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Since the Space Age dawned in 1957, a flow to the market place of items originally developed to support space related activities has gradually increased from a trickle to a torrent. Telephone communications, weather forecasting and crop monitoring have all come to be conducted by satellite, and hardware derived from studies in space navigation and control is presently used by the general public to establish positional information in environments as varied as those provided by the transport and leisure industries. Telecommunications constitutes the largest, and most rapidly expanding, market in space products and this growth area currently offers substantial financial opportunities to service providers, operators and purveyors of infra-structure within both the, already ‘classical’, area of mobile communications, and the newer regime of information services. Associated hardware in use by young and old becomes every day more miniaturized, while generally remaining powerful, portable and affordable.

Space based communications offer critical support during natural disasters, particularly in situations where the local ground infra-structure has been destroyed. Early warning of such disasters is increasingly provided through the informed monitoring of precursors. Radar interferometry can, for example, detect the first minute displacements that precede volcanic eruptions, and also the small tectonic shifts that can lead to earthquakes. Other indicators that can be monitored from space include gas emissions, thermal anomalies, gravity anomalies and electromagnetic signals.

The detection of forest fires and the organization of search and rescue activities in remote areas can, in addition, be usefully undertaken by satellite. A dramatic example of the use of space related hardware to alleviate a ‘man made’ catastrophe is instanced by the utilization of a robotic vehicle, originally developed for the, remotely controlled, exploration of Mars, for the on-site clearance of dangerous substances following the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl. Today, the next generation of dedicated robotic systems is under development for use in a variety of hazardous terrestrial environments

In our general example of disaster mitigation, the establishment of operational models can involve the employment of advanced image processing; integration of distributed data archives; fusion of data acquired over a range of spatial and temporal resolution and utilization of technologies related to data storage and transmission. All of these techniques were developed to a high level for space applications and are presently used, not only to support disaster associated activities, but in the service of a plethora of ground based businesses. On an ‘all planet’ scale, a deeper understanding of the complex interactions between the oceans, land masses and the atmosphere of the Earth has been acquired through remote sensing studies. These insights are currently bolstering a sense of global responsibility towards the ecosystem which, in turn, drives initiatives at social and political levels to find means to counteract those anthropomorphic activities that put our planet at risk.

In diverse enterprises (provision of power grid networks, prospecting; the airline industry etc.), there is a developing awareness of the disruptive influence that can be exerted on ongoing operations by Space Weather. Consequently, a new generation of entrepreneurs has emerged who, through numerical modeling of the propagation of solar related shocks and particles through interplanetary space, routinely forecast terrestrial phenomena that potentially affect a wide range of commercial, as well as of military, programs.

Spin-off space technologies introduced within hospitals, bring to the ailing hitherto unavailable levels of diagnosis and relief. For example, ultra-sound assessment of burn damage depth is available for victims of fires; also, astronaut-based suits have been developed that, through the circulation of a coolant, significantly reduce the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy and other traumatic conditions. Innovations in composite material design and fabrication support the realization of body implants characterized by reduced rejection levels and long durability. In intensive care units, fault tolerant electronics developed for space flight provide enhanced reliability for life support systems.

Programs to provide education by satellite to populations in remote, under developed, areas help to provide a more even playing field for the disadvantaged. Meanwhile, in scientifically and technologically more advanced regions of the Earth, knowledge no longer remains the preserve of a privileged few. Rather, the rate of transfer of information pertinent to a particular scientific advance, dating from its first emergence among experts through to its general incorporation in global literature as ‘received knowledge,’ currently takes place at a very rapid rate. In this regard, while the general public may not understand all that is associatively involved, there has occurred, nevertheless, an associated raising within society of an appreciation of sophisticated subjects. When, for instance, Einstein developed Relativity Theory in the early nineteen hundreds, only a handful of people, world wide, had an insight into what was involved. In 2004, when the Gravity Probe B Mission was launched to test two predictions of General Relativity (concerning the warping of space-time and the frame dragging effect), newspaper articles available internationally could successfully convey, at a level understandable to non-scientific readers, the meaning and beauty of the experiment that was being attempted.

A new general awareness of man’s place in the universe has, in parallel, emerged. Initially, the Grand Tour of the Solar System implemented by Voyager 1 and 2 sparked, through the medium of television, an unprecedented interest in the spectacular landscapes of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Thereafter, without the cultural convulsion that characterized the Copernican revolution, the identification of other planetary systems around distant stars subtly changed for ever mankind’s perception that the Solar System constitutes a unique environment. Evidence that the basic conditions for the evolution of life may be fulfilled more frequently than had previously been assumed at remote locations is currently being gathered, and this area of research holds enormous public appeal. The imaginative prospect of establishing a lunar base and of the manned exploration of Mars now beckons to many and, fed by the products of the related market for authoritatively written ‘paper back’ books on astronomy and space science, conversations concerning the origin and fate of the universe have moved out of academia into taxis and coffee houses, where they are enjoyed at an increasingly informed level.

The new scientific insights, innovative and efficient technologies and progressively more comfortable life styles achieved by the main space faring nations over the past, approximately fifty, years has, in addition, generated an important consequence. Namely that many, as yet developing, nations are currently following NASA and ESA in combining the skills of multi-disciplinary experts (astrophysicists, biologists, geologists, engineers etc.) to mount challenging space programs of their own. This work is encouraged and supported through the organization of workshops and symposia by: the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) and the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR). All of the above mentioned bodies, in close co-operation with the United Nations, strive to foster the efficient transfer of key space technologies from one country to another. Against this co-operative background, an ever growing international coterie of scientists and engineers, informed by the successes of the past and inspired by dreams of the future, is massing. It can be anticipated that these personnel will, within the coming fifty years, provide the intellectual and emotional commitment that will allow mankind to take the next step forward into space, developing thereby those themes and technologies that will, in their turn, positively impact the global societies of tomorrow.

Prof. Dr. Susan McKenna-Lawlor
Managing Director
Space Technology Ireland, National University of Ireland, Maynooth

Professional Category: Physical Sciences


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