Széchenyi István University: the Spinoff Club focused on the space industry and Mars travel

Can Elon Musk's plan to put a man on Mars by 2029 succeed? Can we communicate more effectively in space with lasers or radio signals? What will humanity do about space control? And is the space business worth investing in or will the segment touted as the business of the future pop like a balloon? These were the questions that Széchenyi István University's first Spinoff Club event in the autumn sought to answer, where the topic was approached from three different angles by the institution's experts: from the rocketry side by Dr. Dániel Feszty, from the telecommunications side by Dr. Péter Vári, and from the space law side by Dr. Gábor Sulyok.

Széchenyi István University is engaged in a wide range of business promotion activities, including community building. In addition to awareness-raising, the Spinoff Club organised by the Centre of Cooperation between for Higher Education and Industry plays a major role in this, where students can learn about the experiences and get advice from speakers from the business world or hear about the background of a particular economically interesting segment.

The first event of this autumn semester was part of the latter series: this time, the guests of the club discussed the state of the space industry in their presentations. The invited speakers are all researchers at the Széchenyi István University, and they are also lecturers in the Space Technology Post Graduate Training Course born from the cooperation of the UniSpace government programme, and 17 Hungarian universities.

Photo gallery from the event. (Photo: Márton Horváth)

The event was opened by Dr. Szabolcs Rámháp, the founder, main organiser and moderator of the event.

"Humanity has long been preoccupied with space, which has been at the centre of religious disputes for thousands of years, but after the Second World War became an area of contest between superpowers. Nowadays, a multitude of start-ups have entered the field: some have found business opportunities in space tourism, others in space mining, and still others in satellite services. Elon Musk, the owner of SpaceX, has even gone so far as to plan a manned mission to Mars by 2029, with the aim of creating a self-sustaining city on the celestial surface over decades."- we could hear in the introduction.

But do these businesses really have huge potential, or will the burgeoning space business pop like the dotcom balloon in the early 2000s? - the question was posed by the main organiser and answered by the invited speakers.

The Spinoff Club was founded by the Széchenyi István University in 2008, and after many years it was relaunched in 2018, now under the supervision of Dr. Szabolcs Rámháp (Photo: Márton Horváth)

"If a basketball is the Earth, the atmosphere would be a 2 millimetre thick tissue in which the ball is wrapped. The International Space Station orbits at around 5-6 millimetres, which is still very close. This is the band we call low Earth orbit, and it is in this layer at an altitude of 300-400 kilometres that the vast majority of human space activity takes place. However, there are satellites that line up much further away, 35,000 kilometres from the Earth's surface, which in our example would be roughly half a metre from the basketball. The Moon is ten times that distance."– Dr. Dániel Feszty, Head of Department and Professor of the Whole Vehicle Development Department at Széchenyi University, an expert in the field of vehicle development at Audi Hungaria, who graduated as an aeronautical engineer from Carleton University in Canada, illustrated the space proportions with an easy-to-understand example.

Because gravity pulls everything towards Earth, an object orbiting a planet must move at a suitable speed in orbit to maintain its position. In 1961, Yuri Gagarin circumnavigated the globe in 58 minutes - no more, no less. If the body moves slower than that, it falls into the atmosphere; if it moves faster, it heads for open space. Physics tells us that the closer we are to the planet, the higher the stable orbital velocity. At 300 kilometres from the surface, we orbit the planet in a few hours, but at 35,000 kilometres, in what is called geostationary orbit, our speed is the same as the planet's rotation, so we make a circle in a full day, so we are always exactly over one point on Earth. The telecommunications satellites are lined up at this distance, above the equator, which is why you always have to point the dish of your antennae southwards to watch satellite TV.

"To get into orbit around the Earth, we need to move away from the surface at tremendous speeds, which we do with rockets. The problem is that we have to carry all the fuel and combustion oxygen we'll ever use during our journey, which severely limits how far we can fly. To go as far as we can and carry as much weight as possible, we need to build a bigger rocket, and that's not easy. The current largest is the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, which slightly outperforms the capabilities of the former champion Saturn-V. We don't build bigger not because we don't want to, but because we can't."– explained Dr. Dániel Feszty, stressing that

it will not be enough for a trip to Mars, so without a propulsion unit, a manned mission is not feasible, and a colony of millions of people - with our current technology - is in the category

of science fiction.

