Humans have looked at the stars for hundreds of thousands of years, wondering what’s up there. It wasn’t until the invention of the telescope, in the early 1600s, that that we’ve gotten some answers. It then took 3 and a half centuries for us to reach space, and eventually venture off to the Moon a few years later. Things have been relatively quiet since then, but the late 1990s and early 2000s reinvigorated the public passion for space. A few exorbitantly rich people even plan to make space tourism commercially available. With that, let’s dive into space technology.
What is space technology?
Space technology is a technology used in travel or activities beyond the atmosphere of the Earth. It originated in the late 1950s, as a result of a fight for dominance over aeronautics and space science and technology between two countries, the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), also known as the Soviet Union, and the United States. The existence of space technology stems from knowledge from other types of technology – transportation technology (especially automotive and aeronautical), communication technology, electronics technology, textile technology, and many others. It also owes its inception to science, including mathematics, chemistry, biology, anatomy, solar and space physics, astronomy, and others.
Examples of space technology
These are some notable representatives of space technology:
A satellite is an object intentionally placed in orbit. It’s commonly called an artificial satellite to differentiate it from natural satellites, such as Earth’s Moon. The artificial satellite is the first piece of technology to ever reach space. USSR achieved this on October 4, 1957, when their 83 kg (183 lb) satellite, Sputnik 1, orbited the Earth at an altitude of around 160 miles or 250 km. The radio waves, sent at frequencies of 20.005 MHz and 40.002 MHz, allowed scientists to analyze the ionosphere (altitude of 48 km/30 miles-965 km/600 miles) density, pressure, and temperature and played a crucial part in detecting the first meteoroid.
How many satellites are in space?
According to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs‘s Outer Space Objects Index, as of the end of April 2021, there are 7389 active artificial satellites in space. This is a growth of 27.97% in comparison to 2020. Important to note, a total of 11,139 artificial satellites reached space, but the rest either burned up in the atmosphere or remained in space as debris.
Spacecrafts are machines or vehicles designed to travel in outer space by flying. Spacecraft is a type of artificial satellite since it can orbit or plummet toward Earth partially or in its entirety. Their purpose can be observation of Earth, planetary and space exploration, transportation of cargo or humans, communication with the Earth, navigation, meteorology, and even conducting experiments in space. Only one type of spacecraft, single-stage-to-orbit vehicle, can venture into space on its own. Others require a carrier rocket e.g., a launch vehicle, to provide the propulsion necessary to leave the atmosphere. Spacecrafts fall into two main categories:
The first uncrewed spacecraft was V-2, a German guided ballistic missile, which reached an altitude of 189 km in June 1944. This drastically bypassed the 100-km altitude mark that constituted entering space, according to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the world governing body for setting records. Since then, uncrewed spacecraft went on to include other types such as:
- Semi-crewed: Spacecraft that’s part of a space station.
- Earth-orbiting spacecraft
- Lunar probe: Spacecrafts that orbit, observe, map, land, or move on Moon’s surface.
- Planetary probe: Spacecrafts that fly by, orbit, observe, map, touch down, or traverse other planets and their moons.
- Deep space probes: Piece of technology designed to explore far reaches of space, both within the Solar system and beyond.
The first spacecraft that achieved human spaceflight, Vostok 1, launched on April 12, 1961, and carried Yuri Gagarin, a 27-year-old USSR cosmonaut, for a single full rotation around Earth. The flight lasted 108 minutes from launch to landing, and Yuri parachuted from the capsule at an altitude of 7 km. Both the capsule and the service module, which were separated upon reentry, landed in Kazakhstan. Today’s crewed spacecraft utilize fully reusable launch systems and are fully reusable themselves because of the sky-high production costs and plans for commercial space travel.
3. Space station
ISS (International Space Station) is the largest habitable artificial satellite in space. It was launched on November 20, 1998, as a joint venture between space agencies from Russia, United States, Europe, Japan, and Canada. It rotates the Earth in approximately 93 minutes, making 15.5 orbits per day at an average altitude of 250 miles or 400 km. ISS is primarily used for scientific research and experiments thanks to microgravity (zero g/weightlessness). Researchers also utilize the environment for developing and testing space technologies required for missions to the Mars and Moon.
Application of space technology
The following are some areas we apply space technology in:
1. Space exploration
Space exploration represents the use of space technology combined with astronomy to explore outer space. This refers to both Earth-bound telescopes such as the Hubble Space Telescope and the objects already in space. The goal is to amass knowledge about the Sun and planets, moons, and natural satellites in our Solar system. It also allows us to study comets, asteroid belts, and examine deep space. Another focus point is the existence of extraterrestrial life, through the study named astrobiology or exobiology, as well as potential human space habitation. The latter spawned a host of studies such as bioastronautics, space medicine, space facilities and space settlements, and dedicated architecture technology.
2. Life on Earth
Artificial satellites collect information about Earth’s oceans, land, air, and clouds, and can report climate and weather changes. The data analysis leads to improvements in global health, environment, sustainable development planning, and disaster management. It also goes hand in hand with agriculture technology, machine learning, and Artificial Intelligence. As a result, we have satellite imagery and navigation, crop planning, weather prediction, remote sensing and mapping, and much more. Space-based technologies are also cheaper and reduce infrastructure requirements. For example, satellites can provide global telecommunications via text, video, and audio. Moreover, SpaceX has already launched Starlink, a constellation of 1700+ satellites as of 2021. Their goal is to provide low-latency, high-speed broadband Internet to most of the Earth.