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Science & Technology > Broader science issues >

Future of Unmanned Space Exploration

Paper ID: 552 Last updated: 15/11/2010 10:11:44
Criteria: bullet Impact:  Likelihood:  Controversy:  Where: Regional When: 11-20yrs How Fast: Years
0 people thought this paper expanded their thinking bullet
Keywords: bullet Space science & Astronomy - space, exploration, origins, extraterrestrial life

Summary bullet

Robotic exploration of the solar system is likely to steadily progress for decades to come, producing new technologies and discoveries. Although robotic exploration has been dominated in past years by well-established space programs, new countries are also starting their own robotic exploration efforts, expanding their domestic space industries and making important contributions to science.

Discussion bullet

Future scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs made by robotic space exploration missions may be entirely unexpected. Robotic space exploration has contributed to the scientific understanding of the universe, the ability to continue exploring outer space, as well as the quality of life on Earth. As well, robotic space exploration missions advance our understanding of how the solar system formed (e.g. Dawn [1]), examine the potential for life on other planets (e.g. Beagle 2 [2]), and raise questions about the nature of the universe (e.g. the Pioneer Anomaly [3]). They have also helped to test technologies and obtain information necessary for future human missions, from discovering the challenges of landing on an asteroid (Hayabusa [4]) to mapping potential resources for a lunar base (e.g. Chandrayaan-1 [5]). Finally, spinoffs have contributed to solutions on Earth such as diagnosing tuberculosis. [6]

In addition to achieving scientific breakthroughs, robotic space exploration missions also tend to push the state-of-the art in space technologies. Past missions have provided improvements that range from the incremental – advances in radiation-hardened electronics on the Cassini-Huygens mission [7] – to the innovative – Mars Pathfinder’s air-bag landing system. [8] Current planned missions include the first solar sail (JAXA, IKAROS [9]), which uses solar wind instead of on-board fuel to propel a spacecraft. More advanced technologies can enable larger missions to destinations farther from Earth. These enabling future technologies include in-space fission-reactors, [10] aerocapture, [11] increased autonomy, [12] and in-situ sample gathering, handling, and analysis. [12]

Space exploration is driven by civilian, commercial and military agendas; though the actual distribution of funding and support between these different purposes is not necessarily transparent or easily measured. [13] Driven by a combination of scientific, technical, and political objectives, preliminary planning by the major space faring blocs (the United States, the European Space Agency (ESA), Japan, Russia, China, and India) is already underway for unmanned exploration missions in the 2021 to 2030 timeframe. In the US, the Space Studies Board (SSB), part of the National Academies, advises space policy makers on space science objectives and missions. The SSB is currently working on four decadal surveys: Solar and Space Physics; Biological and Physical Sciences in Space; Planetary Science; and Astronomy and Astrophysics. [14] Work on these reports is expected to provide a framework that can guide American robotic exploration into the early 2020s. Similarly, in 2005, the ESA released a study covering its space science plans entitled Cosmic Vision: Space Science for Europe 2015-2025; [15] this suggests several areas of scientific interest and mission proposals that are now under examination.

Other programs have scheduled missions through the 2010s, but the lack of similar scientific roadmaps makes it more difficult to speculate about the specific direction of those programs between 2020 and 2030. Japan, [16] [17] China, [18] and India [19] [20] are likely to continue to target the Moon, Mars and near-Earth Asteroids in the informal, but continuing, Asian Space Race. [21] [22] Followers of the Russian space program report that the Russian space industry was directed in 2005 to develop new long-range plans (through 2040) and is currently working under a Federal Space Program that specifies missions through 2020. [23] Brazil has also entered into the commercial space arena, with a space programme involving building rockets, satellites and a launch site and could become a more active player in exploration in the future. [24]
The extent to which these plans will be realized will depend on national space exploration budgets over the next 10-20 years. Amidst changing national plans and financial crises, the funding climate for American and European space exploration in the near-tem remains uncertain. It remains unclear whether the American Congress will support the new Presidential direction for space exploration announced in April 2010. [25] [26] Approving the new budget plan would slightly increase NASA’s funding for robotic exploration as well as change the focus of American human exploration activities. [27] [28] The ESA, noting the increasingly constrained budgets of its member countries, has frozen its budget for 2010 and 2011 at €3.7 billion, although some individual countries have indicated their intention to increase their national space budgets [29] and no programs have been cancelled at this time. [29]

However, there is some evidence that funding for space exploration will rise in other countries over the next decade. Driven by increased energy revenues, Russia’s space program has seen its budget double between 2000 and 2009. [23] Furthermore, space exploration budgets of Japan, China and India are expected to expand under pressure from their human exploration ambitions [30] [31] and interest in improving their native space industries. [32]

Independent of the near-term budgetary environment, three factors in particular can potentially increase the scale and scope of robotic exploration programs pursued throughout the world: (1) international cooperation or competition; (2) synergies with human exploration; and (3) significant scientific discoveries. In all funding environments, international cooperation has the potential to increase program stability and enable more ambitious missions at a lower cost than each partner could bear acting on their own. [33] However, incentives for cooperation are counterbalanced by incentives for competition, including developing indigenous capabilities and pursuing rivalries for national prestige; both of these incentives can potentially motivate increases in national budgets. The extent to which cooperation or competition will define the coming decades of space exploration remains to be seen. While many nations have successfully cooperated in the past on robotic exploration - for example the Cassini-Huygens mission between ESA and the US, BepiColombo between ESA and JAXA, and the inclusion of an ESA sensor on the Indian Chandrayaan-1 – recent changes in the American space program may set back recent cooperative agreements, such as the Global Exploration Strategy. [34] Meanwhile, the ongoing Asian Space Race provides a potential framework for competition.

