America longs to expand low-Earth orbit economy 'for the benefits of humanity'
And commercial operators, with NASA a keen customer
The US government has published a strategy for low-Earth orbit research and development, anticipating a transition from the International Space Station (ISS) to the use of private sector successors and investigating approaches to address the threat of orbital debris.
The US National Science and Technology Council's (NSTC) vision is for continued US leadership in space research, using low-Earth orbit (LEO) science to help drive its ambitions for the exploration of the Moon and Mars, but also expanding its international partnerships and ensuring “equitable access” to LEO for peaceful purposes, especially commercial activities.
LEO refers to orbits with an altitude of 2,000 km (1,200 miles) or less, according to NASA, and is where the ISS can be found, as well as many satellites such as the estimated 3,500+ broadband-serving units operated by Starlink.
The National Low Earth Orbit Research and Development Strategy [PDF] was released by the NSTC, and outlines five policy objectives for the US to follow that it loftily claims will “prioritize the use of LEO for the benefits of humanity.”
The first is simply to advance science and technology by supporting space-borne research, while the second is to strengthen US Government collaboration and partnerships to encourage new entrants via a LEO National Laboratory.
Promoting market opportunities is perhaps inevitable where the US is involved, but this policy objective also aims for equitable access to equipment and instrumentation on future commercial space platforms for smaller businesses, as well as addressing economic and regulatory barriers to space-based R&D.
Besides, a report [PDF] from consultants Deloitte estimated that the LEO economy may be worth an annual economic value ranging from $151 billion to $312 billion by 2035.
The fourth and fifth objectives are to expand international cooperation and to boost science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and workforce development.
No reprieve for the ISS
The NSTC notes that while the US aims to extend ISS operations until 2030, after that it will have to rely on commercial space stations for any orbital research. This transition, along with the rise of private sector launch vehicles, marks an entirely new era for spaceflight and space research, paving the way for new innovations and opportunities, it enthused.
An emphasis on reusability and more diverse market demand promises to lower launch costs, according to the NSTC predictions, which should bring us closer to a time when living and working in space may be commonplace.
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However, LEO programs will also be used to support research and infrastructure for national security purposes, it hinted darkly, but only in accordance with “applicable law”, of course. These efforts will require infrastructure such as ground systems, satellite systems, perhaps an in-space assembly capability, and reusable vehicles.
It hasn’t escaped the NSTC that LEO is the perfect environment for using microgravity to conduct research that would be difficult or impossible on Earth. Consequently, it says that the US government should follow a biological and physical sciences program aimed at “transformational” space-related scientific discoveries to improve life both on Earth and in space.
A key part of this will be ensuring experiments in orbit are as repeatable as those conducted on the ground. This calls for advances in automation to remove the need for human intervention, and development of advanced in-situ sample preparation and analysis hardware, the NSTC said.
Space academy to keep LEO safe
The establishment of a LEO National Laboratory supported by government-sponsored research is apparently being studied by NASA. This would have the potential to drive a diverse range of R&D activity and provide technical support for the LEO research community.
It is envisaged that this might encompass orbital and suborbital platforms as well as terrestrial facilities such as the Department of Energy’s national laboratories, NASA’s space flight and research centers, Department of Defense laboratories, universities, and private-sector partners.
In order to prioritize access to LEO for scientific research, the NTSC calls on the US government to research and develop strategies to tackle the problem of orbital debris as well as to develop novel technologies to increase spacecraft endurance.
It also encourages the establishment of human spaceflight safety coordination, saying that in the post-ISS environment, the US should lead the way in the development and implementation of open and transparent international policies and practices for safe spaceflight. This would include sharing orbital information on missions and potential hazards to the life or health of astronauts.
The strategy document concludes that with these objectives in place, the US will “demonstrate its commitment to advancing research in LEO by leveraging the nation’s commercial enterprise to develop the infrastructure needed to grow the space economy.” ®