Things are changing in outer space: it is filling with debris, attracting private companies, and raising new technological challenges. To keep pace with this mercurial environment, EPFL’s Space Center (eSpace) is changing its focus to logistics. Here, we round up the center’s initiatives as World Space Week gets under way.
Gone are the days when the United States and the Soviet Union competed to achieve firsts in spaceflight capability – first in space, first to the moon. That golden age cast a decades-long shadow over space exploration. But that is all changing now, not least with the arrival of new players on the scene. The EPFL Space Center (eSpace) is marking UN World Space Week, the annual October celebration that officially starts today, with a clear statement of its intent to capture the opportunities offered by this decisive turning point.
eSpace, founded in 2014, is expanding and redefining its research priorities with the launch of a new initiative dubbed Sustainable Space Logistics. The move is part of the unit’s ambitious plans to become a center of excellence in equipment and data for space exploration, and in the development of lasting, sustainable space infrastructure.
“There’s growing talk in space circles of mankind returning to the Moon and establishing a permanent base there,” says eSpace director Jean-Paul Kneib. “But before we can do that, we need to think long and hard about how we design consumables – energy, fuel, water and food – from the standpoint of both recycling and sustainability.”
In recent years, more and more governments have launched space programs. Countries like China and India are rising rapidly up the list of world space powers. But the biggest change has been the arrival of private companies on the scene. Firms like SpaceX and EPFL spin-off Astrocast are now sending their own rockets and satellites into space, bringing incredible energy and ground-breaking ideas to the table.
In the new space age, satellites are becoming ever smaller – and smarter. Looking ahead, it seems as though satellite constellations are the future, with smaller devices such as CubeSats operating in tandem and forming a robust network that covers more of the Earth’s surface. This development owes much to advances in Internet of Things (IoT) systems.
“It’s incredible to see how fast technology is evolving,” says Muriel Richard, an engineer at eSpace who specializes in space debris. “We’re on the cusp of the space research 4.0 era.”
Since the world’s first satellite was launched over 60 years ago, space has become increasingly cluttered with junk – thousands of pieces of debris ranging from tiny paint chips to rocket stages and entire obsolete satellites. All that debris orbiting the Earth poses a major collision risk, with serious implications for space exploration. In fact, the problem has become so acute in recent years that scientists are having to rethink mission design with junk in mind. The need for sustainable solutions has never been greater.
EPFL is ideally placed to make the most of this new landscape. “Our skills and expertise are exactly what the space industry is looking for,” says Sonia Ben Hamida, a researcher who recently joined the eSpace team. “In many respects, it’s the perfect fit.”
eSpace’s logistics services could support operations and activities across a broad spectrum of fields, ranging from transport, storage, packaging and distribution, to location, telecommunications, navigation, repair and resupply. Other potential applications include in-orbit manufacturing and assembly, drilling, human presence, surveillance, cleaning, recycling – and more.
Technologies developed for other applications by various EPFL labs and startups – especially in microengineering, electronics and robotics – could also be repurposed for use in the space industry. Examples include solar radiation and cosmic ray protective equipment, cleaner propulsion systems, next-generation transport vehicles, and space robots designed to capture junk or move objects around in space. And, of course, artificial intelligence has the potential to revolutionize viewing, tracking, orientation recognition, and in-orbit assembly systems.
eSpace will define its research priorities after consulting with the European Space Agency (ESA), the Swiss Space Office and other bodies. Pending that decision, manufacturers, scientists, students and other interested parties are invited to contact the center to express their interest.