What is SpaceX? What has made it so popular within the space industry and beyond? What is it currently dealing with? These are some of the questions we are going to answer in this article.
After a general overview of the organization and a brief sum up of the most relevant milestones achieved over the years, the focus will shift on three fundamental projects: the reusability of Falcon 9, Starlink and Starship.
Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) is an American company founded in 2002 by Elon Musk (the current CEO) and headquartered in Hawthorne, California.
Since the beginning, Musk’s baseline goal has been the colonization of Mars. With this objective in mind, the company’s main activities range from the development and launch of satellites and rocket engines, the resupply of space stations, to national security missions commissioned by the US government, which are carried out in conjunction with players of the caliber of Orb COMM, the US Air Force and MDA Corporation.
Despite not being listed, SpaceX has succeeded in building a sustainable competitive advantage by focusing on specific niche markets and serving specialized customer segments, such as private and institutional organizations involved in space transportation.
Although their baseline goal has not yet been accomplished, the company has managed to achieve some minor (but still incredible) successes, which reflect its innovative approach. In addition, looking back at the substantial growth that SpaceX has recently experienced, it is reasonable to think that it will continue to be at the bleeding edge of space exploration even in the years to follow.
From the historical perspective, few of the aforementioned successes are worth mentioning.
The first relevant milestone was reaching orbit with its launch vehicles, which was achieved in 2008 and 2012 respectively by Falcon 1 (a class of rockets) and Dragon (a space module). Later, the company had the ambition of landing those vehicles back on Earth as well, and they managed to do so on land in 2015 and on a drone-ship in 2016. Both goals were achieved by Falcon 9. The purpose of landing rockets back on Earth was to reuse them for reflight, gaining massive savings. As of today, the same Falcon 9 has been re-flown 9 times.
In addition, SpaceX has also been developing large rockets that can carry more cargo and/or more people for further distances: in 2018 Falcon Heavy had its first successful flight, while Starship is currently undergoing preliminary tests before its first complete flight, which may take place in 2021. Finally, the company also managed to send humans to the ISS in their completely autonomous Crew Dragon for the first time in 2020.
What’s next for SpaceX? There are 3 major milestones that the company will achieve in the next decade: the first flight of Starship, landing on the Moon, and landing on Mars.
Now, we focus the attention on the most relevant projects currently undertaken by SpaceX.
Reusable Falcon 9
SpaceX is committed to tackling one of the major issues that have historically constrained entrepreneurial initiatives within the space sector: the high cost of space access, substantially represented by the expensive process required to build rockets. Why is it so important to reduce the cost of space access?
Because otherwise, consequences are dramatic. First, the high cost of reaching orbit is the major factor preventing the large-scale exploration of space. Private companies are, indeed, largely dependent on public funding and cannot exploit economies of scale. Besides, it creates insurmountable barriers to entry for external companies, which, in turn, affects competition, innovation, and demand for space activities. What is the solution proposed by SpaceX?
SpaceX believes a fully and rapidly reusable rocket is the pivotal breakthrough needed to substantially reduce the cost of space access. In this direction, it has focused on the reusability of a specific class of rockets, Falcon 9, which have become the first orbital-class rockets capable of reflight. The results achieved by SpaceX so far are without precedents: it has succeeded in lowering the average cost of rockets by more than 20 times (from US$54,500/kg of NASA Space Shuttle to US$2,720/kg of Falcon 9)!
Over the past few years, SpaceX has launched hundreds of small satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO) and will continue to do so until it reaches a constellation of thousands of elements. These will work to offer broadband Internet connection to anyone who subscribes to their services. The first advantage is to overcome the limits of offering telecommunications services only in certain areas, leaving large parts of the world isolated, especially at high latitudes. This represents an almost uncharted terrain for companies like SpaceX, offering a chance of huge economic returns. The Starlink constellation is 50 times closer to Earth than the geocentric orbit and will guarantee continuous pointing between them, thus reducing both the time of travel of data in space and the time it takes to process the information. The result of all this is a reduction of about 70% of the time necessary to move data around the world.
