Science & Technology

Space Race 2.0: Is this democratisation of space or a high-tech coup?

A handful of billionaires are working hard to make space colonisation a reality. In the process they are reviving a sector that had stagnated for decades

 
By Snigdha Das
Last Updated: Friday 03 May 2019
Two side-booster rockets of SpaceX’s
Two side-booster rockets of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy  touch down on landing pads in Florida on April 11. This is a landmark progress in reusable rocket technology, which will make space flight significantly cheaper (Photo Courtesy: SPACEX) Two side-booster rockets of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy touch down on landing pads in Florida on April 11. This is a landmark progress in reusable rocket technology, which will make space flight significantly cheaper (Photo Courtesy: SPACEX)

Elon Musk does it again. On March 2, the co-founder of electric car maker Tesla Inc, sends an unmanned space-craft Crew Dragon to the International Space Station (ISS), located 400 km above the Earth surface just at the edge of outer space. It autonomously docks with ISS, stays connected to it for five days orbiting the planet at 27,600 km per hour, delivers food and drink packages to the crew and returns home safely, with a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida.

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) described the smooth plunge as a “major milestone” and Crew Dragon as the “first American spacecraft to autonomously dock” with the orbiting laboratory. The success has brought Musk's 16-year-old firm SpaceX a step closer to commercial human spaceflight. Crew Dragon will fly again in July with NASA astronauts on board.

Three other aerospace manufacturers—the world's oldest and largest Boeing; Virgin Galactic of business magnate Richard Branson; and Blue Origin of Amazon's owner Jeff Bezos—are vying to make history as the first private companies to launch commercial passengers into space. Musk's success may have sent jitters among them. But before they could come to terms with it, on April 11 the serial entrepreneur launched the world's most powerful operational rocket, aptly named Falcon Heavy, from the coast of Florida in its first ever mission for a paying customer and delivered a pricey communications satellite into orbit for Saudi Arabiabased firm Arabsat. It was also the first time SpaceX managed to land all the three rocket boosters (or engines) after launch. Traditionally, these boosters, referred to as the first-stage in a multi-stage launch vehicle, would burn up on reentry to Earth after powering the payload to go beyond the Earth-orbit. But boosters represent some 80 per cent of the launch cost of Falcon Heavy; 60 per cent in case of a medium-lift launch vehicle Falcon 9, Musk says. The nose cone, or fairing, that protects payload during launch, was also recovered. SpaceX plans to refurbish and reuse the two boosters that landed on terra firma and the fairing in an upcoming mission.

With the ultra-powerful usable rocket and confidence, SpaceX is now ready to compete directly with its rivals, particularly the United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, for lucrative government contracts that require heavy-lift launch vehicles. In fact, SpaceX has already made its intent clear. Its website claims that “Falcon Heavy can lift more than twice the payload of the next closest operational vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy (of ULA), at one-third the cost.” As per news website Space.com, Falcon Heavy flights cost SpaceX customers between US$ 90 million and $150 million; Delta IV Heavy costs $350 million.

In fact, SpaceX has offered NASA to ferry its astronauts to and from ISS at $44.4 mil lion per seat, nearly 40 per cent discount to what Boeing has offered for CST-100 Star- liner, whose test-flight has now been delayed by months. Both Crew Dragon and Starliner are being developed under a 2014 contract with NASA which depends on Russia’s Soyuz spacecrafts after the retirement of its Space Shuttle in 2011 and pays Russian agency ROSCOSMOS more than $80 million per seat. This is double of what SpaceX has to offer. 

WELCOME TO SPACE RACE 2.0

It is nothing like the race during the Cold War, which began between the US and the then Soviet Union, with the latter launching the first satellite Sputnik in 1957. The race had ended over one-and-a-half decade later with the US’ Apollo 11 landing the first person on Moon and a “handshake in space” between commanders of Soyuz and Apollo. The latest round is much like a contest witnessed during the California gold rush in the mid-1800s; the euphoria experienced at the beginning of the age of oil; and the disruptive innovations witnessed with the advent of Internet in the 1990s. Individuals and enterprises flush with funds are the key players this time. They are betting on a future in which space is more accessible, enjoyable and exploitable, and public trips to Mars and back are a reality. 

“This is the dawn of the entrepreneurial space age,” says Chad Anderson, chief exe cutive officer of Space Angels, a financial services company that manages investme nts in space ventures. From the launch of Sputnik until 2009, there were just two dozen privately funded space companies globally. Then, in July 2009 SpaceX laun ched its first commercial payload—a 50-kg Earth observation satellite for Malaysia. This was a key milestone for entrepreneurial efforts in space. With low prices and trans parent pricing, SpaceX undeniably increa sed access to the space economy for new entrants, says Anderson. An analysis by Space Angels shows over the past eight years the number of privately funded space companies has grown to 435 with some $20.4 billion of private equity capital invested into them. Things have accelerated in the past four years, with 79 per cent of the $20.4 billion invested between 2015 and March of 2019. In fact, the investment in the first quarter of 2019 is nearly double the amount deployed in the last quarter of 2018.

