, much to the delight of the scientists who never expected the craft to last so long. They are travelling at such a high speed that they cover the distance from Pretoria to Cape Town in 1.5 minutes.
Voyager 2 is travelling in such a “southerly” direction that the only radio dish on Earth that can reach it is near Canberra in Australia. Voyager 1 is now 22 billion kilometres away, and Voyager 2 is 19 billion kilometres away, with distances increasing rapidly.
Both spacecraft still have power, because they are nuclear-powered, but the nuclear source is expected to run out within five years.
It was not expected that the spacecraft would keep operating beyond the edge of the Solar System, but amazingly they did. They also each have less on-board computing power than a smartphone, so it shows how technology has advanced on Earth during their long journey.
In contrast, a piece of “nearby” news is that the orbiting Starlink satellite internet network has been opened to the public to act as Beta Testers. In the past few days the amazing download speed of 160 Megabits per second (Mbps) has been reported. When SpaceX launched the Beta Test on October 26, Elon Musk kept expectations low and said that for starters there would be a “better than nothing” speed of between 50 and 150 Mbps.
The Starlink system was able to become operational for testing as soon as 800 satellites had been launched. But the initial target is to launch 12 000 satellites. So passing the 800 mark is just the first stage of a much larger dream.
This type of internet connection to anywhere on the planet, is going to offer business a range of opportunities which have not yet been fully appreciated. Just like with the Voyager spacecraft, in years to come people will say: “Who would have imagined that the Starlink connection would lead to this.”
The other “nearby” space news is that the next SpaceX crewed launch is targeted to take place on Saturday. It is called Crew-1, and will carry four astronauts to the International Space Station, three men and a woman.
Out of the main public eye all sorts of commercial enterprises are being considered for space, and for the Moon and Mars. These range from mining, to taking advantage of the vacuum of space as well as the sterile conditions.
With recent discoveries that there is more water on the Moon and on Mars than was previously thought, the prospects for permanent manned bases have improved dramatically, so who knows what the commercialisation of space, the Moon and Mars will bring.
Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and is the chief executive of Stratek Business Strategy Consultants