Yesterday, about 200 million miles from Earth, the JAXA space probe Hayabusa2 (Japanese language site; English language site; Wikipedia) landed two tiny rovers on top of a very small asteroid, 162173 Ryugu. The rovers (named 1A and 1B) are now hopping on Ryugu’s surface, taking photos like this one, and sending them back to Earth via Hayabusa2 in orbit:
This is a marvelous story. Think about these two one-kilogram robots, landing (and hopping!) on an alien rock never before touched by human intelligence, managing to shoot photos which the orbiter transmits across a gulf of space twice as large as the Earth’s distance from the sun, and which we then ogle through the mission’s Twitter feed. It’s astonishing.
What might this tell us about the future? Let’s consider Ryugu as a datapoint or story for where space exploration might head next.
For one, the delight and awe Hayabusa2’s success provides remind us of the deep attraction space exploration can offer. You can get a sense of that feeling from this photo of the space probe glimpsing its own shadow on the asteroid’s surface:
There’s a buoyant optimism to this achievement as well. It’s the kind of brightness that lights a world many see as dark.
On the other hand, that delight is not a universal thing. There isn’t a lot of press coverage beyond Japan (ah, once again I wish I read Japanese), if I go by Google News headlines. There’s nothing on the CNN.com homepage now, other than typical spatters of dread and celebrity; the closest I can find is a link to a story about Musk’s space tourism project, which a Japanese billionaire will ride. Nothing on Fox News or MSNBC’s main pages. BBC News at least has a link halfway down its main page.
I can imagine several reasons why these news businesses didn’t decide to celebrate the bouncing little robots. Hayabusa is a Japanese project, not an American one, and national interest counts for a lot. No humans were involved, so human interest and story are absent. Perhaps the whole project looks too science-y for a culture that spins into post-truthiness, contains some serious anti-science and anti-technology strands, or just finds science stories too dry. Or maybe the American media outlets think Americans just aren’t that into space in particular in 2018. Some Republicans maintain a dislike of science for various cultural reasons. Some Democrats might not fear the space effort, at least domestically, is too white and male (scroll down) or too appealing to the hated and Space-Force-mongering Trump.
So far there doesn’t seem to be a mass movement – heck, even mass interest – in growing, or even paying attention to, a United States space effort. What will happen next may well be the work of small groups and elites.
Beyond the United States Hayabusa2 reminds us that space exploration is more multinational and more disaggregated than ever. Besides JAXA there are space programs being build up by China and India, including robot craft, astronauts (taikonauts, for China, vyomanauts, for India), and space stations. The Indian Mars Orbiter still circles the fourth planet. The European Space Agency continues to develop satellites and launch rockets, like the JUICE (JUpiter ICy moons Explorer). Russia is doing some mixture of commercial spaceflight, ISS maintenance, exploration, and geopoliticking. For these nations space exploration holds out a mixture of prestige, scientific and engineering development, and possible commercial return.
Elsewhere purely commercial space flight continues to grow, as Bezos, Musk, and others live out a Robert Heinlein story by building up their own personal space efforts. This is, among other things, a sign of how far American wealth has grown, and how much of the elite are connected to technical skills (as opposed to inherited wealth). It’s an effect of plutocracy, as I’ve said before. Yuri Milner might lead the first interstellar mission with his Breakthrough Starshot plan.
Meanwhile, NASA is not idle, as a series of programs are in various pipeline positions. Juno is still orbiting Jupiter. New Horizons is heading out towards the Oort Cloud. OSIRIS-Rex is closing in on its asteroid, Bennu, and Psyche will seek out another. The James Webb telescope will be launched in 2021. A new Mars rover is in the works. Lucy will explore asteroids in Jupiter’s orbit, occupying the Trojan positions. Many of these are part of the low-cost automated Discovery series. A human return to the Moon, then a human mission to Mars are in different stages of political and technological
There is also Trump’s Space Force, whatever that turns out to be, if anything.
Hovering over the Earth and drawing on many nations and companies is the ISS, a splendid and generally undiscussed achievement.
What do these development and trends suggest?
Privatization of space seems likely to continue. Despite political and social media criticism, Musk and Bezos’ respective efforts appear insulated enough to continue. NASA, Roscosmos, and the other national agencies look willing to work with space businesses.
