The McGill Bicentennial Space Research Conference held this week was one of the first in person events at McGill University since the pandemic took hold. The following overview of some of the sessions is contributed by Upasana Dasgupta, a doctoral student at the Institute of Air and Space Law, McGill University.
By Upasana Dasgupta
The McGill Space Research Conference two day event held May 3rd and 4th considered space as a platform where law, health, engineering and technology fused together. Thus, the conference took an interdisciplinary angle to outer space studies.
The Plenary Session 1: ICAO/Pratt & Whitney Canada Leadership Conversation began with a discussion on how the space race in the history led to development of space technology which was was nascent stage at that time. The scientists slowly figured out how to travel to space and moon and lessons were also learnt from disasters that took place. The panel discussion included how Montreal is a hub of air and space with ICAO, IATA, Air Canada, Air Transat, Canadian Space Agency – all having their offices in Montreal. However, this is the toughest time of aviation history due to the pandemic, rise of fuel prices and other factors. Further, space industry has led to general development of the other industries with which it has a symbiotic relationship. Microchip and fibreglass, for example, are spinoffs of space technology and application. Further, space applications hugely benefits life on Earth today, including communications, navigation and disaster management.
Post plenary, there were two simultaneous sessions on Future Space Technologies and Planetary Protection. The one on Future Space Technologies noted that space economies are rapidly growing. Remote sensing which is a space application, is using more and more artificial intelligence. GEO satellites are becoming more and more software dependent. Space traffic management problems also can be addressed by use of artificial intelligence, the panel noted. In general, space is using more and more sophisticated technology such as NASA’s project of self assembling satellites by a robotic arm and 3D printing in space especially for rovers.
The simultaneous Panel 2 dealt with questions such as whether microbes from Earth may mutate in other celestial bodies and become harmful to future astronauts. Also, can these microbes contaminate outer space and celestial bodies. The panel answer to these questions is probably no, the microbes from Earth would not contaminate outer space. The panel opined that planetary protection guidelines clearly needed balances with desire to find extraterrestrial life and exploration and common interest of scientific community. The panel also noted that the cold salty water of Mars beneath the surface in summer maybe evidence of life.
The 3rd panels of the day were – Is GCR (Galactic Cosmic Radiation) a Show Stopper for Deep Space Travel? and Deep Space Healthcare: Autonomous Medicine; Practical AI & Systems Integration with Space Ontology both dealt with effects of radiation.
Astronaut Robert Thirsk presented on radiation and how it affects health on space. He also noted the importance of physician onboard a space mission. The next session was a conversation with Mike Greenley, CEO of MDA who noted that space exploration is similar to discovery of new regions on Earth such as Canada where settlers came with their knowledge and technology. The next session was the session with 5 astronauts. The session was live streamed, available below, and included five current and former Canadian astronauts who shared their experience of travelling to the International Space Station (ISS), including the difference between travelling in the Soyuz and Space Shuttle. As an astronaut stated, Soyuz is more like sports car, the space inside is cramped but the vehicle is very agile. Some of the interesting questions such as how being in space is different from being on Earth, the effect of returning to Earth on mind and body etc. were discussed. These lessons will be important as we venture to permanently settle the Moon and Mars.
On 4th May, the first panels dealt with “Law and Threats to Sustainability of Space Utilization” and “Telescopes of the Future.”
The sustainability panel dealt with effects of debris and anti-satellite weapons on space sustainability. The discussion took place in light of Long Term Sustainability Guidelines of 2019. The panel on telescopes noted that whereas capturing images of satellites with telescopes was difficult earlier, at present there is lot of data available.
The next plenary session “Planets Near and Far” dealt with interesting subjects such as life on Venus and Mars. One of the next panels dealt with how big data can help in advanced clinical simulation. The next panel on space resource utilization had both technological and legal experts in the panel. The diverse panel gave different views on whether space can be appropriated by a State. It may be noted that in April 2022, the legal subcommittee of the UNCOPUOS, by consensus, agreed on a Working Group on Legal Aspects on Space Resource Activities. They will work on a five year plan for the working group.
The last plenary on “The ethical, cultural and societal implications of humanity’s interest in space” was perhaps the most diverse panel in the conference in terms of both gender and race. The speakers noted that humans should not consider nature to be beneath them and engage in terraforming in celestial bodies. One should care about where the resources one uses came from. The core of a civilization is to be imaginative and come up with creative solutions to new problems emerging. The conference was short, an interdisciplinary one, and sparked interest in space by young people. I would call the conference a grand success.