Private investors are pouring billions into space-based endeavors. While satellite technology is a common use of these dollars, money is also flowing to projects like the (highly publicized) building of reusable rockets by SpaceX and others, cleaning up “space trash,” mining on the moon and even tackling climate change and health. The renewed interest comes on the heels of more affordable building materials and the arrival of modular components and 3D printing for such projects. The Brookings Institute makes the case that this latest round of space exploration is fueling the fourth industrial revolution.
While the space-curious race to build technology in the $460 billion and growing space industry, another sector is rising alongside it: space law. Technically, nobody owns outer space (and the United Nations has agreed that no country may claim territory there), so lawyers will have large questions to work out, such as who is responsible for cleaning up space debris, who can mine on the moon and more. As legal teams prepare for a space tech boom, we look more closely at the following emerging areas of focus for interstellar advancements:
- Climate. Rocket emissions are a significant consideration when it comes to the climate, yet space exploration can also boost climate innovations in unexpected ways. One potentially up-and-coming example, space-based solar power, is the ultimate low-emission energy and would rely on satellites that collect the sun’s rays and translate those to electricity back on Earth. Plus, satellites are some of the best tools humans have for tracking data on carbon and methane emissions over many decades, as well as changes in sea and ice levels.
Companies like Stoke Space, founded by former Blue Origin and SpaceX employees and funded in part by Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy, are looking to revolutionize that cornerstone of space travel—the rocket—through the design of low-cost, reusable rockets, with the ESG-aligned goal of achieving 100% reusability.
Tech leaders are also devising new ways to keep satellites more sustainable, such as a recent success by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in using a robotic system to service an orbiting satellite. Some scientists even believe that moon dust might help mitigate global warming.
- Satellites. Though satellites are not exactly new technology, they have long been operated mainly by the public sector, for things like weather prediction and national security. As they become increasingly smaller and lighter, it’s estimated that 35% of satellites are now commercially owned. These low-flying vectors are tapped for everything from agriculture and infrastructure mapping, to water supply monitoring and—in the case of Amazon—future satellite-based broadband services. Smart phones are also beginning to take advantage of satellite connectivity, as with Apple’s emergency function. With satellite communications, help is reachable from even remote swaths of the planet.
Later in 2023, Qualcomm and Iridium plan to roll out a chip that gives mobile devices access to its fleet of satellites, and several major wireless providers have satellite-based phones in the works. Startups like Open Cosmos go so far as to offer satellites on-demand, ready for a variety of commercial uses in just months.
- Space Cleaning. Amid the launch of so many satellites, concern has been raised about the debris that’s deposited into space and left in orbit, sometimes posing risks to future (and existing) space projects. In 2022, SpaceWerx, the technology branch of the U.S. Space Force, launched Orbital Prime, a program that has since selected 125 teams to receive seed money for developing space-cleaning technology. A Swiss company, with support from the European Space Agency, is ramping up for the world’s first space-debris removal operation, planned for 2026. Its autonomous technology will capture satellites and either remove them from space or refuel them to prolong their lifespan. Similar efforts are underway in Ireland, among other countries.
In September 2022, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) held that satellites must deorbit within five years of completing their mission—a drop from the previous timeframe of 25 years. Before Amazon could move forward with its broadband satellite program, it had to prepare an orbital debris mitigation plan that met the FCC’s requirements, meaning that companies will want to be aware of the legal implications involved in launching satellites.
- The Moon. The moon has always served as a testing ground of sorts for Earth-based explorers. During the Apollo moon landing, Black & Decker worked with NASA to create battery-operated drills and other space tech, ultimately spawning the creation of the DustBuster for use back on Earth. Now, researchers across the globe are pushing the boundaries of moon exploration further, with their sights set on using the moon as a training site for future expeditions to Mars (as NASA and the Canadian Space Agency will do in an upcoming mission) and mining the surface for scientific and commercial growth.
Later this year, NASA will send its Lunar Trailblazer to the moon, where it will map out water locations with new technology such as an imaging spectrometer and a lunar thermal mapper that’s being developed by the University of Oxford. China has also sped up mining efforts after its 2020 discovery of Changesite, a newly identified moon crystal with the potential to power nuclear fusion. Ultimately, many nations and investors hope to make the moon a commercially viable investment and access moon resources that rocket ships and explorers can harness while in space.
- Health. In 2012, a digital mapping system compiled from satellite data aided doctors in locating remote Nigerian villages as they worked to deliver polio vaccines. Not many years later, similar satellite information helped track the global impact of COVID-19 and allowed nations to plan for how to distribute resources. During the COVID-19 pandemic, satellite communications also became an important resource for providing telehealth to people no matter where they were located. The field, tele-epidemiology, continues to find new ways to aid in global health, including with satellite data that may be able to predict mosquito movement through Africa to help minimize the spread of disease.
Meanwhile, NASA continues to develop technologies that allow for space-based health care, such as domes to keep bodily fluids from floating through the air during a gravity-free procedure, multi-use medical tools and miniaturized labs to monitor astronauts’ health.
As space-based technology continues to capture the excitement of investors, leaders and the public, exploration will move forward, but expanding regulations and legal unknowns could provide a few bumps in the road. The United States currently has a moratorium, or “learning period,” in place that limits the Federal Aviation Administration’s ability to create safety regulations for space flight. However a recent report recommended the moratorium be lifted upon its expiration in October 2023, possibly opening the doors to more regulatory oversight.
Paired with the proliferation of satellites and enhanced rules around “space trash,” new tech is needed not only to reach space, but likewise to manage the safety and health of humans once they are there, and to tackle the unavoidable debris left behind. As seen in the past, space exploration also lends itself to endless innovations that can improve life on Earth (like purifying recycled water, for one). When it comes to intergalactic technology, the sky may not be the limit.