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Falcon 9 launch streak
SpaceX launched 31 Falcon 9 rockets in 2021, part of a worldwide surge in orbital launch activity last year. (credit: SpaceX)

Steady growth beyond the skies: five trends in outer space from 2021

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Outer space was one of the most successful domains in 2021 amidst fluctuations in politics and industry worldwide. The world observed dynamic growth in space, specifically in the participation of non-state players, while among the government players there was significant institutionalization. There were an estimated 141 orbital launches in the year with 132 successes and up to ten missions that were related to various planetary achievements. The 2020s have seen a significant increase in investment in space, and many of the missions undertaken in the past decade have come to fruition in the past two years. These achievements individually have added a lot of value and have set the ball rolling for a Space Race 2.0. This time, it includes many more contenders than the US or the former USSR, and have expanded to include major corporations competing at an unprecedented scale. What are the highlights of space activities in 2021?

In recent years, the private sector have shown significant capabilities and constantly engaged with the governments, changing the way one would look at space.

The year saw a consistent growth in many space sectors, including many anticipated technologies and missions. The growth in space have been both horizontal and vertical. As the world saw the impressive display of new technologies, it also witnessed relatively new players achieve significant goals. Humankind once again outdid itself by venturing further and achieving deeper knowledge of the domain while also reducing costs and working towards the sustainable futures of the investments made for space.

In recent years, the private sector have shown significant capabilities and constantly engaged with the governments, changing the way one would look at space. Simultaneously, a coalition of Russia and China announced combined activities related to joint missions, including their intention of setting up a Moon base, the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), for scientific purposes. This can be viewed as their response to the Artemis Accords of 2020. In 2021, China conducted more orbital launches than the US, while Russia stands third in the number of orbital launches. Myanmar, Tunisia, Kuwait, Paraguay, and Moldova are some of the new entrants who launched their first satellites during the year. Additionally, this year marked the presence of the highest number of humans (after 2009) at a time beyond the atmosphere, with 16 people.

With the coming year set to be filled with much more expansive activities, beginning with the Artemis 1 mission, Europe and Russia aiming to send a rover to Mars, testing of new rockets, and NASA’s DART mission crashing into an asteroid, here is a look at the five trends that have shaped space activities in the last year.

Private industry competition: SpaceX is the most popularly known private player in space. There has been a steady growth in investment in private space companies and many of those displayed their capabilities during 2021. Three prominent among tourist missions in 2021 were suborbital tourist flights by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin and SpaceX’s orbital tourist flight. The year also saw Axiom Space getting approval to send private astronauts to the International Space Station. Many private companies are involved in preparing and launching small satellites and satellite constellations serving various industries, while new companies offer in-situ service abilities and satellite longevity services, which are great for reducing the burden on the government investments.

Solar system exploration: The year began with the successes of three Martian missions by the US, UAE, and China, each mission with unique goals. That includes the Ingenuity helicopter technology demonstration that is part of NASA’s Perseverance mission. A second successful mission would be the Parker Solar Probe, which became the first spacecraft to pass through the Sun’s corona last year. In October, NASA’s Lucy mission launched on a mission to explore Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids and study the evolution of the solar system.

Space Race 2.0: There is a space race brewing, as seen by the technological competition and the political intention of the countries with significant space capabilities. This year saw intense competition between the space powers of Russia, the US, and China. Though the Chinese have matched or surpassed the US in technological capabilities in certain sectors like a hypersonic vehicle test or with their space station, the Chinese still have a long way to catch up with the US technological strengths overall. However, the Chinese space capabilities and its steady growth in space can be seen as a threat to the US dominance in space. Certainly, US space capabilities are branching out into myriad private companies, which have reduced the burden of investments by the state.

Private industry is likely to expand at a very fast pace. Considering the alarming absence of regulatory systems, the coming years should lead to calls for more efforts by nations to address this vacuum.

Three incidents from 2021 can be considered as indicators of the space race. One is the ASAT test by Russia in November. The second is the Chinese display of hypersonic capabilities, which they claimed were for their satellite launches. The third, arguably, is the US DART mission, which shows capabilities for planetary defense that could potentially be used against adversaries when needed. Additionally, there have been instances between the US and China of blaming each other’s activities as a threat to their own. These include US complaints of the impact of the falling booster that launched a Chinese space station module and the Chinese complaints to the UN against SpaceX. The Russian ASAT test was extensively criticized for the debris that it generated. Russia and China, meanwhile, continued working with each other in their space activities.

Technological milestones: SpaceX’s Falcon 9 completed 31 orbital flights just in 2021, and the company also marked the 100th landing of a rocket. The long-awaited launch of the James Webb Space Telescope and its subsequent, flawless deployment is another major space technology milestone. The space debris problem is the focus of multiple cleanup missions, such as Astroscale’s ELSA-d, which demonstrated a magnetic capture system in August.

Space tourism: Space tourism was one of the highlights of 2021. Many private companies marked the beginning of their tourism services. The CEOs and public faces of some of these companies went on their first flights. It is significant to know that most of these private individuals were untrained civilians flying beyond the atmosphere, either to orbit or on a suborbital mission. In addition, a crew from Russia flew to the ISS to shoot a movie. These missions have included a diverse group of individuals ranging from a cancer survivor to the first Black woman pilot, performing diverse activities such as painting or photography.

These trends are expected to continue in the coming year. Private industry is likely to expand at a very fast pace. Considering the alarming absence of regulatory systems, the coming years should lead to calls for more efforts by nations to address this vacuum. Interesting times lie ahead.

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