Space: the rapidly developing & thriving Space Industry, and some Space 101
24 Oct 2020
There are some massive changes happening in the space industry in 2020 and beyond, that are causing the space industry to change and boom like never before. A few groups are even saying “the first trillionaire will be created in the space industry”…
These main drivers are:
Massive reductions in the cost per kilogram to launch items in to space, largely driven by Elon Musk and Space X driving down the launch cost, and a vastly increased cadence- where there are many more launches than ever before. And if Space X’s huge Starship spacecraft works (designed to carry over 100 humans, and go to Mars) then the launch costs will plummet even more. Up until the year 2000, the cost was an average of US$18,500 per kilogram. For a SpaceX Falcon 9, the rocket used to access the ISS, the cost is just $2,720 per kilogram. Starlink is said to potentially get the cost of a rideshare down to approaching the $300 a kilogram range (to LEO). It all depends on where you want your package to go; the SpaceX Falcon-9 has a cost per kg of around $2,500 to low earth orbit,(a few years ago it was well over $10,000 to go to LEO) whereas the much smaller Rocket Lab Electron rocket has a cost of around $22,000 per kilogram;
Huge advances in technological capabilities and miniaturisation of components, further reducing mass / kg and thus the cost of getting satellites in to space, and vastly increasing the business cases; Moores law has been at work for a long time. The electronics just in a smart phone can do a lot in a satellite… and a satellite that used to be the size of a bus can now be the size of a shoebox; these huge advances in technologies have allowed many new business cases to become commercially viable;(e.g. a high powered Earth Observation satellite cost >$100m a few years ago, now costs < $1m)
Investor interest- the above two points have been attracting ever more investors in to the area, who can see a way to make a lot of money, and believe that many ideas can work. A “Minimum viable product” cost is now hugely reduced, reducing the risk of investing, and allowing more people to invest.
Almost $6bn was invested in 2019 by private individuals and VCs.
Elon Musk, with Space X (Launch company, and people to MARS focus) and Starlink (Fast broadband for the whole planet) ; Jeff Bezos with Blue Origin (moon focus), and Sir Richard Branson with Virgin Galactica (tourists to space) and Virgin Orbit are three high profile and well funded individuals whose activities also attract ever more press and interest in the field.
First I will start with a few “basics” before moving on to the industry and other areas.
Gravity / Microgravity / Escape velocity…
The first and key thing to understand is that there is no “escape gravity”, only “escape velocity”. The only thing that matters is how fast you are going horizontal to the earths surface. At a certain speed and height you are in “freefall” or “skydiving” past the earth, and in microgravity, and either falling only very slowly back to earth, hardly at all- unless of course you are closer to the earth and subject to atmospheric resistance .
Gravity at the ISS (International Space Station), at circa 248 miles / 400 km above earth- (it needs boosting a few times a year to stay at this altitude) has some 90% of the gravity at the earths surface. It is travelling at circa 17,150 mph past the planet, but at just the right speed not to fall back to earth. The “outer space” definition is a height above 100km, where the atmosphere is so thin that rockets can start travelling so fast as there is almost no air resistance, that they then head up to the over 17,000 mile per hour speed needed to “free fall” around earth. At Geostationary orbit, 22,500 miles (35,786 kilometers) above earth, the gravity is still above 80%, and the satellites are travelling at 7,000 mph (11,300 kph). For a circular orbit at a height of 300 km above the Earth's surface, a speed of 7.8 km/sec (28,000 km/h) is needed. So the Geostationary satellite takes 24 hours to orbit, and stays at the same longitude above the equator, whilst the ISS orbits every 92 minutes or so…
So launch vehicles / rockets race straight up- to get out of the “molasses” of the near earth atmosphere, and then turn almost horizontal to race up to orbital speed..
There are 3 “orbit bands”, LEO, MEO, and GEO. LEO-Low Earth Orbit is under 2,000 km (1,200 mi) and likely notably above 160km high; MEO- Medium Earth Orbit, is from 2,000km altitude to GEO geosynchronous orbit -which is at an altitude of 35,786 km (22,236 mi) above sea level.