Uneven development is also likely, as different programs struggle to master different stations in the space path. China may assemble a space station while Japan bypasses orbital platforms for the moon, private cubesats head into the deep solar system and private companies keep honing their Earth orbital launch skills.
Spinoff technologies could enter into global society in various forms. Readers are probably familiar with how NASA advanced computation, solar power, materials science, and more. Surely the challenges of getting humans and robots further into space will elicit interesting projects that can be used Earthside. Think about health breakthroughs needed to keep humans alive in environments scoured by radiation, or AI to guide robots through complex situations.
Automated space exploration may predominate. Human spaceflight is still struggling with low orbit and recalling the dim memory of reaching the moon. This is expensive, dangerous stuff without much political support, especially in the long haul. Meanwhile, robots continue to be cheap, far easier to operate, capable of enduring awful stresses, and happy to send gorgeous data back our way.
Yet there is some interest in getting humans out of the gravity well. Japan seems committed to creating a lunar colony. Musk and Bezos burn with the old science fiction and NASA hunger for shipping humans into the great dark. The lure of Mars seems to be a powerful one, and a multinational, private versus public race could seize the popular imagination. Older people may experience a rush of nostalgia for the glorious space race of their youth.
Commercial interest in space could drive certain efforts, such as lunar or asteroid mining. There are many contingencies there, but the prospect of space ore and other resources may attract serious efforts.
This competition could turn malign, of course. Recall that the 20th century’s space races grew out of warfare, and included many plans for combat and destruction. Nayef Al-Rodhan hints at possible strains in international cooperation:
The possible fragmentation of outer space research activities in the post-ISS period would constitute a break-up of an international alliance that has fostered unprecedented cooperation between engineers and scientists from rival geopolitical powers – aside from China. The ISS represents perhaps the pinnacle of post-Cold War cooperation and has allowed for the sharing and streamlining of work methods and differing norms. In a current period of tense relations, it is worrying that the US and Russia may be ending an important phase of cooperation.
I would add America-China tensions to this mix, along with China-India and China-Japan dimensions. Space could easily become the ground for geopolitical struggles once more, and possibly a flashpoint as well. Nationalism, neonationalism, nativism could power such stresses. Additionally, each nation may have political and financial incentives for striking out at private space efforts.
If this hodgepodge of nations and companies manage to drive humans and our machines further into space, either through peaceful or violent means, what then? We could see more people spending time in orbit, as Mike Wall suggests, perhaps the way some humans now visit and work in and around Antarctica. Enough of an off-Earth settlement could lead to further forays, once we bypass the terrible problem of getting off the planet’s surface, and if we can develop new ways to fuel and sustain craft in space. The desire to connect with that domain might help spur the kind of space elevator which will ease Earth-to-orbit challenges.
Along the way we might surface some interesting cultural responses. The 1960s space race saw the emergence of a kind of astronaut cult. The Soviet space program’s Russian roots included a mystical tradition. We could see a combination of nostalgia from older folks and can-do optimism from younger people, along with further growth in STEM careers and interest. Dialectically we should expect the opposite. A look back at the US-USSR space race shows criticism and opposition ranging from the arts (Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon”, Jello Biafra’s “Why I’m Glad the Space Shuttle Blew Up”) to opinion polls (in the US NASA only won real support for the year around Apollo 11, apparently). We can imagine all kinds of political opposition to a 21st century space race, from people repeating the old Earth versus space spending canard to nationalistic statements (“Let Japan land on Deimos. We have enough to worry about here in Chicago”) to environmental concerns to religious ones. Concerns about vast wealth and inequality could well target space.
On the flipside, we might not do all of that. There is a history of walking back from space, either from a mix of fiscal issues and political incoherence (the United States) or political collapse (the USSR). The lack of political support might sap space efforts. Aging polities – i.e., just about every space-faring or interested nations – could view space as a distraction from concerns they deem more vital (national defense, health care, pensions, etc.). If those who see America caught up in an anti-intellectual, anti-expertise wave are right, that’s bad news for a field as enormously demanding of brainpower as space exploration. Moreover, tragedies could reduce national or rich person’s commitment. How will we respond when, say, twenty space tourists crash into a lunar crater and die, in agony, on YouTube? especially if the involved economy is doing poorly?
That’s a lot to hang on one Japanese probe landing two tiny ‘bots on an asteroid in 2018, I know. But Hayabusa2 is such a signal event that it becomes a fine story to think through.