Space is open for business

Is space exploration the next big thing? Launching costs are declining, technology is making huge steps and, despite the pandemic, private and public sectors are now looking to space as the next frontier of business. Are you ready?

Space missions are just for NASA and similar, right?

No, much more than that. Space exploration is emerging as one of the most lucrative industries globally. Valued at US$360 billion in 2018, it is projected to grow at a CAGR of 5.6%, to reach US$558 billion by 2026. With this kind of growth, the revenue generated by the global space industry may increase to more than $1 trillion by 2040.

In addition to the research missions run by international space agencies, many new companies are set to make huge profits from the space industry, launching satellites into orbit and enabling a wide range of businesses. Leading them is SpaceX, Elon Musk's company, which is rapidly setting new milestones in the race to space supremacy. It has already launched its first crewed mission, a test flight called Demo-2 to send NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station on a Crew Dragon capsule. The remarkable event showed the incredible innovations that have been developed over years of research, helping reduce costs and reusing many parts of the rocket. The two rocket boosters autonomously returned to earth, landing on an offshore platform and the capsule fairs were captured by a giant net boat in the middle of the ocean.

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Figure 1: SpaceX Crew Dragon rocket booster landing on the “Of Course I Still Love You” boat.

Amazing!

As we’ve said, SpaceX is leading a big group of small and medium-sized companies battling to develop the fastest and most efficient forms of space travel. They include ULA, which recently won a multi-year contract with the US Space Force, and the long-awaited Jeff Bezos space initiative, Blue Origin, which has started testing its reusable rocket, New Shepard. Several other companies are working on small launch vehicles: Firefly will soon begin static-fire tests of the first stage of its Alpha rocket, with a launch later this year. Other companies, like ABL Space Systems, Relativity and Rocket-Lab will at least make progress towards a first launch, as the industry prepares for a long-anticipated shakeout among the dozens of companies that have announced plans to build small launchers. They are all finding innovative ways to reduce orbit launch costs, aiming to become profitable by enabling other companies’ services. Also, some are working on different solutions, such as the Virgin Orbit rocket, launched through its converted Boeing 747 with the LauncherOne rocket attached, or the incredible slingshot-to-orbit, prototyped by SpinLaunch.

What are they bringing to space?

Satellites, constellations of satellites. Companies like Starlink – Elon Musk here, again – and OneWeb are placing thousands of fridge-sized satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) offering low-latency broadband connection for military, scientific or exploratory purposes. Other nano-satellites, such as the ones developed by Astrocast and Hiber, are focused on building an global IoT network for connected vehicles and for many industries, including maritime, mining, oil and gas, and agriculture. Even the sky isn’t the limit if you can control a global network of satellites directly from your desk, as offered by the Italian start-up D-Orbit. And if you’re worried about the space debris generated by so many things orbiting above our heads, Clearspace is working to guarantee space exploration sustainability.

Even the sky isn’t the limit if you can control a global network of satellites directly from your desk.

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Looks promising…

It is, and this is just the beginning. By reducing the cost of placing satellites in orbit, and shrinking the components’ dimensions, we can create flocks of satellites with specific purposes. We’ve only just started to exploit the capabilities of satellite-aided companies in different industries, such as logistics, maritime surveillance, emergency management, defence applications, agriculture, land-use and many others. Electro-optical, synthetic-aperture radar and radiofrequency data will be combined with information drawn from airborne and terrestrial sensors, as well as social network feeds, to create new data products for customers. During the 2010s, companies proved they could capture data with increasing frequency and spatial resolution. Data fusion will be a watchword of the 2020s, becoming the norm for Earth observation. Do you already know What3Words?

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Figure 2: A landscape of space business services, business models and segments
Source: “The Future Of the European Space Sector” report, available here.

What about my holiday on Mars?

You’re right. For many years, space travel has been waiting to start officially. If you want to begin with a low Earth orbit flight, the Virgin Galactic Spaceport is ready, and the Richard Branson-owned company has recently completed the first test flight. The big issue is cost, as currently only eight tourists have visited space, at a cost of US$20-40 million a time. But this could be massively reduced with reusable vehicles and more efficient transport, enabling Virgin Galactic to offer tickets for a comparatively paltry US$250,000. You are just a few clicks – and some bucks – away from your seat for a low-orbit flight. If you’re eager for more, you can try the DearMoon project: up to six famous artists are about to be selected to join Japanese philanthropist Yusaku Maezawa and travel to the moon on the first SpaceX Starship flight, planned for 2023.

That’s a long way ahead. Is there something I can do now?

Sure 😀 Explore the Code NASA repository, which gives you access to 253 NASA open-source software projects. Bookmark RocketWatch and you’ll be updated with the growing calendar of space launches – including the upcoming Mars 2020 rover and helicopter (!) landing on the red planet, the NASA Artemis project to get back to the moon, and the incredible DART mission to divert an asteroid.

Are we going to crash an asteroid?

Yes. And you can look for your preferred one on Asterank, and prepare for a future space mining mission. Did you know, a single asteroid is worth 27 quintillion dollars just for its metal and resources?

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Figure 3: who's ready for asteroid mining?

What if I’m not ready for this?

There’s always a first step you can take: a very special Masterclass with former astronaut Chris Hadfield is waiting for you, and on the SpaceX website you can train yourself to dock your ship to the ISS. Last but not least, you can keep following us with the Reply R20 series.

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