Size of a satellite
Many new launches are of cubesats, where some weigh under 1 kilogram, and are under 10cm by 10cm by 10cm. (1U) They can be put together and more capability added eg 2U or 3U or 6U. Propulsion can be added, or more power eg a larger solar panel. Miniaturisation has led to satellites of a decade ago the size of a bus now being the size of a shoebox.
Life of a satellite
Satellites have design lives, which can be anywhere from a few years to some 20 years plus; it all depends on their mission. 1% to 5% of satellites fail a year and become space junk. However if their trajectory is not altered, they slowly fall back to earth and are likely burnt up in earths atmosphere. At 250 miles high it will take 2.5 years to fall back to earth if rockets are not used to change its orbit, and a geostationary satellite may be there for thousands of years…
Space Debris /Junk/ Crowded Space/number of satellites/ Kessler effect
Under 10,000 satellites have been launched in all time, up to 2020, with some 2,000 currently operating. However it is expected that there will be well over 100,000 satellites in operation by 2030 - with Elon Musk and Starlink talking about having up to 40,000 in LEO within the 2020’s.
Kessler calculated the impact of a large item collision in space, where there can be snowball effect where when two objects collide the debris ricochets off and hits other satellites/ objects, which then collide with more objects and so on in a horrific chain reaction. Small particles are travelling well over ten times faster than a bullet and can blow up a satellite.
The military, in 2020, tracks about twenty-six thousand artifacts orbiting Earth, but its catalogue recognizes only objects larger than ten centimetres; the total number is much greater. By one estimate, there are a hundred million bits of debris that are a millimetre in size, a hundred trillion as small as a micron. In 2009 Iridium / Russian Kosmos satellite collision added nearly six thousand objects to the NORAD catalogue. More than half the items that the 18th Space Control Squadron (in California) tracks are fragments.
In recent years, two of them—a three-ton Soviet intelligence satellite and an eight-ton Soviet rocket body—missed each other by just ninety-five yards. Had they smashed, the effect would have been disastrous. It would have doubled the catalogued population. “Sixty years’ worth of space-debris growth would have been matched by that one event! ”. Some are worried that with all the satellites being launched in to LEO, it is possible that a number will collide and a chain reaction will occur, result in LEO becoming unviable.
The Companies Astroscale and Clearspace are leaders in constructing a satellite to retrieve larger defunct satellites.
There are many different ways of propelling a rocket. The energy required for the thrust can either come from the propellants themselves, as with a chemical rocket, or from an external source, as with ion engines.
You have the launch vehicle chemicals that get the rocket and payload off the planet.
Rocket propellants require a high energy per unit mass (specific energy), which must be balanced against the tendency of highly energetic propellants to spontaneously explode, as many will have seen on TV.
The Space X Merlin D rocket (2011/12 design) has a thrust to weight ratio of 180x. Monopropellant rockets use a single propellant decomposed by a catalyst. The most common monopropellants are hydrazine and hydrogen peroxide.
It should be noted that many of the propellants are highly toxic.
Then once up in space you need to move your payload around, when your satellite is sitting in space you need to adjust orbit periodically- maybe to avoid some space debris. Hydrazine was used to manoeuver the space shuttle.Various electrical propellants can be used… such as Xenon (super toxic); krypton etc. Electricity from your solar panels provides the necessary “spark” to make the xenon or krypton work.
Chemical propellants are much more powerful / faster to use than electrical.
Solar sails: for longer voyages eg to the Sun or Jupiter, solar sails are needed. The Primary center for solar sail work is Marshall and NASA Langley. If you want to learn more on solar sails and how they work, listen to Dr. Les Johnson (They talked solar sales, propulsion, interstellar flight, human spaceflight and more, September 2020) Listen on Apple Podcasts: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-space-show/id73799424?i=1000492259467
Orbit Fab is working on providing a gas station in space, to refuel satellites and extend their useful lives, or provide gas to tow trucks in space. See https://www.orbitfab.space/
Repair, servicing or upgrading of Satellites
The biggest problem with repairing satellites (or indeed refuelling them) is that many have not been designed to have anything grab them or connect to them. Some are tumbling and/or spinning, so some of the servicing companies are designing different ways of connecting to these satellites to effect repairs etc. Indeed some companies -such as Orbit Fab- are actively involved in talking to satellite manufacturers suggesting to them to add either “gas caps”- to allow refuelling later, or areas eg magnetic points, to allow a third party to attach and connect to their satellite.
