James Carpenter, Exploration Science & Research Coordinator at the European Space Agency, speaks to Open Access Government about sustainable exploration in space and how this benefits humanity
Open Access Government was honoured to speak with James Carpenter, Exploration Science & Research Coordinator, at the European Space Agency (ESA) to garner his thoughts on sustainable exploration. Here, we discover how exploring new worlds requires taking or finding the resources to keep humans alive in inhospitable places or even better, recycling the available resources indefinitely.
While today’s technology could easily get us back to the Moon, James tells us why it is still expensive to develop the vehicles and take everything needed to support life with us. In this fascinating interview, the passion James has in the field comes across superbly and he reveals why the ESA wants our exploration to be sustainable and based on partnerships. The approach towards space is an effort that takes more than just one country to tackle, we find out.
To set the scene, tell us about sustainable exploration in space
Concerning exploration of the past, when we think about Apollo, one might argue that this is the pinnacle of human exploration to date. That was 50 years ago, and it was extraordinary. It was way ahead of its time and what was done in 10 years is difficult to imagine today. It didn’t last because it was built around a particular set of geopolitical circumstances to address a very specific need. Once that need was met, the novelty and the rationale for continuing were not there.
Thinking about going back to the Moon and exploring beyond that, this should be sustained and continuous, something that provides benefits for all humanity. It can’t just be a novelty and extravagant for its own sake: it needs to have a deeper meaning. Sustainability is about making it affordable, ensuring that it delivers real benefits in economic, political, societal, scientific and inspirational terms for all humanity.
Tell us how exploring new worlds requires taking or finding the resources to keep humans alive in inhospitable places or even better, recycling the available resources indefinitely
To explore sustainably and affordably, we have to start using local resources to meet our needs. We already do this – most spacecraft use solar panels – we harvest a local energy resource to meet a need. Propellent, for example, is the thing you take everywhere and costs a lot of money to transport. If you can create propellant based on local materials, this creates an air of sustainability.
You may need things for life support. Life support is not so much of a driver for this because we’re increasingly moving towards very efficient life support systems and the cost of resupply compared with, for example, propellent in terms of the total mass taken to a place is quite small. Oxygen, for example, is used in propellant and life-support, so there’s a synergy between these things. You can also use local materials to create structures or radiation shielding, thermal shielding or a landing pad, for example.
At ESA, we look at what can be created locally and how this can be done. The most obvious example is to harvest water and from this, create hydrogen and oxygen, which are useful and are rocket fuel. We find water ice at the poles of the Moon. We also find it on Mars. This could be universally applicable around the Solar System by water.
We also look at how to extract useful things from the rocks and minerals found. The surface of the Moon is covered in ground-up powder, powdered rock, Regolith, generated by billions of years of impact onto the surface. This relic, like all minerals, is made up of oxygen combined chemically with different metals. We look at processes taken from terrestrial industries and use those to learn how to take oxygen out of lunar materials, which leaves us with oxygen and metal alloys that can be used to do a 3D print to create materials in the future. Oxygen extraction is something we’re getting pretty good at; however, metal production is something that will happen in the future to make decent quality alloys.
What are your thoughts on PROSPECT?
The Package for Resource Observation and in-Situ Prospecting for Exploration, Commercial exploitation and Transportation (PROSPECT) assesses and accesses potential resources on the Moon and aims to prepare technologies that could be used, in the future, to extract these resources. This will drill beneath the surface at the lunar poles. It will extract water ice, then analyse the chemistry of that to help us work out the abundance, distribution, origins, how that water evolves in the poles and how it might be used responsibly in the future.
A key thing to understand is how to use local materials, where are the opportunities and what will it take to use them? How can we do that responsibly? How can we work in the most efficient way possible using the materials that we have, using recycled, for example? Also, how can local materials be used, extracted and processed to respect the environment? The idea is that there are related lessons to bring back to Earth.
Thank you. While today’s technology could easily get us back to the Moon, why is it still expensive to develop the vehicles and take everything needed to support life with us?
Building vehicles to get into space is expensive, they’re extremely complex and must work. Failure is not an option if people are sitting on the top of a rocket or you’ve got a billion or multi-billion-euro spacecraft. This sits on tonnes of highly explosive material to explode. Doing this in a controlled and careful way that delivers what you need in the way you need, is complex and dangerous. The development of vehicles, new buildings and rocket engines are costly undertakings.
We now see a drive towards reusability, of course, SpaceX has driven that conceptually and in Europe, we’re looking at reusable concepts. That’s one way of bringing down the cost of access, so globally, we see the cost of getting to space reducing. As that happens, we see more and more people using and accessing space. Space will become an increasing part of our economic sphere, and it’s already an integral part of many aspects of our lives. That utilisation of space will expand over the coming years. In exploration, we endeavour to take humanity’s next economic sphere and expand that beyond our near-Earth environments, outwards into the Solar System. In the long-term, that will have enormous benefits for humanity.
Thank you, you’ve talked about exploration being sustainable, but why is it that the ESA wants our exploration to be sustainable and based on partnerships?
Firstly, the ESA has international partnerships at its heart. We are a unique organisation with 22 different countries working together in a coordinated way to build extremely complicated things and fly them into space. ESA operates in multiple countries with different languages and cultures, working together to do extraordinary things. I’m extraordinarily proud of that. Partnerships are a part of who we are concerning space exploration.
Exploration of space is not something that a single country can do alone. Offshore exploration is something that humanity will do. Sending humans out into the Solar System is a species-wide activity. There are enormous benefits from working together, pooling resources, knowledge, expertise and technology. We are much better when we do things together rather than separately. The International Space Station is an extraordinary example of what humanity can do when they work together.
For the last few decades, we’ve had the most complicated machine ever built by humans operating continuously with a crew living and working in space. In my career, space near the Earth has gone from being somewhere we explored to a place we go to work. That is an achievement on a civilizational scale. That’s been done during the last few decades, where Europe, the U.S., Japan, Canada and Russia all work together consistently and peacefully. If we can expand that model of cooperation and take it onward into the Solar System, that gives us hope as a species.
Thanks for the comprehensive response, is there anything you would like to add in closing concerning the ESA emphasis on sustainability?
The use of space resources has been discussed for a very long time. There have been cycles of research and development and big initiatives, especially in the U.S. Now, however, we witness a global move towards exploring space – there’s no one country doing this alone. We see the enormous strides from the U.S. and China, Japan and Europe. New players enter, like India and the United Arab Emirates. With so many different paths, a paradigm change occurs. At the same time, we witness a rising private sector interest. There are not yet clear business cases in the near term to make space exploration profitable for the private sector, but it’s a matter of time before this emerges.
After that, all bets are off about what could happen next, because although people think that enormous amounts of money are being spent on space exploration, in the grand scheme of things it’s a drop in the ocean. A very exciting future lies ahead. There are enormous synergies between what we can do in space and the lessons to bring back to Earth. As the economic sphere of humanity grows into the Solar System, all economic activity occurring in space is money being spent on Earth. The benefits will all be felt here on Earth, even though things are happening in space.
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