Another trend that may increase the number of robotic exploration missions is human space exploration. NASA’s former Vision for Space Exploration originally included as many as 21 lunar and Martian robotic test-bed missions supporting eventual human landings on both bodies. [35] Current Chinese, Japanese and Indian lunar probes are thought to be in aid of eventual human lunar missions post-2020. [22]

Significant or unexpected scientific discoveries could also spark interest in more frequent or more ambitious robotic space exploration. While the discovery of microscopic organic matter on Mars could be viewed as simply the culmination of increasingly sophisticated robotic missions, it could also inspire more searches for life elsewhere in the solar system. In contrast, the Galileo probe’s suggested findings of liquid water oceans on Europa has led to strong interest from the international astrobiology community in a mission to land on Europa and drill through the icy crust – a desire which has not yet been fulfilled. [36]

Implications bullet

One possible future could be for the United Kingdom to increase its involvement in unmanned space exploration. Recent consolidation of the UK’s space efforts under the UK space agency (UKSA) could provide an opportunity for the UK to revisit its long-term plans for a national space program, including the possibility of increasing participation in unmanned space exploration (e.g. [37] and [38]). The UK already participates in a wide array of unmanned space exploration missions through its membership with ESA as well as through the direct participation of domestic universities and scientists in various robotic exploration missions. Expanding its space programme could provide opportunities for the UK to continue developing its domestic space industry as well as maintain scientific, industrial, and technical ties with nations around the world.

If the UK were to expand its space efforts, opportunities could emerge for the UK to lead small-scale independent missions and to collaborate on larger, international missions. While the UK-led Beagle 2 failed to land on Mars, [39] the experience gained by UK researchers and project managers could be leveraged in future UK-led robotic exploration missions. Similar skills could also used and developed when UK companies and universities take a major role in collaborative projects such as the NASA-ESA ExoMars programme. [40] In addition, leveraging unique capabilities of UK companies could lead to deeper partnerships with other space programs. Canada’s experience with the “Canadarm” is one such example. The success of the first “Canadarm”, built for the American Space Shuttle in the early 1980s, directly contributed to close ties between the American and Canadian astronaut corps, Canada’s early partnership in the International Space Station (ISS), and a contract to develop upgraded manipulator arms on the ISS. [41]

Governments pursue robotic space exploration for a variety of reasons ranging from the cultural value of exploration to the desire to support domestic space industries (for one discussion of the proposed benefits of exploration see[42] While robotic space exploration could improve space technologies, spinoffs that impact the quality of life on Earth have been documented as well. [43] [44]. A number of nations will likely continue to pursue robotic space exploration through the next two decades. Participating in this pursuit could be one means for the UK to develop the technological infrastructure that could be necessary for ensuring that the UK has the technical capacity to take advantage of the scientific and technological breakthroughs that emerge from this field.

However, also, in expanding its space exploration programmes, the UK would have to consider the cost implications of such efforts. Alternative solutions could be to build stronger links with countries that have their own space programmes, or to focus on directing further support towards the ESA projects. In expanding its space exploration programmes, the UK would have to consider how best to direct its efforts, engage with other countries in order to maximise effectiveness and efficiency, and work with different policy and scientific actors.

Early indicators bullet

Formal funding of large, international flagship missions, such as Mars sample return missions, or exploration of the gas giant moons.
Establishment of new international frameworks for cooperation.
Strong budgetary commitments by existing space powers to expand human space exploration efforts to Mars, the Moon, or Near-Earth Asteroids.

Institutions and Organizations:
National Aeronautics and Space Administration, USA
Roskosmos, Russia
European Space Agency, Europe
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Japan
Indian Space Research Organization, India
UK Space Agency, UK
The National Academies, USA
The Planetary Society, USA
European Astrobiology Network Association, Europe
International Astronautical Federation

Drivers & Inhibitors bullet

Capabilities of domestic high-technology industries and science and technology universities.
Increased competition among leading space faring nations in the field of robotic exploration.
Perception that robotic exploration is more “cost effective” than human exploration.

Costly mission failures.
Competition with other budgetary priorities, particularly in times of economic downturn.

Parallels & Precedents bullet

Development of communications and EO spacecraft.
Aerospace propulsion industry, first mover advantage.
Historical voyages of exploration.

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The contents of this paper were supplied by the Institute for the Future, and have been reviewed by the Outsights-Ipsos MORI Partnership. Any views expressed are independent of government and do not constitute government policy.