Why the Greatest Danger in Space may be Ignoring It

As humanity continues to reach for the stars, one thing is clear. Someone will have to insure that risk.

a month ago   •   8 min read

By Colby Tunick
The greatest risks are those that are not known

The last frontier. It’s something so large that it literally defies the imagination. When people strive for something significant, the phrase ‘to the stars!’ often accompanies their effort. We are talking about space. Amidst the inky darkness of space is an enormous amount of risk. So much so that the first humans to step on the moon couldn’t get a life insurance policy. Space comes secondary to terrestrial issues in how insurance companies spend time and resources. That was then - today, insurance companies need to change their approach.

Space used to be small potatoes. Not anymore. Although Jeff Bezos‘ and Richard Branson’s brief space jaunts have recently generated massive media interest in space travel, investors have been over the moon about space tech for at least two years now. Venture funding in space travel, satellite communication, and aerospace — which includes space-related technologies such as thrusters and propulsion systems — hit a new high last year, and that record is likely to be eclipsed this year.

According to Crunchbase data, nearly $5.2 billion in venture funding has gone into space tech funding already this year — including huge rounds such as SpaceX’s $850 million round and Long Beach, California-based Relatively Space‘s$650 million Series E. It does not take a rocket scientist to put two-and-two together: every insurance company will have exposure in space before long. But what are those risks?

space shuttle view outside the Earth
Imagine being confined for years at a time in a space not much bigger than a walk-in closet

The Human Element

First, let’s discuss the risks around human space flight. The same obstacles that prevented the crew of Apollo 11 from getting life insurance are still relevant today. According to NASA’s website, there are five major risks:

Radiation

The first hazard of a human mission to Mars is also the most difficult to visualize because space radiation is invisible to the human eye. Radiation is not only stealthy but considered one of the most menacing of the five hazards.

Above Earth’s natural protection, radiation exposure increases cancer risk, damages the central nervous system, can alter cognitive function, reduce motor function, and prompt behavioral changes. To learn what can happen above low-Earth orbit, NASA studies how radiation affects biological samples using a ground-based research laboratory.

The space station sits just within Earth’s protective magnetic field, so while astronauts are exposed to ten times higher radiation than on Earth, it’s still a smaller dose than what deep space has in store.

To mitigate this hazard, deep space vehicles will have significant protective shielding, dosimetry, and alerts. Research is also being conducted in medical countermeasures such as pharmaceuticals to help defend against radiation.

Isolation and confinement

Behavioral issues among groups of people crammed in a small space over a long period, no matter how well trained they are, are inevitable. Crews are carefully chosen, trained, and supported to ensure they can work effectively as a team for months or years in space.

On Earth, we have the luxury of picking up our cell phones and instantly being connected with nearly everything and everyone around us. On a trip to Mars, astronauts will be more isolated and confined than we can imagine. Sleep loss, circadian desynchronization, and work overload compound this issue and may lead to performance decrements, adverse health outcomes, and compromised mission objectives.

To address this hazard, methods for monitoring behavioral health and adapting/refining various tools and technologies for the spaceflight environment are being developed to detect and treat early risk factors. Research is also being conducted in workload and performance, light therapy for circadian alignment, phase shifting, and alertness.

Distance from Earth

The third and perhaps most apparent hazard is, simply, the distance. Mars is, on average, 140 million miles from Earth. Rather than a three-day lunar trip, astronauts would leave our planet for roughly three years. While International Space Station expeditions serve as a rough foundation for the expected impact on planning logistics for such a trip, the data isn’t always comparable. If a medical event or emergency happens at the station, the crew can return home within hours. Cargo vehicles continually resupply the crews with fresh food, medical equipment, and other resources. Once you burn your engines for Mars, there is no turning back and no resupply.

Planning and self-sufficiency are essential keys to a successful Martian mission. Facing a communication delay of up to 20 minutes one way and the possibility of equipment failures or a medical emergency, astronauts must be capable of confronting an array of situations without support from their fellow team on Earth.

Gravity (or lack thereof)

The variance in gravity that astronauts will encounter is the fourth hazard of a human mission. On Mars, astronauts would need to live and work in three-eighths of Earth’s gravitational pull for up to two years. On the six-month trek between the planets, explorers will experience total weightlessness.

Besides Mars and deep space, there is a third gravity field that must be considered. When astronauts finally return home, they will need to readapt many of the systems in their bodies to Earth’s gravity. Bones, muscles, cardiovascular system have all been affected by years without standard gravity. To further complicate the problem, when astronauts transition from one gravity field to another, it’s usually quite an intense experience. Blasting off from the surface of a planet or a hurdling descent through an atmosphere is many times the force of gravity.