This technology is not without controversy: in particular, pollution is one of the hottest issues at the moment when it comes to space. The huge number of satellites launched into orbit has raised concerns about the possibility of obstructing the observation of phenomena in the sky. In addition, the low orbit of satellites may lead to a quick (we talk about 5 years) degradation of the orbit itself, causing possible crashes. As a result, the company has stated that it will provide its satellites with a ‘light shield’ in order to make them almost invisible at passage, and it will put them into orbit in such a way as to ensure a safe re-entry by burning the entire satellites in the atmosphere. It is therefore only a matter of time before the service will be available, obviously first in America (where it is already being tested) and later in Europe.
The Starship project
The Starship project is the next-generation heavy-lift transportation system for future space operations. Capable of rapid and reliable use, it will become the company’s primary orbital vehicle and it will take cargo to orbit at a far lower cost than any other existing launch method. Potentially it could reduce the cost of taking 1 kg to LEO (Lower Earth Orbit) to just $ 20/kg.
Starship will be a two-stage vehicle composed of the Super Heavy rocket (booster at the bottom) and the actual Starship (spacecraft at the top). When the two parts are together, the structure will measure 120m in height and 9m in diameter.
The Super Heavy is going to be the most powerful rocket ever made and it will generate a thrust of 72 MN. Just to understand how amazing it is, we could compare it to the Saturn V of Apollo 11, which had a thrust of 35 MN despite being almost the same size (111m vs 120m). On the other hand, the second module will be 50m tall with a payload capacity of 100t and it will come in two configurations (crew and uncrewed), so as to adapt to the circumstances.
The Starship system is aimed at going beyond the “simple” purpose of its predecessors to create an efficient space transportation method: as a matter of fact, it will not only improve what we can do now, but it will also be used for planetary destinations and space explorations.
The Artemis program is the human spaceflight program that has the goal of landing “the first woman and the next man” on the Moon, by 2024. The program is carried out predominantly by NASA, U.S. commercial spaceflight companies contracted by NASA, and international partners including the European Space Agency (ESA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the Italian Space Agency (ASI) the Australian Space Agency (ASA), the UK Space Agency (UKSA) and the United Arab Emirates Space Agency (UAESA). Despite NASA is leading the program, expects international partnerships to play a key role in advancing Artemis as the next step towards the long-term goal of establishing a sustainable presence on the Moon, laying the foundation for private companies to build a lunar economy, and eventually sending humans to Mars.
With numerous countries and private sector players conducting missions and operations in cislunar space, it is critical to establish a common set of principles to govern the exploration and the use of outer space. Having said that, the Artemis Accords aim at describing a shared vision of principles, in order to create a safe and transparent environment which can facilitate exploration, science but also commercial activities. To date seven countries have signed the Accords (Japan, Canada, Italy, UK, Australia, UAE, Luxemburg) and many others are expected to do so in the next months. The principles agreed in the pact are Transparency, Emergency Assistance, Sharing of Scientific Data and Protecting Heritage, but it also establishes regulations on the Extraction of Resources, Registration of Space Objects and Orbital Debris Disposal.
“Artemis will be the broadest and most diverse international human space exploration program in history, and the Artemis Accords are the vehicle that will establish this singular global coalition” (J. Bridenstine, NASA Administrator).
Among the international partners, the contribution of the European Space Agency will be essential. On Oct. 27th 2020, NASA and ESA have finalized an agreement to collaborate on the Artemis Gateway (the lunar space station at the base of the program), so that ESA will contribute to designing and building the main habitat for the astronauts who will visit the Gateway, the International Habitation Module. The I-Hab will use environment and life-support systems provided by Japan’s Space Agency (JAXA). A second contribution will be Esprit module, which will supply enhanced communications, refueling and which will be provided with an European-built Cupola (observation window) similar to the one of the ISS. Transport to the Gateway will use mainly NASA’s Orion spacecraft, for which ESA is building two European service modules. JAXA is also designing, in collaboration with Toyota, a Pressurized Rover which will enable astronauts to travel longer distances, living inside it for up to 14 days. All these contributions and collaborations represent the first step towards a new era that will bring international crew members and, one day, the first European and Asian Astronauts to the lunar surface.
