Space is now the subject of wide scientific, economic, and technological interest.
– Space is on the agenda now in the same way it was at the end of the 1960s, when the race for the Moon went on, says Minna Palmroth, professor in computational space physics at the University of Helsinki.
We are utilizing space more than ever before. Our phones and cars contain sat-navs and positioning devices. Satellite images produce data for weather forecasts.
– If we stopped using satellites today, we'd end up right back in the 1950s.
The flip side is that humankind is more and more dependent on space and its conditions. The workings of GPS, radar, and radio signals, as well as airline traffic and electricity networks are susceptible to changes in space weather.
The boom is growing. Besides countries and international organisations, corporations are also competing about the control of space. It may be that, in future, minerals will be mined on celestial bodies. Questions about e.g. rights and responsibilities will arise.
– We need people who can work out agreements in this area, i.e. experts in space law and politics, says Palmroth.
– The utilization of satellite data is also on the rise in many areas, like research into the atmosphere and climate change.
Centre of Excellence seeks solutions for sustainable space use
The University of Helsinki is the largest and most versatile institution with space research in Finland. The degree programme in astronomy studies deep space, like black holes and the galaxies. Space research, for its part, focuses on inner space and its conditions, such as space weather.
Space technology is also used within other disciplines, such as climate research and geography. A PhD thesis in space law is already being written in the Faculty of Law at the University of Helsinki.
– For the study of Earth, space is more and more critical. This is why the interest in space is growing within many disciplines, says Minna Palmroth.
The Centre of Excellence in Research for Sustainable Space, led by Professor Palmroth and financially backed by the Academy of Finland, is developing solutions for the sustainability challenges of space utilisation. Besides the University of Helsinki, Aalto University, the University of Turku, and the Finnish Meteorological Institute are partners in the project.
Space debris, mainly from satellites, is threatening to make the orbits unfit for use.
– There are already some orbits that are avoided since there is statistically a great risk for collisions, says Post-Doctoral Researcher Markus Battarbee from the space physics group in the centre of excellence.
The problem is getting worse, since SpaceX alone is planning to send up 30,000 new satellites into space in its development of the Starlink satellite internet system.
According to Battarbee, there are already estimated to be over 900,000 pieces of debris of one centimetre or more in orbit. A particle of paint of a few millimetres, which has come off a satellite, can already cause havoc. In a collision in the great speeds in orbit, it can cause as much damage as a stone that hits a windshield on the motorway.
If there are many satellites in the sky, it may also impact astronomy observations.
The space research centre of excellence is trying to solve the problem with space debris by studying space conditions that affect the launching and use of satellites and by developing a technique for decommissioning satellites and bringing them down to Earth.
– This is very challenging and ground-breaking research, says Battarbee.
Shortage of space experts
We do not even know yet all the tasks that people working with space may have in the future.
– I believe that we haven't even thought of all the ways we can use space yet, says Minna Palmroth.
She recommends that students invest in four things: introductory courses, cooperation skills, computational skills, and application.
– These will take you far.
The introductory courses will give you a solid base for expertise geared towards application, according to Palmroth. Cooperation is vital because space professionals will be working in many different fields in the future. Solutions are discovered within teams.
As an example of the new job opportunities in the field, Palmroth mentions the start-ups in the space field that have been established in Finland in the past five years. Many of them were started by students.
In Palmroth's own field, space research, there is currently a global shortage of experts in the computational methods for super-computers. Both companies and research institutes and universities are searching for experts.
– All of them are sucked into the job market immediately.