Members of Blue Origin recover a crew capsule after its fifth successful flight and soft landing. Blue Origin’s New Shepard is a fully reusable  rocket for suborbital flight

Space economy now includes everythi ng from launch and satellites (both hard ware for data sourcing and software for data analytics and applications), to industrials (extractives and manufacturing), logistics (situational awareness, debris mitigation, on-orbit servicing), biospheres (habitats and life support systems), interplanetary (deep space technologies), information and resea rch, and media and education. “Almost 41 per cent of the Top 100 firms now have at least one space investment,” says Anderson.

All these investments have led to a significant progress in launch capacities. “Some fifty years after the advent of the Space Age, no one ever had flown a rocket past the edge of space and landed it vertically. Now it had been performed twice in less than a month,” writes Christian Daven port in The Space Baron: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cos mos, referring to the test flights Musk and his fellow space entrepreneur Jeff Bezos, till then known only as the founder of Amazon, conducted in 2015 to develop usable rockets. “If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred. A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionise access to space,” says Musk.

SpaceX is developing a fully reusable spacecraft and launch vehicle, Starship and Super Heavy, which it hopes to use in Mars missions by 2024. The system is the full-scale steel avatar of SpaceX’s ambitious BFR spacecraft. BFR was being built using carbon fibre as the heat shield to protect the spacecraft from damage during orbital reentry. But in March this year, SpaceX destroyed BFR prototype and the project, worth several million of dollars. According to Teslarati.com, a media platform that publishes news only related to Musk’s ventures, a flood of SpaceX engineers and technicians are building the first prototypes of Starship in Boca Chica coast of Dominican Republic. “Super Heavy booster is stainless steel. Since it only goes to around Mach 8 or 9 (Mach 1 equals speed of sound), moreover at high altitude, it needs no heat shield, not even paint,” reads a Tweet by Musk.

Bezos has already developed a fully reusable rocket, New Shepard, capable of vertical-takeoff, vertical-landing. But it is a suborbital rocket and can only go past the Kármán line—internationally recognised space boundary at 300 km below ISS. To achieve his vision of millions “living and working in space”, the world's wealthiest man is now developing New Glenn. Last year, Bezos said he would sell over $1 billion worth of Amazon stocks to fund New Glenn. 

The results are already showing. By 2040, the world would record 10 launches of satellites a week, with the launch cost of each satellite reduced to $29 million from $80 million now, shows a 2017 estimate by multinational financial services company Morgan Stanley (see ‘Launch grows...’, p34). This will enable private launch providers to fine-tune their technology and reach full system reusability in the years ahead.

But why are these billionaires pushing the envelope? Stephen Hawking believed that humans need to leave Earth to avoid annihilation caused by either a nuclear war, climate change or asteroid collision. So are these dreamchasers working on a backup plan for the human race, or is it part of their business strategy? An analysis of projects suggests that they may actually be prepa ring for a future when Earth would run out of resources to sustain life.

THE IDEA OF EXPLOITING celestial resources is older than any space exploration programme. In 1903 Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Russian scientist and pioneer of astronautic theory, mentioned in The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reaction Devices, “exploitation of asteroi ds” should be one of the reasons for the conquest of space. Though NASA has been studying soil samples of Moon for decades, mining in space captured public imagina tion at the turn of the 2010s when Japan’s Hayabusa landed on an asteroid and returned with 1,000 dust grains, rich in minerals. Soon private companies vied for the riches, with Planetary Resources announcing that it wants “to expand Earth’s natural resource base”. 

Several others, particularly those in the space technology sector, drew up plans to get into the game.

Bigelow Aerospace in the US is developing the first private space station, which can act as a space hotel. It is scheduled for launch in 2021

Geolosists say asteroids are pristine relics from the early solar system. They not only hold clues to the evolution of Earth but also vast reserves of metals and minerals, particularly gold, platinum and alloys that are needed to produce modern technologies such as smartphones. The 200-km-wide 16 Psyche, located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, could contain enough nickel and iron to cover the current human demand for millions of years. Rock fragments on asteroids, whose strength is similar to concrete and has allowed them to exist for billions of years, could also provide logistical support for future habitations on Mars.