Private Partners and Financing
“In the 1960s, ‘70s, and ’80s, there weren’t entrepreneurs who were willing to invest in space, today they are ready to put their own money behind it because they think there’s a future profit to be made” (D. Loverro, former Chief of NASA human spaceflight).
In stark contrast with the twin mission Apollo, a key role is expected to be played by private entities. The participation of these companies to the program will produce a double positive effect: the huge costs of the mission (about 35 billion dollars estimated for the period 2020-2024) will not be sustained anymore entirely by US public spending and, moreover, there will be a strong incentive towards innovation, favored by the high-competitive environment which characterizes the private space sector. On Apr. 20th 2020, NASA announced 967 million dollars in design development funding to three companies (Blue Origin, Dynetics, and SpaceX) to do initial design of Human Landing Systems (HLS). These companies will continue to develop their landers, respectively the Integrated Lander Vehicle by Blue Origin, the SpaceX’sStarship and Dynetics’ HLS, and in 2021 NASA will select two of them, starting a development period which will conclude with the first mission to the lunar surface, Artemis III, in 2024. Further contributions will be relevant in the field of Launch Systems: SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy will be used to launch the Dragon XL resupply spacecraft designed to carry pressurized and unpressurized cargo, and ESA’s Ariane 6 will launch Esprit module which will be part of the Gateway Space Station.
Description of The Program: Stages and Main Components
From a chronological perspective the Artemis Program can be divided into three stages. Firstly, on Nov. 2021 NASA will launch Artemis I, an uncrewed flight that aims at testing both the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion spacecraft, and, in order to do so, NASA will use ground systems located at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, that will be tested as well during the mission. In 2023, it will be the turn of Artemis II, which this time will take the form of a crewed flight sent to the Moon’s orbit for a period of about two weeks, but without landing, since this is supposed to be just a test for the deep space communications networks. Moreover, simultaneously with Artemis II, the launch of the Power and Propulsion Element and of the Habitation and Logistics Outpost modules (components of the Gateway Space Station) will take place. Finally, there will be Artemis III, the fundamental part of this mission, which will lead to the landing of humans on the surface of the Moon by 2024. Hopefully, these three steps will represent just the beginning of the story, since Artemis III is supposed to be followed by several other missions that aim at building a permanent base on the Moon by 2028.
Focusing on the main components which will allow the program to take place, it is noteworthy to again mention the Space Launch System (SLS), which is currently the world’s most astonishing launch system, even bigger and more powerful than the legendary Saturn V of the Apollo era. Then, another essential role is played by Orion, a deep space and human-rated spacecraft built in three parts: the crew module, meant to receive up to 4 astronauts, the service module built by ESA, and the launch abort system supposed to keep safe the crew. Finally, the last major component is the Gateway, a dedicated lunar station in orbit around the Moon, that will probably be expanded, following the model of the ISS, as new missions and partnerships will develop. The Gateway will be used by NASA and its international partners as a springboard for robotic and human expeditions to the surface of the Moon, and hopefully, in the future, even beyond our satellite.
The Lunar Economy
NASA’s ‘Moon-to-Mars’ efforts, including the Artemis program, represent a significant investment in the US economy that has an important impact in terms of jobs and economic output created. In addition, these investments drive technology and innovation within the private sector through partnerships, and this together with direct technology transfers has the potential to increase US businesses’ productivity and competitive advantage. Such economically valuable technologies will also help to sustain overall national US competitive advantage and scientific capabilities. An additional aim of the Artemis program is to economically enable continued and permanent human presence on the lunar surface and the exploration of Mars. The main requirement in this regard is the development of the extensive resources present on the lunar surface, that include water and metal deposits. Minerals and compounds found on the Moon could be converted into human consumables and propellant, which would significantly lower the cost of space exploration, as this is inflated by the premium needed to transport resources out of the Earth’s atmosphere. Harvesting such resources on the Moon would be comparatively cheap, as would transporting them to other orbits, considering the Moon’s low gravity. A sustained lunar presence and the development of lunar resources are key to enable Mars exploration, because, as well as lowering travel costs, this would allow for accurate crew simulations of the mission on the lunar surface. Lunar propellant would also have positive spill-over effects on Earth technology, as it would make it more efficient to operate large satellites, which would create improved satellite and internet navigation, as well as better remote sensing data. In addition, the Artemis program can contribute to create a market for private entrepreneurs in the development of space resources and open commercial opportunities for the private sector on the lunar surface, such as commercial lunar payload deliveries.