Research is being conducted to ensure that astronauts stay healthy before, during, and after their mission. NASA is identifying how current and future FDA-approved osteoporosis treatments, and the optimal timing for such therapies could mitigate the risk for astronauts developing premature osteoporosis. Adaptability training programs and improving the ability to detect relevant sensory input are being investigated to mitigate balance control issues. Research is ongoing to characterize optimal exercise prescriptions for individual astronauts, as well as defining metabolic costs of critical mission tasks they would expect to encounter on a Mars mission.

Hostile/closed environments

A spacecraft is not only a home, it’s also a machine. NASA understands that the ecosystem inside a vehicle plays a big role in everyday astronaut life. Important habitability factors include temperature, pressure, lighting, noise, and quantity of space. Astronauts must get the requisite food, sleep, and exercise needed to stay healthy and happy.

Technology, as often is the case with out-of-this-world exploration, comes to the rescue in creating a habitable home in a harsh environment. They monitored everything, from air quality to possible microbial inhabitants. Microorganisms that naturally live on your body are transferred more easily from one person to another in a closed environment. Astronauts, too, contribute data points via urine and blood samples and can reveal valuable information about stressors. They also asked the occupants to provide feedback about their living environment, including physical impressions and sensations, so that the evolution of spacecraft can continue addressing the needs of humans in space. Extensive recycling of resources we take for granted is also imperative: oxygen, water, carbon dioxide, even our waste.

Space also presents unique risks to satellites and other unpiloted spacecraft. If you’ve ever been sprayed with sand while driving on the freeway, you have a bit of first-hand experience with this. Except in space, things are traveling much faster, so even a little grain of sand packs a mighty wallop.

silhouette of hill during night time
Meteors showers are beautiful on earth. And dangerous in space.

The Other Things Out There

Exposure in space comes in many forms. Risks affect not only humans but all human-built objects with space.

Space weather

Our neighborhood star, the ever-restless sun, emits radiation that can damage electronic components and cripple satellites, particularly during geomagnetic storms. Although satellites are equipped with protective shielding, they cannot always withstand an intense influx of high-energy particles or electromagnetic current.

The sun isn’t the only potential source of trouble. The South Atlantic Anomaly, an area where the Van Allen Belt dips very close to the Earth’s surface, can also affect spacecraft, spewing forth highly energized particles. “As they orbit the earth, satellites pass through the anomaly multiple times,” notes Rishabh Maharaja, a flight operations engineer at NASA who teaches in Capitol Technology University’s astronautical engineering program. “Particles can wreak havoc on computer systems and even turn off the GPS.”

Space Dust

A Stanford researcher, Sigrid Close, found that electronics can also be damaged when space dust, also known as “cosmic dust,” hits the spacecraft and turns into plasma. Close’s hypothesis, confirmed by research published in 2013, may shed light on satellite failures that were previously chalked up to unknown causes.

An example of space dust damage

Collisions

Space is becoming crowded; the quantity of human-made objects has increased exponentially over the past decade. Defunct satellites are still in orbit, but with no one commanding or controlling them. An interruption in the transmission of data can leave ground crews unaware of an imminent hazard. Problems such as these led to a notorious 2009 collision that destroyed an Iridium satellite.

Besides active satellites, massive amounts of debris–including old rocket bodies, dead satellites, and tiny particles numbering in the hundreds of thousands–are circling the earth. Keeping satellites clear of such debris requires vigilance. And a little of luck.

Incorrect orbit

A satellite can’t travel into space on its own; it needs something to propel it. Glitches during a rocket flight can cause the satellite to be placed into the wrong orbit. In a recent incident, communications broke down for over 9 minutes during the launch of an Ariane 5 rocket. Because of the glitch, two satellites were placed into orbit with wildly incorrect orbital inclinations 21 degrees versus the planned 3 degrees.

white motorcycle on snow covered ground during daytime
Would you need a driver's license or a pilot's license to navigate a spacecraft?

So about that Space insurance policy...

As humanity continues to reach for the stars, one thing is clear. Someone will have to insure that risk. This means brand new lines of business around space for insurance companies. It may be ridiculous to think that eventually, there will be spacecraft drivers’ licenses. Something else that was crazy, though? Seatbelts. Just food for thought.

Ultimately, it is in the best interest of the insurance industry to become an active participant in future space exploration. Helping to shape the technology and gain a true accounting of exposure ahead of time will go a long way in underwriting and (inevitably) claims. Insurance is indeed a legacy business. Only now are major companies investing heavily in analytics and new ways of underwriting like telematics. Only this time, insurance cannot afford to be late to the party.

What does active participation in the space industry look like? It’s not clear if there is a clear understanding yet. But answering this question serves as the first step of a much longer journey of involvement. If this is something that interests you, drop us a line and we can see about making that future happen now.

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