Space was once the exclusive domain of national governments. Now it is fast becoming an arena for private
enterprise forged by visionary, risk-taking entrepreneurs. Welcome to the new era of space commercialization.
The commercial space industry – a field that industry players refer to as New Space – has expanded more than 70% in the past decade. Space Foundation, a US non-profit advocate for the global space industry, estimates its current value at more than US$425 billion. By 2040, it could be a US$1.5 trillion industry, a recent Morgan Stanley study estimates.
One indicator of the rapid growth curve in New Space: at the beginning of 2020, dozens of companies were manufacturing “smallsats”— satellites about the size of large kitchen refrigerators — with hundreds of additional startups exploring opportunities across the multifaceted domain.
“Although entrepreneurs, strategic partnerships and venture capitalists have been leading the charge on funding, the long-term success of the space economy will require a self-sufficient ecosystem,” said Adam Jones, Global Head of Auto and Shared Mobility at Morgan Stanley.
To illustrate the trend,
Compass has charted a visual, virtual journey through the New Space universe. All aboard! Liftoff!
The Earth and moon as seen from space. While such views traditionally have been captured by government-run space exploration programs, a host of 21st-century private businesses are now focusing on commercial ventures in space. It’s a trend known in the industry as New Space. (Image © Mark Garlick / Science Photo Library)
SpaceX is launching a constellation of low-Earth Starlink satellites to deliver broadband internet to consumers worldwide – just one example of how private firms are commercializing space. Initial plans call for 12,000 Starlink satellites, but SpaceX founder Elon Musk has said that number could grow to 42,000 over the new few decades – 15 times the number of operational satellites already in orbit. Image © SpaceX)
New Space has two distinct sectors: one focused on satellites, and a second focused on space exploration, interplanetary travel, cargo transport and colonization of the moon and Mars. The Space X Starship prototype, shown here, falls into the latter category. “Until five to 10 years ago, no one could have imagined a private-sector company taking on such challenges,” said Sinéad O’Sullivan, a space economist and entrepreneurial fellow at Harvard Business School. (Image © SpaceX)
New Zealand-based Rocket Lab focuses on launching satellites with just a 4-month wait, via its augmented Electron smallsat launch vehicle service. The company also manufactures satellites; its Photon can carry payloads as heavy as 375 pounds (170 kilograms). To deal with the challenge of “space junk,” Rocket Lab also has demonstrated a “drag sail” technology for moving out-of-service satellites into Earth’s atmosphere, where friction incinerates them. (Image © Rocket Lab)
As the New Space industry grows, experts predict technician shortfalls will number in the hundreds of thousands. Alleviating the shortages will require stepped-up public/ private partnerships to develop accelerated training programs, plus efforts to attract Millennial and Gen Z workers. “The passion of these two generations is what’s going to keep interest in space going over the next several decades,” said Ashley MacNeill, co-head of Morgan Stanley’s technology equity capital markets. Shown here, technicians in the main control room at the German Aerospace Center in Wessling, Germany, follow a launch to the International Space Station. (Image © Matthias Balk / picture alliance via Getty Images)
The New Space model begins with launching payloads, like this liftoff of Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket on a mission for NASA. “No launch, no space,” said Phillip Ingle, a managing director in investment banking at Morgan Stanley. “Companies are trying to continually lower launch costs until [rockets] can be thought of as another form of transportation – the bus that gets you there.” Lower costs facilitate the New Space ecosystem’s virtuous cycle: Launch companies depend on satellites to earn revenues, and satellite companies need launch companies to put their customers’ payloads into orbit. (Image © Trevor Mahlmann)
Commercial satellites account for nearly 75% of New Space business. Driven by lower costs for satellite manufacturing and launch, plus booming demand for internet connectivity and Earth imagery, 2020 saw a record 955 satellites launched, eclipsing the 2019 record of 385. Microsoft’s Azure Global, for example, has teamed with SpaceX Starlink to focus on space-based cloud computing. Shown here: An artist’s rendering of a spacecraft bus deploying a SpaceX Starlink satellite, which will then propel itself into an orbital plane. (Image © SpaceX)
Lowering the cost of putting satellites into orbit democratizes space development, and Zero 2 Infinity has patented and is implementing a low-cost method that also eliminates most of the pollution caused by rocket launches. The Barcelona-based business uses a balloon (partially visible on left edge of image) to lift a Bloostar pod to the upper edge of the Earth’s atmosphere; Bloostar's low-cost 3D-printed rockets complete the journey. Then Bloostar opens and releases the satellite into its proper orbit. Zero 2 Infinity's process eliminates the need for complex launch vehicles and expensive launch sites, allowing for small satellite launches with lower environmental impacts and greater economic efficiency. (Image © Zero 2 Infinity)
The prospect of space tourism fires the imagination, and privately funded aerospace manufacturer and spaceflightservices company Axiom Space plans a 10-day excursion to the International Space Station (ISS) in late 2021. In 2024, Axiom plans a series of missions to assemble a new, commercial space station. Initially attached to ISS, the station is designed break away from and replace the aging facility in the 2028-2030 time frame. “We believe building a platform attached to ISS … is critically important to the success of growing an economy in low-Earth orbit,” Axiom CEO Michael Suffredini said. (Image © Axiom Space)
Startup Interstellar Lab designs what it calls “experimental bioregenerative stations” or EBIOS – self-contained and self-sustaining closed-loop habitats. Beginning with installations on Earth, EBIOS environments provide a testing ground for more sustainable methods of water recycling, food production and waste management. The ability to renew, restore and revitalize resources represents a vital step toward protecting the future of life on Earth and, one day, building settlements on Mars. (Image © Interstellar Lab)
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