We would like to conclude our report with two questions: Why are Artemis missions so different from the previous space races? And why will they be crucial in the development of the future Space Sector?
We identified principally two reasons: the first related to the political set up that characterizes the new program, which is no longer an armament race and a competition between two superpowers but an agreement joining together, up to now, eight different countries (US, Italy, Japan, Australia, United Emirates, UK, Canada, Luxemburg) which already signed the Artemis Accords. The other reason is the openness to the private sector that will be actively involved in transport and communication in all of the already scheduled three different phases. This expansion will result in a new era for humankind, new economic possibilities and opportunities, and a jump in scientific research leading to a future that gives us hope in hazy and uncertain times.
Research and development (inventing, designing, constructing, testing)
Exploration and delineation (identifying right asteroids, feasibility studies for the operations, on site testing)
Construction and development
Time value of money
Terrestrial projects: pay back the investment in 3-5 years
Terrestrial: with high risk –> shorter payback period limit is preferred
Longer payback period
High cost space transportation
Research and Development increases risk
Mitigate these drawbacks –> COMBINE DIFFERENT PROJECTS (water + minerals)
Problem of profitability: even though the raw materials on a single asteroid can be worth trillions of dollars, with our current technology extracting their resources would be so costly that we would not make any revenue out of it.
A scaling economy: high fixed costs for entry in the industry but after the first successful trip achieving the next one becomes less expensive
Ex: we could use the moon’s gravitational pull to make asteroids’ orbit much closer to Earth and further reduce extraction costs
PROPULSION SYSTEMS AND ASTEROID PROSPECTING:
The distance separating us from asteroids. The 2 main agglomerations of asteroids are in the Asteroid Belt (further than Mars) or in the Kuiper Belt (outer part of the Solar system), but in the near-future we would need to focus on near-to-Earth asteroids.
With our current propulsion systems sending cargo even in Earth’s low-orbit is expensive enough 🡪 need to develop alternate propulsion systems like electrical engines already used in deep-space probes or other.
NB: possibility of using water on the asteroids to create more fuel on the spot
Asteroid prospecting: finding the best EROs (easily recoverable objects) that are accessible, large and the right composition 🡪 robotic prospectors will visit the asteroids
NETWORK OF SPACE RELAYS:
Complex technology to stop the asteroid’s rotation (vaporizing surface with lasers, stop rotation with thrusters)
Wait the right moment to fire thrusters and use orbital mechanics to bring asteroids closer to the Moon (point is that it has a stable orbit around Earth)
Technology required for the extraction of the asteroid’s raw materials.
Ex: giant mirrors focusing sunlight to heat up asteroid rock, boil out the gases, break up the dried rocks into gravel/dust and centrifuges separate light from dense elements).
Ex2: The Mond process.
Complexity of getting the extracted materials back to Earth (reusable rockets? 3D printed objects? Heat-shielded capsules filled with gas bubbles that land in the sea?)
The whole point is to have more materials, cheaper and less polluting.
Different types or asteroids? (S-type , M-type) :
Type of materials: iron, nickel, aluminium, titanium,
Planetary Resource firm estimates that a 30-meter asteroid may contain 30 Billion $ in platinum.
All of our electronic devices need some minerals that are rare on Earth (Terbium, Noedynium, Tantalum)
Moreover mining on earth is highly dangerous for environment (air/water pollution + chemicals)
Going to space become cheaper so more profitable to exploit asteroid but still too expensive to be profitable
Small astroids (1km length) -> 4.5 trillions $ value (with platinium or an other small can provide enough nickel for erath consumption for millions of years) some values 700 quintillion$
Process to mine: target the asteroid, move it to a place easier to mine and then just do it (but we still need to truly understand how to move them efficiently and “safely”)
Study it through meteoroids. Asteroids have been made before the creation of earth -> part of the formation of solar system (4.5 billion years old)
Made of really pure metals (nickel-iron) but have a huge variety of compositions (most of them are stony from melted metals.
