Once the domain only of superpowers, space now hosts an expanding set of actors, whose number is likely to grow in the next five years. Although only 13 of the 70 governmental space agencies have actual launch capabilities, many nations participate in a wide array of space-based activities, from operating satellites to sending astronauts to the International Space Station aboard Russian or Chinese spacecraft. Missions are increasingly multinational and multisectoral, perhaps giving people a collective sense of ownership of space not felt in decades.

  • Multinational space exploration. A growing number of nations now sponsor missions to contribute critical scientific knowledge about our solar system. With its Mars Orbiter Mission in 2014, India was the first nation to put a space probe in a Martian orbit on its first attempt. Later that year, after a 10-year journey through space, the European Space Agency’s probe Rosetta reached Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and landed its module Philae on its surface, the first such achievement in human history. In 2015, the United States sponsored Dawn, the first spacecraft to explore the dwarf planets Vesta and Ceres, and provided the world with its first ever fly-by of Pluto and its moons with New Horizons. Planned missions in the next five years include Japan’s land-and-return voyage to asteroid Ryugu, China’s landing on the dark side of the moon, a joint EU-Japan mission to Mercury, the UAE’s mission to put a probe in the Martian atmosphere, and NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which could revolutionize all areas of astronomy.
  • Commercialization. Space is no longer just for governments. Fueled partly by the allure of future profits as well as the void created by the dwindling budgets of space agencies like NASA, private companies such as Space-X, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic have mounted serious programs that could soon launch humans into space. Planetary Resources is a company that aims to mine asteroids, while Bigelow Aerospace promises inflatable space habitats. Although full realization of these industries is decades away, the next five years will bring early testing that teases at the potential for private individuals to reach space.
  • New Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS). The EU’s Galileo satellite navigation system is expected to reach full operational capability by 2020, significantly advancing global positioning capabilities by operating with greater precision, more global coverage, and at higher latitudes. Galileo will join the US’s GPS, Russia’s GLONASS, China’s BeiDou, and regional systems put in place by India and Japan. Devices that can simultaneously process signals from multiple GNSS constellations are likely to offer new capabilities—such as enhanced precision, indoor and z-axis positioning, and antijamming—to the more than 4 billion users worldwide who depend on space-based global positioning.
  • Space debris. More than 500,000 pieces of space debris are currently tracked as they orbit the Earth, some traveling as fast as 17,500 mph. Many millions of pieces are too small to be tracked but could be hazardous to critical satellites or other spacecraft. International action may soon be necessary to identify and fund the removal of debris most threatening to an expanding global space presence.
  • Space militarization. As space becomes more congested, it is also becoming more contested. The immense strategic and commercial value of outer space assets ensures that nations will increasingly vie for access, use, and control of space. The deployment of antisatellite technologies designed to purposefully disable or destroy satellites could intensify global tension. A key question will be whether spacefaring countries, in particular China, Russia, and the United States, can agree to a code of conduct for outer space activity.