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The final frontier

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“The future ain’t what it used to be.” That famous quip by Yogi Berra may hold true now more than ever. Almost 2 decades ago, International Institute for Knowledge and Innovation co-founder and GWU Professor Emeritus William Halal gave a presentation on the results of his latest TechCast survey. His team used the Delphi technique, in which consensus among groups of subject matter experts is continually updated.

Predictions for the year 2020 included the emergence of cryptocurrencies and the commercialization of space. Many in the audience rolled their eyes in disbelief. However, those forecasts turned out to be spot-on. What we didn’t expect was the huge impact each would have on society as a whole; the future certainly wasn’t what we thought it would be.

With regard to the rapidly expanding world of cryptos, NFTs, and the like, we’ve discussed their many benefits and pitfalls in previous editions of this column. We’ve also pointed out, as we often do, that KM can play a major role in such endeavors, making the most of potential benefits while limiting downside risk. And nowhere are those benefits and risks more pronounced than in the brave new world of “commercial space.”

By the end of the decade, this industry is expected to exceed a trillion dollars annually, with over 20,000 additional satellites orbiting Earth. This includes hundreds of service spacecraft. Operated by AI-enabled robots, this mechanized space force will perform on-orbit repair, refueling, replenishment, and eventually support the cleanup and de-orbiting of debris and retired satellites.

Where the micro impacts the macro

There was a time when small objects were merely tossed away without any further thought. The world seemed immeasurably vast and the population insignificantly small. People used to marvel whenever a glass bottle containing a message would wind its way across the ocean to another continent. But with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, things changed dramatically.

Now we find large numbers of sea creatures choking to death on the growing volume of plastic bottles, straws, and bags carelessly tossed into the ocean. The same holds true for space. Back in 1957, Sputnik-I was a lone, football-sized object floating in the orbital vacuum. Today, controllers track over 15,000 objects ranging in size from a few inches to large, expended booster casings. However, only about 30% of the objects being tracked are operating satellites. The rest consists of over 12 million pounds of space “junk.”

Traveling at speeds of more than 14,000 miles per hour, even a tiny, pebble-sized fragment could knock a small satellite out of its orbital trajectory. That lone wayward object, or pieces of it, could bump into another, then another, causing a runaway cascade of collisions known as the Kessler Syndrome. And this doesn’t account for the many smaller particles of cosmic dust entering Earth’s atmosphere at the rate of about 200 every second.

Satellites costing hundreds of millions of dollars are at risk. For example, the European Space Agency’s $850M Olympus-I communications satellite was hit by a particle from the tail of Comet Swift-Tuttle, causing it to spin out of control. Unable to have it gracefully de-orbit, controllers redirected it into a “graveyard orbit,” where it became yet another piece of worthless space junk.

Additionally, there’s the ever-present hazard of solar storms. In February of this year, 40 SpaceX satellites were rendered useless only one day after launch. They were disabled by a geomagnetic storm following a solar flare, which in turn caused an expansion of the upper atmosphere, bringing the final leg of their ascent into orbit to an abrupt halt.

Meanwhile, back on terra firma, commercial space increasingly impacts domestic and international air travel. If you’ve ever watched a fireworks display upfront and close, you may have noticed bits of debris floating gently down from the sky. Now imagine the amount of debris generated by 150-foot boosters carrying over a million pounds of solid propellant. The affected area covers thousands of square miles around which air traffic must be either delayed or re-routed for periods of up to several hours. This disruption now occurs on almost a weekly basis.

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