Spacefund lists many servicing companies on their website. https://spacefund.com/
If you want to get your satellite in to space the cheapest way to do it is to book a shared ride /small space on a rocket launch whose primary payload likely has a different destination to your satellite. You then get “dropped off” somewhere in space, likely not your target altitude/ destination, so then you have to get to where you want your satellite to be, or accept where you are dropped off… hence the need for tow trucks in space… to tow you to where you want to be.
Tow Trucks in Space
“Tow trucks” in space , or “tug boats”, are satellites that can move you from where you are to where you want to be. Maybe a rideshare dropped your satellite off in the wrong place; or you do not have any propulsion and need your orbit adjusted, or you are “out of gas” ie do not have any more propellant and need to be moved, or you do not have any propellant to get out of the way of some space debris…
If you would like to see a talk on tow trucks and gas stations in Space see a September 2020 talk on space channel by orbit fab , put together by the great people at Spacefund. https://spacechannel.com/spacefund/
Gas Stations in Space
Some very expensive satellites can run out of propellant. If they could be refuelled then their useful life could be extended, potentially worth millions of dollars to the owner…
See a leader in this, Orbit Fab, on https://www.orbitfab.space/
At first glance it may seem a little crazy economically… pay huge amounts to fly a long way to an asteroid, mine for minerals etc and bring them back to earth… dealing with all of the risks and issues in space.. how could one possibly compete economically with much lower earth costs.. and the amounts brought back would likely decimate prices on earth for many minerals eg gold or diamonds or whatever… ultimately defeating the economic argument…
However this could be to misunderstand what is meant by many that refer to asteroid mining. When a spaceship is in space, or people are inhabiting another planet, a key resource is water- which is needed for life / growing things, and can be converted to fuel / propellant... So you may first be mining for water, an incredibly valuable resource, or other propellants for spacecraft. Hence many searchers look for ice on a planet
Humans in Space and Space Tourists, & the ISS
As of 2020, less 600 humans have visited space, and 12 people have walked on the surface of the moon.
There may be many more tourists as the price drops dramatically, eg Virgin Galactica; or knowledge gained may lead to rapid transport between cities eg London to Sydney in a an hour or two by going sub orbital, or experiments being conducted in space and so on.
The ISS and some facts…
The main base is the International Space Station, the ISS. It circulates the earth at over 17,150 miles per hour (5 miles /second) and is at a height of 248 miles / 408 kilometers, and sees a sunrise every 92 minutes. It is jointly owned by many countries and expected to be retired by 2028 /2030, where a private company, Axiom Space, won the award to be able to attach to the ISS and will likely be its replacement. Axiom Space has much more interior space, and Phillippe Starck designed interiors!
240 individuals from 19 countries have visited the International Space Station to date (2020). Peggy Whitson set the record for spending the most total time living and working in space at 665 days on Sept. 2, 2017.
To mitigate the loss of muscle and bone mass in the human body in microgravity, the astronauts work out at least two hours a day.
Eight spaceships can be connected to the space station at once.
A spacecraft can arrive at the space station as soon as four hours after launching from Earth (but could take much longer).
The living and working space in the station is larger than a six-bedroom house (and has six sleeping quarters, two bathrooms, a gym, and a 360-degree view bay window).
Habitable Volume is 13,696 cubic feet (388 cubic meters) not including visiting vehicles
Astronauts and cosmonauts have conducted 230 spacewalks (and counting!) for space station construction, maintenance and upgrades since December 1998.
Four different cargo spacecraft deliver science, cargo and supplies: Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus, SpaceX’s Dragon, JAXA’s HTV, and the Russian Progress.
Through Expedition 58, the microgravity laboratory has hosted more than 2,700 research investigations from researchers in more than 103 countries.
The space station travels an equivalent distance to the Moon and back in about a day.
The space station has an internal pressurized volume equal that of a Boeing 747.
