Cassini crashed into Saturn, Opportunity remains covered in dust, shuttles have been sent to museums, and Kepler is no longer hunting exoplanets. Now, the International Space Station (ISS) is set to join the list of retired NASA missions in 2030. Unlike its predecessor, Mir, which was de-orbited to burn up in the atmosphere, the ISS will fall into the sea.
Since its construction between 1998 and 2011, the orbital environment has significantly changed. The number of satellites in orbit has multiplied tenfold to approximately 8,500, creating a sky cluttered with space debris. Deloitte highlights the transformation in a promotional video, emphasizing the newfound accessibility and potential for business opportunities in space.
Technological and financial barriers to launching satellites have decreased, enabling NASA to outsource resupply missions and potentially introduce a commercial module to the ISS. Space tourism is also on the horizon. However, the commercialization of low Earth orbit (LEO) means that orbital space is no longer solely focused on innovation and discovery but also on economic exploitation. Deloitte projects a $312-billion-a-year economy in LEO by 2035.
While the ISS has successfully facilitated deep-space exploration and technological research, NASA now aims to return to the moon in 2024 and eventually send humans to Mars. Nevertheless, reaching our own planetary orbit has already expanded our reach into space, both for better and for worse.
In 1998, there were approximately 600 satellites in orbit, with most of them being government-owned. But with the rise of commercial satellite launches, LEO has become a focal point for commercial activity, complementing the more traditional focus on geosynchronous orbit. Advancements in technology during the Cold War led to an increase in satellite capabilities and the potential for profit generation.
Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer and space program historian, believes that there are two ways to understand humanity’s progress in space. The first is through the shifting dominance of different satellites in orbit, from superpowers to a more internationally diverse era and eventually to a commercial-focused era. The second is by analyzing the demographics of objects in space, with commercial satellites now dominating LEO.
With the introduction of satellite megaconstellations, commercialization in LEO has reached new heights in the past decade. However, as commercial activity continues to expand, it is crucial to address the issue of space debris and ensure the sustainability of our activities in orbit.