New Commercialization of Space Technology

Tom Cruise is going to space to film his next big hit. This is after his record-breaking Top Gun: Maverick movie. We also have billionaires like Jeff Bezos and his brother flying into Space to fulfill their lifelong dreams earlier this year, with the intent to commercializing it for other wealthy people to do likewise.

Another billionaire, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic sub-orbital space tourism business are suffering heavy losses and is reportedly delaying their start of the flights to next year.

Monetizing Space

Ironically, the first commercial monetization of space tourism came during the post-Soviet Union era in 1990. Toyohiro Akiyama, a Japanese journalist who spent a week on the Mir space station at a cost $12 million because the Russian space agency then was severely crippled by budget cuts. Thus, Akiyama became the first person of Japanese nationality to fly in space.

The argument for space tourism being a great way for billionaires to spend their money is still cringy in my opinion.

On 12th June 2008, the first inter-stellar commercial advertisement was broadcasted from a EISCAT Space Centre in Svalbard somewhere in the Arctic Ocean. It was for “Doritos” — corn chips snack by Pepsico to a solar system 42 light years away orbiting the star 47 Ursae Majoris.

But way before that, Apollo astronauts (they are not well-paid as one would assume then) were bringing first-day postal covers to the moon, so that they can on-sell to souvenir hunters after their return to Earth.

Pop culture entertainment, recreational tourism and souvenirs must not be the only focal points of humanity efforts to advance our last frontier. The privatization and commercialization of the space industry are much more than just these activities. Here are the 4 broad categories where private and commercial companies have impacted the space industry in the last twenty years.

Space Transportation

Rocket Launch (Source: Pixabay)

Arguably, this is probably the most notable sector of the privatized space economy that is most visible to the public. Simply put, space transportation is about moving things (satellites, cargo for orbiting space stations) from earth to outer space. Essentially, space transportation technologies are rockets and re-usable vehicles like the Space Shuttle that NASA retired/decommissioned in 2011.

Privatization started when the Obama administration signed legislation paving the way to the space boom we see today in this sector. Who knows space privateers like Space X and Elon Musk? Everyone. Blue Origin and Jeff Bezos? It seems like billionaires are not only tourists but also entrepreneurs cashing in on this industry (ego + making $ = great combination).

It has certainly been proven that privatizing space transportation by SpaceX is 10X cheaper and 30X lower cost overrun than public agencies like NASA. See chart below.

Launch Cost per KG — LEO
Space missions NASA vs Space X Cost Overruns
Source: Flyvberg in Medium

Space Mining

Perhaps the most far-fetched and long-term goals for humanity is to mine the moon, asteroids and eventually the outer space.

Moon Mining (Source: Pixabay)

Watching this YouTube video, famous astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson made in 2015 similar to Ted Cruz, although he was more specific in his quote:

“The first trillionaire there will ever be, is the person who exploits the natural resources on asteroids”

However, the challenges of such long-term endeavors will be difficult to get funding considering the high cost of transporting the mined material from the asteroids back to Earth. Therefore, commercial space mining is highly speculative and probably will only take place between ten to twenty-five years from now according to the experts in the video.

So, no mining activities we can see at least in my lifetime just like sci-fi series/movies like The Expanse and The Avatar type of out-of-Earth mining.

Satellite Imagery and Artificial Intelligence

This category is what I would consider has the largest and immediate short-term potential to explode in terms of billions of dollars in commercial value.

If you recall during the Cold War period (1945–1991) between the Soviets and United States, these two superpowers were the only nation-states that have spy satellite capabilities. Interestingly, the name of project that launched the United States into spy reconnaissance from space was “Corona” —and the declassification of the images are now helping to solve the ecological crisis today.

So, imagine the quality of satellite image mapping terra-earth now no longer rests with superpowers, but instead commercial companies like Airbus and Maxar whom are able to offer detailed satellite imagery at the click of the button. This shift to commercialization of satellite imagery is now complete from a state-based or state-owned entity.