Science experiments being conducted on the ISS video is viewable at: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/index.html
If you want to see more on how the space station developed and what different component parts are see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLrOnEmy_GA
The Chinese ISS: The Chinese are looking to catch up, where they are expecting to finish construction - in space- of their own space station in 2022- called Tiangong ('Heavenly Palace') . This will orbit between 340 and 450 km. The first section is a core module known as Tianhe ('harmony of the heavens') . 3 Chinese astronauts- or "taikonauts" - have made it to the space station. Their space station will have more than 20 experimental racks, which are mini labs with pressurized environments. There will be 67 connection points for research hardware for hardware facing Earth or the sky. Experiments can cover things such as organoids- can low gravity stop or slow the growth of cancerous cells- which may lead to therapies; or study of cosmic rays and dark matter, or polarization of y-rays, and so on.
The benefits to mankind of developments in space
Apart from a “Plan B”, a backup for the human race in case Planet Earth becomes uninhabitable, there are many other benefits for mankind. There are huge economic benefits, and many others, such as new discoveries or scientific possibilities eg making new organs in space. A globally consistent time is due to satellites; internet and TV from space can connect the whole planet, accurate maps that allow uber, google maps etc are dependent on satellites, and so on.
Space, MARS and beyond- does it make sense to do this…
If you believe that the people on Planet Earth, or a catastrophic event such as a meteor strike, could destroy the habitat, then Mars and beyond is a “Plan B” that will help keep the human race from going extinct. Mars is the nearest habitable planet (barely, at present).
From a capitalist perspective, there is a huge economy that has been developed by activities in space. There would not be uber, google maps, good weather forecasting etc etc if there was not GPS- global positioning system-satellites above earth that let you work out exactly where you are and what is where..
But interplanetary travel and habitation, even to the Moon and Mars has many barriers to overcome, such as radiation exposure- will everyone get bad cancers after years in space?; reproduction off planet; muscle and bone wasting when outside gravity; feeding someone on another planet or on a spaceship, and so on. Huge problems but likely eventually solvable.
The Space Economy:
Picture courtesy of E2MC, Raphael Rottgen, 2020
The space industry is some $400bn a year in revenues, plus hidden military expenditures (in budgets). ¾ is made up of the satellite industry, and ¼ human space flight and government. The Satellite section is primarily made up of broadcast and navigation services ie TV and GPS and manufacturing and ground services that support those services. Human space flight (the ¼) is made up of circa 25% NASA spending, the rest is other governments and commercial users.
NASAs 2020 budget for FY2020 is $23bn.
The huge area of the space economy and potentially the largest by far is the provision of broadband to / from space, IOT, and navigation. Many have tried before and failed, and now Elon Musk has Starlink, said to be over 3/4s of Space Xs valuation. He has applied to put up to 40,000 satellites in to LEO, across over 20 planes, and connect everyone one of the planet except at the Poles. He has stated that one may be able to get up to 1 gbps, with low latency (under 20ms). He has already put hundreds of satellites up and beta testing has produced speeds of over 100mbps and under 20ms latency. He has stated that he wishes to provide this for about $80 a month. The ground receiver you need at your house is said to be about the size of a pizza box.
An interesting challenge, communicating with a satellite travelling at over 17,000 miles per hour, gone from overhead every 90 minutes, and switching seamlessly to the next satellite going at over 17,000mph, with a cheap ground terminal... Others that have failed have said it is all about the ground transceiver at your home. Starlink might be using lasers to speed up communications, and Elon has said that he hopes the home based transceiver box will be under $300.
Some half of the planet of over 7 billion people has access to broadband internet, and if Elon and Starlink succeed then most of the other half of the planet will have access to fast internet speeds, which has huge potential to massively help humanity- permitting a much higher education level globally and many new businesses.
Earth and space Observation and SAR
Earth Observation & Imaging is another big segment. It can either be taking high resolution photos, observing and predicting weather, looking at agriculture and being very precise about how to farm better, or for national security reasons, or SAR- Synthetic Aperture Radar- which is radar that lets see through cloud and at night. Resolution of pictures is getting down to 25cm.
Two examples of leading SAR companies are IcEye (Finland) and Umbra Labs (USA).
