The new space economy is ready for lift-off
Image credit: Getty Images
The new space economy has arrived. From universal communications to space tourism and printing organs in zero gravity – what does it promise and is it a positive human endeavour?
Few things expedite innovation faster than competing billionaires with elastic budgets and a steely determination to make history. This has certainly proved true for the modern-age space race. Billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX in 2020 was the first private company to send humans into orbit. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin journeyed to zero gravity not long after. Their endeavours have pushed down costs and ushered in a new era of space activity. The cosmos is now more accessible than ever.
Since 1957 around 10,000 objects have been launched into space; 30 per cent of these were in the last six years alone. This coincided with a spike in annual investment from below a billion dollars a year to $7.6bn (£5.8bn) in 2020, according to BryceTech, a space-focused engineering and analytics company. Morgan Stanley now expects the sector to reach $1tn (£763bn) by 2040.
“Bezos, Musk and Branson have invested billions into the space industry and really shaped its perception, as well as attracted private investors and venture capital into the ecosystem,” says Manny Shar, head of analytics at BryceTech.
However, around a third of today’s space industry still comes from public-funded goods. The Global Positioning System, for example, developed by the US military in the 1980s, has generated roughly $1.4tn in the US alone, according to estimates from RTI International. Space technologies – largely satellites – have enabled everything from flight communications to ever more accurate weather forecasts and detailed Earth observation, to name but a few. Less tightly controlled private money promises to deliver much more.
“Space is a catalyst for innovation,” says Martin Elvis, an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics, Harvard & Smithsonian. “It’s about catalysing potential solutions and making them work better here on Earth.”
Several futuristic applications emerging include the possibility of 3D-printing organs in zero gravity, which is thought to be an optimal environment for handling tissue culture because it tends to collapse in the presence of gravity.
The 3D BioFabrication Facility and the Advanced Space Experiment Processor (ADSEP), both developed by US-based Techshot, print human cells and mature them into organ-shaped tissues. The technology has been tested at the International Space Station (ISS), and the company hopes one day to print entire human organs in low-Earth orbit (LEO).
Similarly, US-based Made in Space wants to take advantage of zero gravity to commercially produce high-fidelity optical ZBLAN internet fibre, which, compared to the silica-based glass used today, can transmit broader spectrum, and requires fewer signal boosters because it absorbs less light. Manufacturing it in zero gravity is easier because the fibre develops smoothly and clearly, and with far fewer defects.
But in the medium term, improved connectivity via satellites is by far the biggest space market emerging. As part of its Starlink programme, SpaceX has launched around 2,000 satellites – including 50 in February – to LEO, which is less than 2,000km away. It’s one of several mega constellations being built, including from London-based OneWeb and Canadian Telesat, that effectively blanket the Earth to provide low-latency internet and telecommunications.
At first these constellations will provide connectivity to underserved remote communities – Starlink recently turned on its satellites over war-hit Ukraine after a plea from the President for connectivity – but could eventually create opportunities for autonomous vehicles, unmanned marine and aerial systems, and operations beyond the visual line of sight, says Stewart Marsh, head of aerospace at Cambridge Consultants.
“Some early satellites could only operate in certain geographies, but these LEO constellations could make it possible to control a flotilla of ships at sea streaming high-definition video,” he explains. “This could emerge in the next few years.”
The foray into space by private enterprises is also helping Nasa and other state space agencies to save money by becoming customers of private companies, rather than running operations themselves, with the eventual aim to relinquish operating any space assets, says BryceTech’s Shar. Nasa has already saved $20-30bn (£15-23bn) this way and SpaceX has cut the cost of shuttling cargo into space by a factor of seven.
In competition with the space giants are smaller companies such as UK-based Orbex and Skyrora. The latter aims to be the first UK private company to send up a rocket from British soil, with a demo launch of its Skyrora XL from SaxaVord Spaceport in the Shetland Islands planned for the end of this year. To differentiate itself from its bigger competitors, the company is planning to target small-satellite businesses, such as Surrey Satellites and AAC Clyde Space, with a bespoke offering.
“SpaceX and others offer a ‘bus stop’ type service to space, whereas ours is more like a taxi; organisations can pay for payloads to be delivered to a specific orbit,” explains Alan Thompson, head of government affairs at the company. “Our delivery platform is also an integral part of our launch vehicle, we can design the rocket around the platform, giving us a vertically integrated solution that we think gives us an advantage, not just for design but also for collaboration.”
The Skyrora XL can re-ignite its engine three times, meaning it can manoeuvre in space to offer refuelling, maintenance, recovery and even a ‘white van’ type service fixing satellite internet connection, says Thompson. It will also have a different cost structure – either charging by the hour or as a subscription service.
Skyrora can provide a capability the UK has been missing – the ability to launch – says Thompson, and will ultimately mean the country is not reliant on other nations for information.
This includes environmental data, for which space technology has been a game-changer; three satellites around 36,000km away can monitor most of Earth, making it possible to measure methane and CO2 emissions, rainforest destruction and many other variables. Yet billionaires ploughing millions into sending rockets into space, further adding carbon emissions to the atmosphere, often in the name of space tourism, raises questions; what environmental impact does space activity have and what are the dangers?
