School of Mechanical & Mining Engineering

14/07/2017 - 11:22

Big plans are being made in space.

Investment banks want to mine asteroids for rare, valuable metals. Japan wants to build a solar power station. Billionaire tycoons want to build hotels in orbit for space tourists.

We could be seeing the start of an economic boom in space. But so far, none of these ideas have made it far from the drawing board. What’s holding them back?

Reusing rockets

First and foremost, it’s hard to make profit in space. Moving “stuff” (cargo, equipment and people) from Earth into space is an expensive process. This is because we haven’t learnt how to recycle rockets yet.

Since the launch of Sputnik started the space age 60 years ago, most of the spacecraft that have been launched are Expendable Launch Vehicles (ELVs), which only fly once. After delivering their payload, they either come crashing back down to Earth, burn up in the atmosphere, or simply remain in orbit as “space junk”.

Every time a new payload needs to be sent into space, a new ELV has to be built, costing millions of dollars. Imagine how much an Uber would cost if the driver had to buy a new car for every trip!