"The reality is space activity around our basketball in the tiny 5-6 millimetre band. With the current level of rocket propulsion, the conquest of nearby planets is just a dream, so something new has to be invented," said Dr. Dániel Feszty, dispelling the illusions of the audience. (Photo: Márton Horváth)

It is not only the journey that would be difficult during a Mars expedition, but also the communication, said Dr Péter Vári, lecturer at Széchenyi István University and Deputy Director General for Technology at the National Media and Infocommunications Authority. The expert believes that space telecommunications is a big challenge for engineers, as there is no suitable technology between the 250 gigahertz radio waves of the electromagnetic spectrum and laser light, which is an optical solution.

"There are two ways of communicating between the Earth and satellites: laser or radio. In the first case, the sky must be clear, otherwise you cannot see the other side. The radio window is more favourable, where it only depends on the humidity whether we can exchange data. The advantage of lasers is that the bandwidth is extremely high, so we could send images in UHD resolution. With radio waves, this capacity is smaller."- said the lecturer.

According to Dr Péter Vári, it is already difficult to communicate with our space instruments near the Earth - and it will get even worse in the future, thanks to increased traffic in the sky.

"There was a case where the International Space Station was supposed to be talking to the ground station, but a Brazilian taxi driver called in. He was surprised to find astronauts on the line. This could happened because more and more instruments are sharing the radio spectrum, so communication has to be organised and coordinated," underlined the Deputy Director-General, who also pointed out that StarLink and similar megacongestions, i.e. groups of satellites consisting of hundreds or thousands of components, do not cause any interference in space flight or radio communication, but they do make astronomy with ground-based telescopes much more difficult, as they obscure the observed sky as tiny patches.

During his student days, Dr Péter Vári never imagined that there would be a StarLink terminal on the roof of the dormitory - nor that the SZESAT team would launch a working space device into space. (Photo by Márton Horváth)

"Space law was born out of the need to provide a legal framework for everything that happens in space. From accidents to expropriation to the use of weapons. So I can't do what I want in space, the law puts limits on that freedom."– said Dr. Gábor Sulyok, lecturer at the Széchenyi István University, senior research fellow at the Institute for Social Research of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, then briefly listed the most important principles.

"Perhaps most importantly, neither outer space nor any part of a astronomical object can be expropriated by claiming to extend state sovereignty, i.e. no one can claim exclusive dominion over space beyond Earth. As for warfare: conventional weapons are allowed in orbit around the Earth, but the deployment of weapons of mass destruction is prohibited everywhere. Even astronomical objects may only be used for peaceful purposes and no military activities may be carried out on them. Outer space is therefore a semi-demilitarised zone," he said.

"Since 1996, the international community has not achieved much in the way of legislation, even though the list of things to be regulated is at least as long as the list of things we have already regulated. One cardinal ambition is to reduce space debris. The illustrations may make it look like a litter trail around the planet, but in reality we are talking about a vast volume of space in which even these many tiny objects are dwarfed. Of course, traffic management of space objects will eventually be needed on a global scale, and that's a task we'll have to take on too."– said dr. Gábor Sulyok.

The economic outlook for the space sector is mixed, according to the expert. The latest figures put the value of the global space industry at $546 billion, a figure that is growing steadily year on year, so it is definitely worth investing in the sector."

Further expansion is indicated by the steep fall in launch costs. The cost of launching a kilogram of payload into space has fallen from an initial $80,000 to $20,000 by the end of the space shuttle programme. With the advent of SpaceX, costs have fallen radically, by almost a tenth, thanks largely to the reusable first stage. Forecasts predict an expenditure of a few hundred dollars within a few years, which will also benefit space tourism and telecommunication applications. However, there is no reason to fear a proliferation of space mining: current capacities could have a payback period of several thousand years, which is understandably not being taken on board by the operators.

"For the time being, we do not need to fear that cargo ships full of regolith will transport minerals to Earth," says Dr. Gábor Sulyok.(Photo: Márton Horváth)

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