The US government has released a low-Earth orbit research and development strategy, anticipating a transition from the International Space Station (ISS) to the use of a private-sector successor and investigating approaches to combating the threat of orbital debris.
The vision of the US National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) is for continued US leadership in space exploration, using low Earth orbit (LEO) science to help advance its ambitions to explore the Moon and Mars, as well as to expand its international partnerships and LEO’s “equal access » provision for peaceful purposes, especially for commercial activities.
LEO refers to orbits at altitudes of 2,000 km (1,200 miles) or less, according to NASA, and is where the ISS can be found, as well as many satellites such as the 3,500+ Broadband Service Units that are in operation by Starlink.
National Low Earth Orbit Research and Development Strategy [PDF] was published by the NSTC and outlines five US policy goals to pursue that loudly claim to “prioritize the use of LEO for the benefit of humanity.”
The first is simply to advance science and technology by supporting space exploration, while the second is to strengthen US government cooperation and partnerships to encourage new entrants through the LEO National Laboratory.
Promoting market opportunities is perhaps inevitable where the US is involved, but this policy goal also aims to ensure equal access to equipment and facilities for small businesses on future commercial space platforms, and to address economic and regulatory barriers to space research and development.
Also, report [PDF] Consultants Deloitte have estimated that the LEO economy could be worth between $151 billion and $312 billion in annual economic value by 2035.
The fourth and fifth goals are to expand international cooperation and promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and workforce development.
No delay for ISS
The NSTC notes that while the U.S. aims to extend the ISS until 2030, it will then have to rely on commercial space stations for any on-orbit research. This transition, along with the rise of private sector launch vehicles, marks an entirely new era for spaceflight and space exploration, paving the way for new innovations and opportunities, he enthuses.
Emphasis on reusability and more diverse market demand promises to lower launch costs, NSTC predicts, which should bring us closer to a time when living and working in space may be commonplace.
However, LEO programs will also be used to support research and infrastructure for national security purposes, it hinted darkly, but only under “applicable law,” of course. This effort will require infrastructure such as ground systems, satellite systems, possibly assembly capability in space, and reusable vehicles.
It has not escaped NSTC that LEO is the perfect environment for using microgravity to conduct research that would be difficult or impossible on Earth. Therefore, it said, the US government should pursue a program in the biological and physical sciences aimed at “transforming” space-related scientific discoveries to improve life both on Earth and in space.
A key part of this will be to ensure that experiments in orbit are as repeatable as experiments on the ground. This requires advances in automation to eliminate the need for human intervention and the development of advanced on-site sample preparation and analysis equipment, NSTC said.
Space Academy to keep LEO safe
The creation of a national LEO laboratory supported by government-sponsored research appears to be being explored by NASA. This will have the opportunity to promote a diverse range of research and development activities and provide technical support to the LEO research community.
It is envisioned that this could include orbital and suborbital platforms, as well as land-based facilities such as the Department of Energy’s national laboratories, NASA’s Space Flight and Research Centers, Department of Defense laboratories, universities and private sector partners.
To prioritize access to LEO for scientific research, the NTSC calls on the US government to research and develop a strategy to address the problem of orbital debris, as well as develop new technologies to increase the endurance of spacecraft.
It also encourages coordination on the safety of human spaceflight, saying that in the post-ISS environment, the US must lead the way in developing and implementing open and transparent international policies and practices for safe spaceflight. This will include sharing orbital information about missions and potential threats to the life or health of astronauts.
The strategy document concludes that with these goals in place, the U.S. will “demonstrate its commitment to advancing research in LEO by leveraging the nation’s commercial enterprise to develop the infrastructure necessary to advance the space economy.” ®