As of now near Earth asteroids (NEA) appear to be the suitable candidates for first mining incursion outside the planet. While most companies are attempting to find sui table metal-rich NEAs, Planetary Resources has selected the ones rich in hydrated clay minerals and plans to embark on an explora tion programme to unlock the reserve. “Water, when broken down into the elements Hydrogen and Oxygen, is rocket fuel, curre ntly the best way to get around the Solar System,” says Akshay Patel of Planetary Resources. “Just as economic activity on Earth is enabled by fossil fuels, in space, we will have a water-based economy.”

Asteroid miners hope to set up fuel stations in low-Earth orbit and the asteroid belt so that spacecraft can fill up on their way to outer planets of the solar system. Currently, fuel accounts for 90 per cent of the weight of modern rockets which adds to the launch cost. Besides, water would be required for human habitation. It can also be used to insulate spacecrafts from the harmful solar or cosmic radiation in space, particularly in Mars. These radiations can penetrate human body and damage tissues. Right now, it costs $9,000-$43,000 to send a bottle of water into space, and hence it is recycled at ISS. Planetary Resources says 16,000 NEAs are rich in resources and hold 2 trillion tonnes of water. Asterank, a scientific and economic database of 600,000 asteroids which has now been acquired by Planetary Resources, says prospectors can earn over $100 trillion from most asteroids.

The prospect of the most lucrative business has already prompted governments to change laws. In 2015, then US president Barack Obama signed a space law, which allows companies to own the materials they mine from bodies in space. Two years later, Luxembourg passed a similar law and set up a line of credit for space entrepreneurs. 

It now wants to accelerate collaborations between investors and governments. In March this year, Russia has extended its cooperation to the tiny European country for mining in space.

DATA IS THE OTHER lucrative market. “Satellite broadband is the sector of space economy that’s about to take off”—that’s what Morgan Stanley told investors at the end of 2017. The bank predicts that the space economy will triple to over $1 trillion by 2040, and most of the value will be linked to satellite-enabled broadband internet access. For instance, today’s global space economy is dominated by consumer TV; in 2040, it will be driven by consumer broadband. This exponentially growing demand for data is driven not only by half of the world’s population who do not have internet access, but also by upcoming technologies, such as autonomous cars, the internet of things, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and the growth of video (see ‘Data to steal...’,).

Source: Space: Investment Implications of the Final Frontier, a report by Morgan Stanley in November 2017; Amount in US$

In fact, the battle for the next generation of satellite communications is heating up, with SpaceX and OneWeb, veterans of new space age, being the main recipients of capital in the first quarter of 2019, says Space Angels. In March, Bezos' Amazon confirmed that it would soon join the competition with Project Kuiper, which would put 3,236 satellites into orbit to provide high-speed internet to any point on the globe. “We are bringing a huge vehicle with a lot of capability,” Blue Origin’s Vice-President Clay Mowry said during the announcement, referring to New Glenn. Soon Musk took to Twitter and called Bezos a copycat!

COPYCAT OR NOT, no one wants to be left behind in this latest round of space race, which holds innumerable economic opportunities. One such is space tourism which has had false dawns before. SpaceX has signed up Yusaku Maezawa, founder of Japanese e-commerce giant Zozo, for a trip around the Moon in 2023. Maezawa has already made a substantial down payment. When travel to Mars becomes possible, Musk says it would cost about $500,000 or, maybe, $100,000. Blue Origin plans to offer 11-minute suborbital flights on its six-seater New Shepard capsule. Though it is yet to announce the ticket price, Virgin Galactic has offered thrill rides featuring majestic views of the Earth capped by a few minutes of weightlessness for $250,000 a seat, and has sold 600 tickets. Its SpaceShipTwo is scheduled to fly in July.

But what if one could stay in space for a bit longer! Several lesser-known billionaires are working in that direction too. One such is American hotel tycoon Robert Bigelow who in 2016 created history by installing an inflatable orbital habitat, called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), that remains attached to ISS. Last year, the 73-year-old billionaire unveiled his plans for the first space hotel and said he is creating a line of “autonomous standalone space stations” that can function as space hotels both at the low Earth orbit or in the cislunar orbit (region within the Moon’s orbit). Axiom Space, run by former NASA ISS programme manager Mike Suffredini, is also working on his designer-space station that could go aloft around 2023 or 2024. 

The excitement and prospects created by these disruptors have upended the way space industry and economy worked, just till two decades ago. A few governments that remained outside the old space player league are now setting up space agencies—over 25 countries have established space agencies since 2000; a dozen of them after 2010—and joining hands with private firms. While most are focusing on sending satellites, the fledgling Australian Space Agency, set up last year, aims to leverage the country’s skills in mining its Mars-like landscape to triple the size of the sector to $8.5 billion by 2030. It seems a level playing field is now ready for the space race.

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