The top ten use cases of commercial satellite imagery are further enhanced by Artificial Intelligence (AI) in these categories:

Building Footprints Imagery Analysis using AI (Source here)
  1. Urban Planning of Cities
  2. Urban Waste
  3. Tracking Carbon Emissions
  4. Vegetation Monitoring
  5. Railway Engineering
  6. Infrastructure Monitoring of Railways
  7. Prediction and Detection of Natural Disasters
  8. Railway Obstacle Detection
  9. Infrastructural Condition and Mapping
  10. Airport Mapping

Other interesting ways with a social dimension include poverty maps — predicting poverty using satellite imagery integrated with household income, expenditure and census data of Thailand and Philippines. Also, in the area of sustainable development — help measure livelihood outcomes where there are insufficient ground data.

Lastly, the use of satellite imagery and AI to provide environmental enforcement and regulation of highly concentrated overfeeding by agricultural animals. For example, Microsoft showcase their Azure Space Cows under the Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO to oversee more than 1000 unmanaged cows and buffalos. More importantly, the company published their planetary computer library of images to scale environmental sustainability by open-sourcing it here.

Satellite Navigation and Orbital Communications

Satellite Communications (Source: Pixabay)

The oldest commercial use case is in satellite communications and have largely been dominated by the telecommunications industry. The satellites play a critical role in the global telecommunications system. Roughly 2,000 artificial satellites orbiting Earth relay analog and digital signals carrying voice, video, and data. The first commercial satellite consortium, Intelsat was founded back in 1964. From the commercial consumer front, there was the and ill-fated Iridium (backed by Motorola) went bankrupt in1999 after spending billions in launching of satellites to provide a worldwide mobile phone service. It was very expensive at US$ 5/min and US$3000/handset, and only 10,000 subscribers signed up prior to its collapse.

Moving to more recent times, the modern digital equivalent of Iridium would be the global internet service Starlink by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. This service is now offered at a low cost of US$90/month and one-time hardware cost US$290 in Australia for retail customers while for businesses, it will cost them US$ 485/month and US$2400 respectively. Iridium as an entity is still in operation even after its earlier failures. It currently runs a small 66 satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and is a Starlink competitor.

The largest potential competitor would definitely be AWS’s Project Kuiper which will launch its prototype satellites in late 2023 with a further 92 contracted heavy lift launches already secured. Amazon claims that this the largest commercial procurement of launch vehicles in history. We shall await the how this plays out in years to come.

Secondly, although satellite navigation services (satnav) are predominately still state-based, the private sector are happily commercializing this “free” service. The most heavily utilized satnav is Gobal Positioning System (GPS) where we routinely use Google, Apple and Bing Maps on our mobile phones, with suppliers of GPS hardware equipment like Motorola and Garmin Corp amongst others worth billions of dollars.

Lastly, commercial usage of ground stations has now been virtualized into the cloud. Microsoft Azure have Azure Orbital Ground Station offering and so does it biggest competitor Amazon Web Services.. Both give their cloud customers the ability to operate faster and more efficiently in a secure and on-demand basis.

Conclusion

I believe the commercialization of space technologies is still in its infancy. What I have written above are simply the current state today in the 21st Century.

The space capitalist will find all means necessary to make their ventures profitable. Like cathedrals during the medieval ages, space programs are extremely complex and require length period of building and construction. Trans-generational transfer of technology capabilities is also essential as humanity embark on this eventuality of space colonization. I am hopeful that day will come.

Other Sources:

Parker, Martin. ‘Capitalists in Space’. Sociological Review, 2009.

Thompson, C. Monetizing the Final Frontier. New Republic251(12), 30–39, 2020.

Hein, Andreas M. ‘The Cathedral and the Starship: Learning from the Middle Ages for Future Long-Duration Projects’, 2020. https://www.centauri-dreams.org/2020/07/17/the-cathedral-and-the-starship-learning-from-the-middle-ages-for-future-long-duration-projects/

This article was first published here