One can also get vibration images- is a power station on or off; see the height of a curve; (the cost is <$5m- which used to be $450m satellite); hedge funds can see how much oil is in a tanker and so on; earth & space weather-where weather forecast accuracy can be substantially enhanced; or early warning of a corona mass ejection (from the sun) that could wipe out earths communications and create trillions in damage.
Although launch gets a lot of press, it is a small single digit percentage of the space economy- only c. 2% of the c. $400bn industry (SpaceX, Blue Origin, Relativity and a few others are leaders)- but it was the place to be 10 years ago. And at last count there were well over 130 launch (rocket) companies, over 40 of them backed by venture capital firms, where some say that there is room for only a handful. But the massive reduction in launch costs, as seen in the chart below illustrating the general cost of launching 1kg in to orbit (LEO), is one of the key drivers of the huge growth in the space industry.
Source: Science Direct / Founders Fund
Seraphim, a leading space fund, recently put together a Small sat constellations map:
Manufacturing in Space
Aside from 3D printing items in space, saving the huge cost and time delays of obtaining them from planet Earth, it could be that complete manufacturing plants are made in space.
Many things are different in a microgravity environment, such as fibre optics produced in space can be 100% pure, meaning there is no need to repeaters etc on earth. Or stem cells can be grown to make a human organ much more easily than on earth, as no scaffolds are needed.
Many scientists conduct science experiments on the ISS.
A company to look at is madeinspace.com.
Investors in space: Venture Capital Funds, SPV operations etc focussing on space
There are a handful of Space focussed Venture Capital funds.
Seraphim (UK base); Primo Space (Italy)(closed €58m first close in 2020); E2MC; Starbridge; Helios Capital; Hemisphere Ventures; Newspace Capital; Space Fund; Space Capital / Space Angels, and a number of SPV focused groups that do a lot of space investing. A range of larger VC funds also occasionally invest in space.
A little more background on some of the space focussed VC funds can be found at: https://dylantaylor.org/top-vc-funds-in-the-newspace-industry/
And for a few more names of people doing space in mainstream VCs, see https://techcrunch.com/2020/06/11/9-top-space-tech-vcs-on-the-markets-opportunities-and-challenges/
VCs make up about half of space investment; angels about ¼, then rest is corporate venture arms, banks and private equity; with family offices and sovereign wealth (eg Temasek and Mubadala & Softbank) ramping up rapidly- which have the financial power and infrastructure and agility to explore new sectors.
Deals to invest in
There are thousands of space focussed companies, many need lots of money before they become cashflow positive. You can either invest directly, say in to a Delaware C Corp, or in to one of the increasing number of space focussed funds, or in to an SPV- Special Purpose Vehicle, that aggregates many investments and the SPV invest in to the space organisation, assuming they achieve aggregate e investments to make the minimum size required.
A few areas to invest in can include Space Hardware, Propellants, Launch and onboard electronics, Software & Engineering, Launch services, Engines, Satellites, Space pharma, Communications, logistics, tracking, Data platform, Data processing, Data storage, Ground terminals, Earth observation, Mapping, Geolocation.
Some say that it is still a bit of a wild west in space. Who pays if two satellites collide, and then their debris scatters throughout space and destroys other satellites..? If blame can be attributed, which court will it be fought in, and if the company goes bankrupt, who then pays… The country that issued the launch licence ultimately is responsible, but good luck getting payment.
Satellites and space debris can be criss- crossing the skies, can collide going on opposite directions- so impact at 35,000 miles per hour… makes a real mess of anything hit…
As pointed out above there is a lot of positive change and growth, and huge potential for more growth in the space industry. Some people will make a lot of money in this area… and there will be some huge benefits for humanity…
You can learn more in many places, but a few of the more interesting ones:
University: International Space University in Strasbourg, North-East France. https://www.isunet.edu/
Podcasts: Apple Itunes: The Space Business Podcast
Youtube: Google whatever you are most interested in
Websites: Space X, Space Fund, Seraphim, Axiom etc
Blue Origin: Intro video 2021 The Ambitious of Blue Origin | Space Documentary - YouTube