Solar system generated in a nebula -> cloud of gaz/dust colasped due to gravity and has created planets, asteroids etcs. Asteroids belts : not able to form a planet due to the gravity of Jupiter as it attracts “big objects”.
NEAR Shoemaker : landed on Eros in 2001
Dawn spacecraft reached the asteroids belt in 2011 to study Vesta (2nd largest object) and then Ceres (the largest)
OSIRIS-Rex to study Bennu and bringing a sample back to earth (2018) but have yet landed
ESA Rosetta for Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014
if all asteroids of the solar system are assembled : would have a lower mass than the Moon
nb of asteroids : hundreds thousand (still thousands more discovered each year but 99% asteroids above 100km diameter already discovered but very few discovered with a small diameters … could have million below 1km).
Biggest : Ceres : 933km in diameter and 26 others bigger than 200km
Different colors: (light reflected by the asteroid enables to know the type of rock at the surface)
Darkest: carbon rich (left over from the raw material of the nebula at the origin of the solar system + could store chemicals at the origin of life (for some exobiologists)
Brighter stony one: nickel-iron with magnesium silicates
Brighted : pure nickel-iron (rarest one)
Exist interstellar asteroids : ejected from a star system and go in the galaxy without any orbit until it is catch by the gravity of a starsystem
Get trapped in the asteroid orbit
Scanning process : With spacecraft orbiting around it to take picture and analyse but time consuming / costly to arrive and orbit around an asteroid without been sure it will worth it -> need remote sensing (photometry, colorimetry, spectroscopy, polarimetry and radar detection + comparing analysis with already known asteroids)
-> most of those studies can only be on the dimension of the asteroids and on the characteristics of the surface, not on the inside composition.
Landing on an asteroid : last JAXA mission : bounce and rebound on the asteroid to finally stabilize … -> not the best as can harm the rover or a really short landing/bound for the spacecraft (only some seconds to extract some sample) and use explosion …
Osiris Rex mission 1month ago : Touch and Go approach
Mining process :
For water : microwave or heating technologies to separate water from the other components (technologies that could be tested on the moon with Artemis project) already existing
Or optical mining by concentrating on the surface of asteroids sunlight that vaporise water beneath the surface and then trapped it (avoid landing on the asteroids + digging phase -> perfect for small asteroids) -> in dvpment
Now let’s consider briefly the economic implications and then two examples about astro-mining enterprises:
So, in the market in order to gain profits from sales, you need products to sell. What are the products of astro-mining? For example water, minerals like platinum and various precious metals, Helium-3, concrete, habitats and similar.
But the problem is that -at the present moment- there isn’t a real need for astro-mined products: water can be used as fuel and habitats will be needed once we colonize other planets, but the path to get there is still long. And for now profits suffer.
Yes, because since there isn’t a real demand for astro-mined product the profits are low compared to the risks.
In the future this sector will grow exponentially, and at that point we won’t have to worry about profits, but for now and for the next few decades this represents an obstacle. Therefore the investments made now are to be considered as investments for future investments.
To do so the involvement of governments is required: combining the efficiency of a private company with the less-profit-oriented tendencies of a public organization we can balance the costs of such an enterprise and so boost further operation
But what are these costs?
First we obviously have Research and development, so inventing, designing, constructing and testing the equipment but also developing strategies and ideas to face this challenge;
Exploration and delineation: which means identifying the right asteroids and to determine the feasibility of the operations with both Earth based and on site tests.
Transportation costs: which means arriving to the asteroid and back to Earth
Construction and development costs: once on site the physical plant must be build before the mining process can start
Time value of money: this last one is correlated with the returns, so let’s consider it
here the point is that usually terrestrial projects have a payback time for the investment between 3-5 years
And usually when the risk is high- it’s preferred to have a shorter payback period
INSTEAD astro-mining projects have a very high risk and a very long payback period
It is actually so risky that the level is categorized as “wildcatting” and on Earth the ROI required to face such a risk would have to be higher than the 200%!
