Developing new and improved technologies is essential for the continued evolution of all aspects of space infrastructure. Advancements in technology can provide new capabilities that did not previously exist, and improve the cost, reliability, performance, and other essential attributes of existing systems, be they launch vehicles, spacecraft, or ground systems. A sampling of some emerging technologies under active development demonstrates the range of possibilities for our future in space.
Long-duration space missions beyond Earth’s orbit are not always able to rely on solar panels, so they often require a more compact and powerful source of energy. Radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) were developed to provide this power source. RTGs generate electric power from the heat produced by the natural decay of small amounts of radioactive material, typically plutonium-238 isotopes.
Much of the world depends on GEO satellites for defense, communication, science, and weather monitoring. These expensive assets eventually fail or run out of propellant, but refueling and maintaining them can extend their lives, giving their users more value. Servicing can also help make space more sustainable because broken and drifting satellites take up valuable real estate in GEO and pose a risk to neighboring systems.
Other national space agencies are also supporting key technology development efforts. In April 2011, ESA approved the development of Proba-3, a mission to demonstrate autonomous formation flying by spacecraft. Scheduled for launch in 2016, Proba-3 will feature two satellites that will fly in formation, maintaining a positional accuracy of a few millimeters at separation distances of up to 150 meters (500 feet) without any intervention from the ground.
There is a wide range of technology development in the public and private sectors related to space infrastructure. One of the largest efforts is within NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist (OCT), an office created by NASA in 2010 to centralize and coordinate the agency’s technology development efforts.
Once launched, satellites generally cannot be refueled or repaired. Satellites have lifetimes limited by the amount of propellant they can carry on board to maintain their orbits. A failure of a key system on a satellite can partially or totally disable the spacecraft, causing a disruption in service and potentially creating a hazard for other satellites.
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In-space activities include research and development services, manufacturing, satellite refueling, and orbital debris clean-up. NASA’s Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research Program (CRuSR) is helping fund development of vehicles capable of carrying payloads on brief trips into space.