Planned megaprojects to boost space sector and inspire future generations
▶ Expert applauds the multinational push to come up with Hubble and ISS replacements
A series of megaprojects are set to invigorate the space sector in the next decade, a top industry official has said.
Dr Alice Bunn, international director of the UK Space Agency and vice chairwoman of the Council of the European Space Agency, said the James Webb Space Telescope and a planned replacement for the International Space Station were huge undertakings only made possible by nations working together.
She also said Emirati astronaut Hazza Al Mansouri’s journey to the ISS was “incredibly well received” and showed what new players in the space sector could achieve.
“It’s really impressive what the UAE has been able to achieve as a relatively late entrant into the space sector,” Dr Bunn told The National at the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Councils meeting in Dubai on Sunday.
“They made some big promises, and they’ve delivered on those big promises.”
The James Webb telescope – an enormous satellite of gold mirrors that will replace the famous Hubble telescope – is scheduled for launch in March 2021 and cost about $10 billion (Dh36.73bn) to develop.
Meanwhile, the $150bn ISS is set for decommissioning in 2028. A replacement is under discussion but is expected to cost hundreds of billions of dollars.
“Space is still expensive – you can’t get around it – but there are really two classes of missions emerging,” Dr Bunn said.
“You still have these hugely important scientific infrastructure missions. We’re talking about what will become the replacement to the International Space Station – that will be a global effort.
“And next year we’ll see the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, the follow on for Hubble, which will enable incredible capabilities.
“Those massive science infrastructure projects will always have a very wide base of multinational support.”
But the cost of smaller space missions is being cut every year as scientists find ever-cheaper ways of reaching space.
India’s Chandrayaan-2 mission to the Moon, which ended in failure in September, cost $140m, a fraction of the cost of any previous space mission of its kind, while satellites are becoming increasingly cost-effective, including some launched by high-altitude planes instead of rockets.
Dr Bunn said it was “becoming much more accessible for new countries to join the space sector”.
Nations joining the space sector more recently, including the UAE and India, are launching their own satellites or using the facilities of bigger players, such as Japan.
The UAE is scheduled to send its Mars probe Hope to the Red Planet in July 2021, from the Tanegashima Space Centre in Japan.
Space industry officials are keen to point out that together with the widespread fascination for human space travel, the sector is also responsible for producing tangible, real-life benefits that can improve lives.
“The challenge going forward is … how to shine a light equally on those down-toearth benefits of our space programmes – enabling communications and environmental benefits,” she said.
“Ninety-nine per cent of the data you need to generate an accurate forecast is from space. Over 50 per cent of the climate variables we need to even understand climate can only be measured from space.
“Then, equally things like navigation. The ESA doesn’t yet have our own navigation system. We’ve had an assessment that if we were to lose the ability to use global satellite navigation systems – the US GPS system – we would incur losses of $1bn a day.
“So it’s extraordinary. Companies’ economic frameworks are very, very dependent on satellite capability already.”
One intended consequence of Maj Al Mansouri’s space mission is the hope that schoolchildren might consider a career in science and technology – becoming the brains behind future missions.
“It’s such a powerful tool. We had our own astronaut four years ago and the uptake in [UK] schools, the uptake in public interest was absolutely extraordinary,” Dr Bunn said, in reference to Tim Peake, the first British astronaut to walk in space.
A section of the James Webb Space Telescope, a satellite that cost $10 billion to develop and features gold mirrors. It is scheduled for launch in 2021