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What will space exploration look like in 2050?

5 min read

In the opening episode of Imperial College London and Saab’s Zero Pressure podcast, the first Briton in space, Helen Sharman, meets the first Swedish astronaut, Professor Christer Fuglesang, to discuss the future of space exploration and how it will affect the security of our world.

By the year 2050, humans will have established a permanent presence on the Moon and a research base on Mars, while space travel will become a regular occurrence for many people. And the climate crisis could be partly addressed by the use of enormous solar shades in space that could help to protect us from the worst warming effects of the sun.

So says Christer Fuglesang, the first Swedish astronaut, in ‘Space in 2050’, the first episode of Zero Pressure, a new podcast series from Saab and Imperial College London, which looks at how science and technology can solve complex, interrelated global challenges.

In a relaxed, wide-ranging and thought-provoking discussion, Christer and Zero Pressure’s host Helen Sharman, the UK’s first astronaut, speak about their own experiences of space travel, as well as the challenges and opportunities arising from space exploration in the decades to come.

“We’ll need a Planet B”

For Christer Fuglesang, the key space exploration issue we will need to solve by 2050 is how to live outside Earth. But in spite of the urgent challenges posed by climate change, the Swedish astronaut does not mean we will need to leave our own planet behind. In fact, Christer believes that enormous solar shades can be positioned in space to protect us from the worst of the sun’s heating effects.

“I definitely don’t think we will lose the possibility of living on Earth, but it’s always good for our long-term future to have a ‘Planet B’ to live on if, say, a huge comet will hit us and we don’t have time to deflect it,” he says.

In particular, Christer tells Helen Sharman that he believes that there will be life on Mars by 2050, and a greater human presence in space generally.

“I think we will be on the Moon again in five or six years’ time and it will be a stepping stone for exploring Mars. By 2050 there will be an established research base on the Moon with a permanent population and we’ll be able to find resources on the Moon that will help people stay there,” he says.

“I also think there will be people living on Mars, perhaps starting some colonies, and there will be mining of asteroids, mainly using robots. But humans will be travelling regularly between Moon, Mars and Earth.”

Opportunities and challenges of space exploration

Drawing on their own pioneering experiences in space in 1991 and 2006/8 respectively, both Helen Sharman and Christer Fuglesang believe that establishing agreed-upon regulations for space exploration, satellite decommissioning and the management of space debris will be vital.

But Christer is perhaps less concerned than Helen by the idea that the likes of China and Russia may choose to work separately from the international collaboration model favoured by NASA and the European Space Agency, as part of a militarised space race.

“China and Russia have signed the international memorandum of understanding, but if they explore the Moon separately from others I think it will be good to have the competition.”

“If we have fair rules that we can all agree upon, then each one can be allowed to do what they want. It’s like free trade or when we go to the Olympic Games to compete – I think if we have fair rules then it’s okay to have several teams trying to go as far in exploration as they can under those rules.”

Dealing with debris

But regardless of who is doing the exploring, both astronauts agree that issues with space debris and deactivated satellites are a concern. Helen Sharman says there around “half a million pieces of debris that are big enough to be lethal”.

She also recounted her own memory of her bedroom window on the Soviet space station Mir having been damaged a couple of days before she arrived there by a loose fleck of paint from an old satellite, such is the energy and momentum created from it hurtling through space.

And Christer Fuglesang recounted how micro-meteoroids, very small pieces of rock or metal broken off from larger chunks of rock and debris, damaged the handrails used to support astronauts on their spacewalks around the International Space Station, risking damage to the astronauts’ spacesuit gloves.

“As well as regulations to control how we dispose of satellites, we need them to have transponders – some sort of failsafe system that tracks them to keep us secure, but that will cost a lot of money.”

Future Zero Pressure podcasts

‘Space in 2050’ is a fascinating beginning to the Zero Pressure podcast series, which is available on most podcast platforms including Spotify, Google and Apple. Future episodes will see Helen Sharman and her guests at the cutting edge of science and technology discuss subjects such as autonomous systems and AI.

Your questions, comments and suggestions for future discussions are welcome. Follow the series on your favourite podcast platform and via Twitter to keep up-to-date and stay involved!