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KEY TAKEAWAYS

•   Space technologies are increasingly critical to everyday life (e.g., GPS navigation, banking, missile defense, internet access, remote sensing).

•   Space is a finite planetary resource. Dramatic increases in satellites, debris, and competition are threatening access to this global commons.

•   Private-sector actors play a critical and growing role in many aspects of space-based activities (e.g., launch, vehicles, and communications), because they offer better, cheaper, and rapidly deployable capabilities.

Space

Overview

By definition, space technology is any technology developed for the purpose of conducting or supporting activities beyond the Kármán line (i.e., one hundred kilometers or sixty-two miles above the Earth’s surface).

Space systems can be crewed (e.g., the International Space Station, SpaceX Dragon) or uncrewed (e.g., telecommunication and navigation satellites). They also vary in size from large structures like the International Space Station (420 tons mass) to small and micro satellites that can weigh less than ten kilograms and are about the size of a loaf of bread. Today, a large majority of functional satellites in space weigh between one hundred and one thousand kilograms, less than the weight of a motorcycle. 

Space systems, particularly Earth-orbiting satellites, can be characterized by the position of their orbits. Satellites are commonly positioned in low Earth orbit (LEO), medium Earth orbit (MEO), high elliptical orbit (HEO), or geosynchronous orbit (GEO). Space systems are also sometimes positioned around Lagrange points, or locations in space where a spacecraft can remain in a fixed spatial relationship to two bodies (e.g., the Sun and Earth, or Earth and the Moon). 

KEY DEVELOPMENTS
 

One major development is the increased use of distributed space systems comprised of multiple spacecraft that interact and work together to accomplish objectives that would be difficult or impossible with a single spacecraft.

There is also an increasing trend toward privatization across most space technologies as the space sector moves away from legacy space technologies owned by governments or large contractors. These legacy systems are characterized by large, expensive spacecraft with long development timelines. Today, a “NewSpace” economy is turning to private companies, creating a global space environment in which systems and services are more accessible and less expensive—and available to all. Governments are also looking to commercial space for new capabilities. 

APPLICATIONS
 

Current applications of space technology include Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) for position, navigation, and timing services; voice, SMS (short message service), and internet data communications via satellites and lasers; remote sensing to observe locations and conditions on Earth; and national security spacecraft. 

Future applications of space might include manufacturing materials like pharmaceuticals, optics, and semiconductors in space; mining the Moon and asteroids; capturing energy, generating power, and beaming it to Earth; increased military equipment and presence in space; and in-space logistics, servicing assembly, and manufacturing (ISAM) capabilities. 

 

Over the Horizon

Despite their importance, space assets today are not designated by the United States as critical infrastructure. Improvements in space governance—both nationally and internationally—are critical to maintaining safe space access for interested parties. Within the United States, the growth of the satellite sector far outpaces the capabilities of the current regulatory process. The near-Earth space environment is increasingly crowded, driven by lower launch costs and satellite miniaturization. 

With so many objects in space, the risk of collision between them is growing. Collisions not only damage the colliding objects but also produce a cloud of thousands of smaller debris objects that will remain in orbit and threaten other operational spacecraft. Reducing the risk of collision will require a combination of removal of debris from orbit, automated collision avoidance systems, increased registration of launched objects, and management of space traffic. 

International disputes and tensions threaten the peaceful operation of satellites, space stations, and other space activities. The proliferation of antisatellite weapons is a major concern. To date, four nations have tested weapons capable of destroying or interfering with satellites in space: China, Russia, India, and the United States. 

There has also been a renewed interest, by both private and public actors, in cislunar space, or the space around Earth extending just beyond the Moon’s orbit. NASA’s Artemis and Lunar Gateway missions, for example, aim to lead the return of humans to the Moon for the first time in more than fifty years.

 

REPORT PREVIEW: Space

Faculty Council Advisor

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Simone D’Amico
Author
Simone D’Amico

Simone D’Amico is associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and professor, by courtesy, of geophysics at Stanford University, where he serves as the W. M. Keck Faculty Scholar of Engineering. His research explores the intersection of advanced astrodynamics, spacecraft navigation and control, autonomous decision making, and space system engineering. He currently leads satellite swarm and formation-flying projects for NASA and the National Science Foundation. He received his PhD in aerospace engineering from Delft University of Technology.

View Bio
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Simone D’Amico

Simone D’Amico is associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and professor, by courtesy, of geophysics at Stanford University, where he serves as the W. M. Keck Faculty Scholar of Engineering. His research explores the intersection of advanced astrodynamics, spacecraft navigation and control, autonomous decision making, and space system engineering. He currently leads satellite swarm and formation-flying projects for NASA and the National Science Foundation. He received his PhD in aerospace engineering from Delft University of Technology.

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