Silicon Valley Wants to Create Space 2.0

The keys to future space exploration are being handed off to a new generation of techies and entrepreneurs. 

Pixabay/Creative Commons

“The ultimate blue ocean.”

That’s the description Brandon Farwell of investment firm Rothenberg Ventures gave to the new landscape of space for this century when he spoke Wednesday afternoon at the International Space Station R&D Conference 2016. His short introduction to the discussion on “Space 2.0” was peppered with Silicon Valley lingo and references to “disruptive technologies” and “unicorns” (aka hawt new startups) along with the way companies can iterate towards new heights.

Unless you’re firmly embedded within the tech scene, all this can be very ingratiating. But underneath all that style, there is real substance to talking about the way tech companies are changing the future of space.

Space 2.0 basically refers to the future of private companies in space travel and exploration. This doesn’t just refer to businesses taking over orbital technology, space science and research, tourism, asteroid mining, and similar operations. Space 2.0 also weaves in the notion that companies will merge existing and emerging technologies and themes into space, such as virtual and augmented reality, drones, A.I., robotics, and 3D printing.

Few people are as well-versed in what Space 2.0 looks like behind the scenes than entrepreneur and X Prize Foundation founder and Peter Diamandis. “We’re in a period of rapid disruption,” he told conference attendees.

Yes, I’m loudly groaning about “disruption” as well, but he’s not wrong. “Things are changing year to year,” he said. “Breakthroughs in computation, networks, A.I., robotics, sensors, and transistor engineering mean we are moving from a linear progression of advancements in space tech, to an exponential one.”

Diamandis cites Moore’s Law (the idea that the number of transistors you can put on a microchip doubles roughly every two years) as both a literal and metaphorical template for how this is occurring. The more complex the components in an electrical system get, the more transformative technologies we can design and build. He cites the “explosions of sensors like LIDAR” that will make autonomous cars work, chips that can be fitted in molecule-sized devices, 3D printing that will allow us to print structures in space rather than build them here and launch them up, and more. Diamandis even made a rather crazy prediction that by the 2030s, people will have “nanobots in the brain that will be connected to the cloud. I know companies working on it. Do I believe it’s real? Yes, I do.”

Umm, let’s move on…

Diamandis sums up Space 2.0 as a future where humans “dematerialize, demonetize, and democratize space.” He means reaching a point where we do more with less, bringing the costs of technologies down so that small countries and private companies are more than capable of venturing off into space themselves.

Of course, all of this only makes sense in the abstract. So Chris Lewicki, president and CEO of space mining company Planetary Resources, provided a more cogent illustration of what Space 2.0 might actually look like and how it would “expand our economy into space.”

Lewicki thinks one of the biggest boons to space industries has been the shift from cautious, slogging research and development, to progression that is more fast paced and structured around efficiency. “What we can do now is develop [the technology] like an app or cellphone,” he said. “We can fail” — meaning the notion of having an accident or a crash is no longer the nightmare it used to be for spaceflight. “Failure is an option.”

Echoing Diamandis’ sentiments, Lewicki emphasized that “we don’t need to send everything into space.” Future technology will allow us to build infrastructure in space, set up fuel reserves in cis-lunar orbit, and pave the way for colonies that can help sustain mission crews before they’re able to make it back home.

The Redmond, Washington-based company is already making big strides in advancing plans to mine asteroids for water and precious metals (including a partnership with the fine European country of Luxembourg). Past success in landing probes on asteroids and even bringing back samples have proved we have the capability and the technology to feasibly dig into an asteroid and extract resources.

Part of what Planetary Resources is doing also relates to assisting life here on Earth. We have the technology now that lets us take images of an asteroid and characterize what kinds of minerals and metals are hidden underneath. Lewicki thinks those same instruments could be used to scan our planet and make observations important to, say, agriculture — watching water and moisture movements relevant to irrigation, temperature anomalies, weather patterns, etc.

“It’s just astounding what you can learn from our planet…when you can literally see what is unseen,” he said.

Ultimately, the key to making Space 2.0 a reality is not waiting for a miracle technology to fix our problems, but to move forward with what we already have and turn those tools into affordable, effective solutions. “We have solved these problems time and time again,” said Lewicki, “and have taken for granted how close we are to that next step.”