Instead -as we will see in the following example- the returns for astromining projects are for now expected to be much lower.
Let’s consider the following case study:
PLATINUM FROM ASTEROID, example
The following data and estimates are taken from the study “Economic analysis tools for mineral projects in space” by Richard and Leslie GRE-TCH:
They considered the steps for a mission mining platinum from an asteroid and bringing the product back to Earth
The minimum cost estimated is of 5 billion dollars, aND this value is set low on purpose
The amount of time required should be around 12 years, divided as follows
Simultaneously between year 1 and 5 both Research and Development
And a first scout mission on the asteroid for exploration
In the years 2 to 5 the construction of miner and processing plant
The years 6 and 7 are spent flying to the asteroid
The eighth year is dedicated to the actual mining and initial processing
In the years 9 to 11 the flight back
In 12th year we would be able to sell the product
Going back to the The other variables to consider: the Risk, which as said before is much higher than the terrestrial one
Paypack period which is longer
And the ROI. The returns depend on the tonnes of the asteroid that we are able to mine, but also on the amount of platinum we can bring back: Do you remember that we defined this category of risk as wildcatting? And that usually for such a high risk the ROI is supposed to be higher than 200%? Well, here it’s impossible to achieve the same results: to obtain an ROI of 50% it would be required to mine 45 billion kilos of the asteroid’s mass. And to reach the 100% the amount required would increase up to 500 BILLIONS.
In conclusion, considering such expenses and in order to mitigate these drawbacks, a possible solution would be to combine different projects, as one mining for minerals and one for water.
First of all, we have to answer the question “why should we mine water when we have tons of water available on Earth?” Well, it turns out that there are a bunch of reasons. First of all, bringing water to space is expensive. As you all might know, the cost of bringing an additional kilo in space grows with an exponential law due to the so-called rocket equation. Moreover, water is present in many near earth objects, as outlined by Thibault. Also, water is much easier to extract that metals such as platinum as we’ve analyzed with Francesco, since the technology required is already available or at least it is in the developing phase. Water mining could serve as a support service to many missions such as those on the ISS and, in the future, on the Gateway. On top of that, water can be used as a less expensive and more powerful source of fuel with water thrusters. This technology is thriving also thanks to companies such as Orbit-Fab that have developed systems to make in-orbit refueling possible, opening the market to reusable satellites and, hence, less space debris.
But, how profitable is Water mining? I am going to briefly cover a research paper by Pablo Calla, Dan Fries and Chris Welch from the International Space University that analyzed the topic. First of all, the authors outline the mission architecture, which is structured as Jean Philippe described: a spacecraft leaves earth, reaches the asteroid, costs the asteroid to understand where water is and where to safely land, It extracts and process water before leaving the asteroid to deliver water whenever it is needed.
The authors also outline some mission requirements, the most important being a small structure of the spacecraft, which should weight around 500 kg in total, and the extraction of at least 100 kg of water to sell in addition to around 50 kg of water to be used as fuel. The hardware required on board the spacecraft is firstly a microwave water extractor. This technology has already been tested by NASA and represents an easy and efficient way to extract water. Then, we need a drilling system. Commercially available drilling systems can be used since they have been tested on materials such as limestone that are likely to be representative of C-type asteroids. We also need water thrusters, that have been developed by NASA, a guidance, navigation and control system, that have already been developed by NASA and many other space agencies for other missions; lastly we need a communication system, and we can use the communication system developed for other missions.
Now I’m gonna give you some numbers. First of all, costs can be divided into four categories: spacecraft bus, the payload, first lunch expenses, that are beard only once and consist of research and development and lastly, the Lunch cost. With regards to revenues, a market for water in space has not been developed yet and therefore we can consider the cost of delivering water from earth to different places as a proxy of the potential selling price. According to the authors, who also took into account the learning curve, break even can be reached after 10 years of cis-lunar delivery of water using 200 space crafts. This means that an upfront investment of around 2 Billion dollars is needed. The investment is of course high but we believe that the investment return period is not extremely long and hence it constitutes a feasible investment.
