NASA’s Artemis program aims to return humans to the lunar surface by 2025, before establishing a sustained human presence on and around the Moon by the end of the decade. This so-called Lunar Gateway will then be used as a staging point for future missions to Mars. With estimated project costs approaching $100 billion, a criticism of this endeavour is the extremely high price tag, especially since the allocated public funds could be redirected to more pressing causes on Earth – such as funding the development and deployment of green technologies. In this article, Dr Aled Roberts explores how the goals of space exploration and sustainable development aren’t necessarily misaligned.
The fruits of space exploration
Although NASA’s Apollo program came with a similarly high price tag, at $280 billion after adjusting for inflation, the program fuelled giant leaps forward for numerous technologies which still have a positive impact to this day. These technologies include solar cells, miniaturised computer processors, advanced insulation materials, fuel cells and compact cameras.
Another offshoot from the historical investment in space has been modern satellite technologies. Not only are communication satellites crucial for our modern way of life, but Earth observation satellites are a vital tool for combating climate change by monitoring discrepancies between actual and reported CO2, methane and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and the monitoring of forestry, agriculture and other land use – a sector that accounts for 24% of global GHG emissions.
Future extra-terrestrial colonies on the lunar and Martian surfaces will require an unprecedented degree of resourcefulness, circularity, and sustainability as a matter of survival. Almost every substance will have to be reused, repaired and recycled to maximise utility and minimise waste. There will be no disposable materials on Mars, and every piece of equipment will have to be ultra-reliable, since any chance of logistical resupply from Earth would be extremely costly and impractical. This notion of hyper-resourcefulness and circularity promises to result in offshoot technologies that will promote sustainable development on Earth.
Off-world construction materials and processes
One of the biggest unsolved challenges with sustained off-world human habitation is the need to develop viable construction materials and processes. Construction on Earth requires a multitude of diverse materials with complex supply chains, assembled by numerous specialists through laborious processes. Such an option is not available off-world, so new material technologies and construction methods will need to be developed.
Moreover, any habitat outside of Earth’s protective magnetosphere will require thick walls and ceilings to protect against solar and cosmic radiation. Given it currently costs over £1 million to send a brick’s worth of material to Mars, it’s not economically feasible to transport bulk construction materials from Earth. Instead, local resources – namely lunar or Martian soil (or regolith) – will need to be employed.
This regolith, which is a fine powder, will need to be transformed into a solid monolithic material to prevent erosion from high-velocity exhaust plumes (Lunar surface) and dust storms (Martian surface). Although several solutions to this challenge have been proposed, such as melting or sintering regolith into glassy bricks, most have serious flaws such as extremely high energy use, necessitating additional energy production capacity, or the need for heavy processing equipment – both of which would add significantly to launch mass and mission cost.
A promising solution lies in the emerging transdisciplinary sector of encompassing biotechnology and materials science. Several bio-based or living construction solutions have been proposed as relatively low energy, feasible methods for the stabilisation of extra-terrestrial regolith into construction materials. Researchers at The University of Manchester recently proposed a solution using human blood proteins and urine to bind regolith into a concrete-like material. Termed Astrocrete, the researchers are now investigating plant-based biopolymers as alternatives to human blood.
Given that the construction sector accounts for 39% of anthropogenic CO2 emissions, any relatively green construction material technology developed for off-world habitats could potentially be employed as a sustainable alternative on Earth. This is particularly relevant in the light of COVID-19 recovery plans championed by the UK and other governments.
The UK’s National Infrastructure Strategy, published in November 2020, lays out a vision of new railway, roads and motorway junctions, and new energy infrastructure – much of it in the Midlands and the north of England. This was followed in March 2021 by the ‘Build Back Better’ plan for growth, which promises infrastructure projects delivered “better, greener and faster”, with infrastructure investment highlighted as “fundamental to delivering net zero emissions by 2050”. With similar plans from governments around the world, the UK – particularly the north-west of England – is in a unique position to nurture and export low-carbon, sustainable materials derived from space technologies.
The UK as a centre for green space technologies
The UK has a strong knowledge-based economy and is world-leading in the areas of space tech, materials science and biotechnology. The University of Manchester, which hosts the Henry Royce Institute for advanced materials research and innovation, as well as the Future Biomanufacturing Research Hub, is especially strong in these areas. These advantages make the UK, and especially Manchester, an ideal candidate to host the next Silicon Valley equivalent for off-world construction start-up companies and associated green technology offshoots.
Policymakers could promote the development of such an ecosystem, putting the UK in a good position to capitalise on the upcoming rush to develop and commercialise technologies associated with space habitation.
Other positive actions policymakers could take include:
Grants and other financial incentives to support academics with ‘hard tech’ business ventures; the long-touted ARIA body could take a leading role in this.
Encourage industry-academia collaborations and trans-disciplinary research through online platforms, subsidised conferences, showcases and other events.
Hosting competitions and prizes to help spearhead innovation and solve specific challenges.
Assist with communicating the benefits to the wider public, such as providing PR training to academics and recognising participation in outreach activities as important output for academics.
This article originally appeared in On Space, a collection exploring how pioneering research into the space sector will continue to help impact UK and international space policy through the development of home grown space capabilities, supporting international collaborations and the levelling up of our space economy. Published by Policy@Manchester.