Five years ago, talk of space economics was viewed by many as science fiction. Those like me with extraterrestrial interests – and partly shaped by Star Trek‘s cast, who boldly explored the cosmos in our youth – were occasionally chastised as dreamers. But the realms of the possible are changing. Chemists play a big role when mankind breaks new ground – both on earth and in other worlds.
The UK space economy has more than tripled since 2000, supporting approximately 42,000 jobs. Headline initiatives such as the recently announced horizontal and vertical launch spaceports for the UK and Space Park Leicester demonstrate heavy investments in the science, manufacturing and technology base associated with the rapidly growing space economy. The spaceport projects alone will create thousands of new jobs and drive all sorts of exciting new innovations with a range of efficiency-enhancing applications on Earth. Even more new job opportunities are expected to come from partnerships with state space agencies and private entities, and be linked to a lunar economy, when the space outpost Lunar Gateway is founded after its launch in 2024. The international space market is estimated at £ 400 billion by 2030 and the UK is building on that at 10%, which would mean more than 100,000 new jobs.
The planetary research sector, which employs a number of physicists and which includes the UK Cosmochemical Analytical Network, is also growing. A wave of excitement swept across the globe when the Perseverance rover landed on Mars on February 18 to collect samples. The thrill will be renewed when the rocks travel to Earth for analysis in 2031. Other samples recovered from the moon (from the Chang’e-5 mission) and from asteroids (from Hyabusa2) landed on Earth in late 2020 and more are planned for 2023 (OSIRIS-REx). Plus, despite the lockdown, Britain’s people and skies lit up on February 28th when the first recovered meteorite fell near Winchcombe in 30 years. These fragments of rock and earth from space offer us critical insights into the history of our solar system, but will also guide us in the practical needs of extraterrestrial settlements and further space exploration.
With the accelerated growth of space and planetary sciences, chemists face all kinds of new perspectives and challenges. Materials brought from space are curated in special, bio-safe facilities. You will then be subjected to extensive interrogations using special imaging and microscopy equipment, analytical chemistry with gas chromatography and wet chemical processing in order to examine the organic and inorganic chemical systematics on a rock to atomic scale; based on the latest and most precise, highly sensitive mass spectrometers.
When space settlements become a reality, chemists will also be vital in the development of extraterrestrial habitats
Chemical knowledge will be vital to the development of new forms of batteries and propellants for missiles and extraterrestrial life. Extracting resources such as oxygen, energy, critical metals and building materials from other worlds requires tailor-made material sorting and innovative synthetic chemical processing methods that require new, extremely efficient processes. And when space settlements become a reality, chemists will also be instrumental in developing extraterrestrial habitats that sustainably circulate and recycle the water, oxygen, and nutrients essential to food production while regulating temperatures and minimizing waste. The design of these settlements, integrated with findings from human experiments in microgravity on board the International Space Station, must support the health and well-being of the astronauts and at the same time offer protection from the dangers of high radiation and meteorite bombardment on heavenly bodies in which atmospheres and shielding magnetic fields are absent or are missing weak. These astronauts – including the first woman to walk on the moon – might be chemists, as were many previous astronauts.
The effects of space exploration will also be felt here on earth. Technological innovations, fueled by the extraterrestrial efforts of humankind, have long helped make life better. The Apollo program and the International Space Station gave us cochlear implants, vacuum cleaners, memory foam, effective insulation materials, improved water purification and the culinary delights of freeze-dried food. Recently, the space sector has created many new green jobs in the UK, such as solar energy research engineers, with 15,000 more green jobs by 2030 and additional benefits and opportunities for Europe; all help promote sustainable practices and achieve net zero carbon emissions.
To prepare for that future, we should take inspiration from Star Trek’s rich mix of talent among the Starships Enterprise and Voyager crews. In the age of internationally cooperative space research, diverse teams and their ways of thinking are fair and decisive in order to maximize scientific and innovation potential. Since our time as guardians of the earth was anything but exemplary due to our divided wars, ecological and ecological effects and ongoing social and professional inequalities, we have a common duty to do significantly better when colonizing new worlds.
The prospects for chemists are here. Now is the time to live those dreams.