Having said so, there are many challenges to overcome in the future. First and foremost, defining the potential clients. After our analysis, we can summarize potential clients, that we identified as likely after our research, into three groups: Telecom companies that might need water for their satellites; Governments that are engaging in space missions that involve humans such as the US with the Artemis project; private space companies that aim to develop space travels and their own privately funded research missions.
On top of that, huge opportunities are in the miniaturization of spacecraft components, in making extraction techniques more efficient and in developing an harvesting system in space. Lastly, I want to leave you with another interesting and promising field that is biomining. Biomining is interesting since it is currently, as we speak, being researched on the ISS thanks to an experiment that was brought to the ISS with the last Crew 1 mission.
Most of those tech are duped by startup thank to public private partnership that’s reduce development costs
Leave Earth : https://youtu.be/VlbZTyBuFlQ more and more affordable with new generation of Arianne, SpaceX, Blue Origin or Virgin Galatics etc due to higher competition ( + 100 launching company into the race to get the best rocket for Space)
Excitement about the future of space is at an all-time high after the successful launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle during the summer of 2020. Aside from all the fanfare and media attention, the launch also marked a big milestone in the development of the Space Economy—defined as an area of production and consumption of goods and services—as the first private crewed launch vehicle. Currently, the space economy is still in its infancy, but significant expansion and development are expected to take place in the next 20 years, boosting the space economy to become a major economic driver in the latter half of the 21st century.
The Space Economy
Currently, the space economy can be categorized into two operational areas: earth focused and exploration. Earth focused operations are largely feasible today, while exploration activities generally require a level of technology that is set to arrive within a decade. Currently, earth focused operations are being undertaken, such as monitoring the planet’s changing ecosystems, heavy manufacturing, and satellites being used for a multitude of reasons including for intelligence, GPS, and telecommunications. In the years that come, firms will build on the successes in these industries to create next generation solutions in earth focused operations, such as satellite constellations for telecommunications networks.
Exploration operations aren’t ready to be undertaken yet but will be soon. Potential activities include asteroid mining, space tourism, and interplanetary living. There are some firms starting to experiment in each of these industries—like SpaceX’s recently announced tourism flight—but in order for operations to be safe, effective, and economically feasible, more development needs to happen. Realistically, we can look towards the second half of the 2020s for implementation.
For much of its history, space has been a nationalized industry, but that needs to change in order for the space economy to become self-sustaining in the coming years. According to a research report published by US Investment Bank Morgan Stanley, global space activity was valued at $414.8bn in 2018, and 78% of that value was created by private companies.
By 2040, this proportion of the economy fueled by private entities will have grown significantly as new technologies allow new industries to expand to and flourish in space. One of the largest industries that is expected to grow exponentially in the next 20 years is internet service providers (ISPs). Currently, some product offerings are beginning their rollout, such as SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation, but many new players are expected to enter the market and the value of the industry as a whole is expected to reach $412bn by 2040—almost as valuable as the entire space economy currently.
With the exception of big names like SpaceX and Blue Origin, most companies that will become big players in the space economy are still in their nascent stages. This is especially the case in Italy, where most space focused firms are still in development and few have launched hardware into space. One exception is D-Orbit, an Italian space logistics company that just launched their Pulse Mission atop a SpaceX Dragon 9 rocked. The mission served as a deployment vehicle for smaller CubeSats, utilizing a “ride-share” model popularized by American space startup SpaceFlight.
There are also a lot of investment opportunities within companies operating within the space economy. Space specific VC funds have sprung up around Europe and the US, including PrimoSpace in Italy. Many of these funds focus on early-stage companies, offering the capital necessary to get products developed and into space—a rocket launch isn’t cheap after all! Investment within the space economy is only expected to grow as the industry does, with industry analysts projecting that serious developments in the level of investment will happen over the next 20 years.
The Future of Space
Development in the space economy will only accelerate in the coming years, so it’s best to prepare for any eventuality. Will the space economy be government subsidized or be full of self-sustaining private firms? Can the economic space development be achieved by a single country, or is international cooperation required? These questions might seem like they have simple answers, but when it comes to something as complex as developing an economy, it’s difficult to predict. Either way, once we can answer these questions, we’ll be that much closer to getting the humanity into the cosmos and the space economy off the ground.