It’s hard to calculate the emissions of space exploration yet, but the Center for Astrophysics’ Elvis estimates that “per person it’s likely enormous”, though less per mile. SpaceX’s new Starship launcher will be burning methane, which is more potent than carbon dioxide, so has a direct climate impact in the first but not second stage of lift-off (when it leaves Earth’s atmosphere, the emissions may not count, unless they fall back to Earth).
Skyrora plans to use a more environmentally friendly fuel combination that was originally pioneered 50 years ago for the Black Arrow launch in 1971, the UK’s first. It consists of hydrogen peroxide that is stripped to pure oxygen by being pushed through a catalytic converter, mixed with kerosene part-derived from unrecycled landfill plastic (six parts of hydrogen peroxide to one part of kerosene). The mixture can reduce emissions by approximately 45 per cent, according to Skyrora, compared to the more common method of combining kerosene with liquid oxygen (at two parts to one).
Rockets used to be, unbelievably, given a hundred-million price tag, single use, but the new ability to reuse rockets has lowered their cost and environmental footprint. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon, which flies atop of the rocket, are designed to be reused up to ten times. Other space stalwarts, such as United Launch Alliance and Arianespace, are following suit.
Space debris is another issue. There are already approximately 25,000 pieces of debris larger than 10cm tracked in orbit and many more untracked which could collide at velocities not possible on Earth. The Kessler syndrome, proposed by Nasa scientist Donald J Kessler in 1978, warns that as space becomes more crowded this could lead to a runaway effect, much like climate change, where more collisions occur. No one yet understands when this tipping point could be reached.
There are nascent efforts to recover some of this debris. Companies including Skyrora and Leo Labs are trying to build a market for debris removals, while the Space Sustainability Rating launched last year wants to encourage responsible behaviour in space through increasing the transparency of organisations’ debris mitigation efforts.
Astronomers are also concerned over the exponential increase of satellites, which they say “pollute” the night sky. Andy Lawrence, Regius professor of astronomy at the University of Edinburgh, whose book ‘Losing the Sky’ addresses this issue, says: “These objects ... streak across our astronomical images, blare loudly and unpredictably at our radio telescopes...” and could one day be used for ‘sky advertising’.
Alongside these uncertainties, the future space economy continues to take shape, but it’s still an incredibly tough market for start-ups. In the UK, Skyrora’s Thompson says a lack of vision from the government, particularly for rocket launch, which Skyrora “had to fight to get into the space strategy”, is a particular problem.
“Currently space in the government is incredibly disparate; we have pockets of interest in environment, finance and banking and transactions but that needs to be optimised into one unit,” he says. UK licensing has been challenging for the company because the Civil Aviation Authority takes a “regulate first and ask questions later” approach, says Thompson. Therefore, it is considering possibly launching its Skylark L this year in Iceland, where it previously launched the Skylark Micro from the Langanes Peninsula in 2020.
Nevertheless, as the cost of space technology and launches inevitably continues to fall, and improved use cases are discovered, for better or worse, the exploration of space isn’t likely to slow down any time soon, not least because it taps into something innate in the human race.
“Fundamentally, there is a human spirit that yearns to explore beyond the known horizons; as Kennedy once said, ‘why do we climb Everest?’ It’s human nature,” says Shar. And space is one of the last remaining frontiers.
The advent of the space-for-space economy
Today’s space economy is almost entirely focused on space-for-Earth applications. But as this sector is growing at a new rate, it could lead to the birth of the space-for-space sector.
“All this activity will increase demand dramatically; fairly quickly, we’ll have around ten times as many people in space at any one time,” says Martin Elvis, author of the 2021 book ‘Asteroids: How love, fear, and greed will determine our future in space’, which details the economic expansion of space, including that of private space stations.
Axiom Space is the most advanced of several companies developing the world’s first commercial space station – complete with windowed space and crew quarters designed by luxury hotel designer Philippe Starck – which is planned for launch in 2024. The facility will initially accommodate researchers (a $3bn market, Axiom estimates) but also tourists wanting the ultimate get-away-from-it-all break.
They’ll need water and mod cons – Argotec and Lavazza in 2015 built an espresso machine that could function in the zero-gravity environment.
United Launch Alliance, as part of its Cis-lunar 1000 vision, envisages 1,000 people working in space in 25 years. It is developing a vehicle, to be launched on its Vulcan rocket, that it says will refuel with propellant extracted from the Moon, where there is believed to be ice water. It’s also exploring the possibilities of a water mining operation there.
Eventually, as demand increases, more ‘hotel’ space will be needed. Perhaps something akin to a “Zeppelin type structure” that would be impossible to launch to space so would need to be built in situ, says Elvis.
Fortunately, manufacturing is already being trialled in space. Made in Space Inc is the first company to 3D-print at the ISS, producing a wrench. In his book, Elvis notes that eventually, with innovation, spacecraft and mining machines could be built “less like greyhounds and more like bulls” and thus more cheaply be taken to space. The raw materials could come from asteroids, some of which are made of solid iron. Companies such as Planetary Resources and TransAstra are already trying to figure out how to extract these metals and minerals.
But while the concentration of resources is large, there are only a few accessible iron-rich asteroids, and there are no property rights in space; it operates on a first-come basis, creating the opportunity for microaggressions, Elvis warns.
“Eventually there needs to be some mechanism to regulate who goes where in space and does what,” he cautions. Without proper management, the next great resource war could even be in space.
Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.