Who Cares About Space Travel?
Within 30 years, Morgan Stanley predicts the space industry will be worth $1.1 trillion. Bank of America believes it will be almost $3 trillion by then. Regardless, the verdict is clear: we are entering a new commercial space age.
As can be seen in figure 1, the space economy already plays an integral role in the global economy, at $339.1 billion in 2016 and $385 billion in 2017. Satellites are an essential factor in the growth of the space industry through the various services they provide: ranging from near Earth imagery, to telecommunications, to science research. However, it is rockets, and specifically the launch industry, that play a fundamental role in allowing satellites to fulfill their missions by reaching their desired orbits.
Figure 1: Bryce Space and Technology’s Pie Chart of the Global Space Economy
Without innovation in the launch industry, the exciting developments happening within the satellite industry will not be realized. For example, space startups around the world are aiming to provide futuristic services such as real-time live streaming of the Earth straight to your phone (EarthNow LLC), 3D printing of entire constellations of satellites in space (Made In Space, Inc.), and even testing of pharmaceutical products in microgravity to understand their effects in otherworldly environments (Space Tango, Inc., Space Pharma). A thorough-breakdown of satellites by function can be found in figure 2. Fortunately, exponentially-minded startups such as SpaceX and Stratolaunch are committed to providing reliable and affordable access into space.
Figure 2: Bryce Space and Technology’s Pie Chart on Operational Satellites by Function, as of December 31, 2016
The Future of Rocket Launch
The technology behind rockets has not changed much since the first rocket launch in 1942. Specifically, a rocket is provided with enough fuel to overcome Earth’s gravitational pull from the surface of Earth. Nothing about the rocket is expected to be reused.
Sadly, this outdated thinking and technology has made modern space travel risky. For example, a disposable Soyuz MS rocket failed its launch and forced the onboard astronauts to (safely) abort the mission on October of 2018. The failure created a sense of insecurity within the launch industry, and raised insurance costs of future launches. The insurance cost for this specific launch was at ~$73 million, according to Satellite Finance.
To support the burgeoning space industry, there needs to be a renaissance in space launch capabilities. Fortunately, as figure 3 demonstrates, over 100 space organizations are currently developing new rocket designs. As Hoyt Davidson of the investment company Near Earth LLC explains: “it’s a renaissance… I’ve never seen the interest level so high to start new businesses.”
Figure 3: Small Launch Vehicles – A 2018 State of the Industry Survey, 2015- 2018
Consider, for instance, startups investing in research and development to make rockets reusable (to reduce costs). Specifically, SpaceX’s reusable Falcon Heavy rocket has had a 100% success rate and can put nearly 64 metric tons of payload into low Earth orbit, which is an altitude of approximately 160 kilometers to 2,000 kilometers. They are also developing a rocket to launch Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and a group of artists around the Moon and back to Earth in 2023.
Other startups are looking into methods to avoid launching rockets from Earth’s surface. As it turns out, launching rockets from the surface is very fuel-inefficient because 1) the rocket needs to push through all of Earth’s atmosphere, and 2) the gravitational pull on the rocket is heaviest from the surface.
Therefore, space startups such as Stratolaunch and Virgin Orbit are launching rockets from high-speed airplanes. In October of 2018, Statolaunch’s aircraft reached 90 mph at its latest testing. And in November of 2018, Virgin Orbit flew a modified Boeing 747-400 aircraft with a 21-meter rocket strapped underneath its wings for the first time.
These types of rocket startups would only be able to provide services for small satellites due to weight constraints. Fortunately, the trend is moving towards satellite startups building small satellites (1 kg to 50 kg), as can be seen in figure 4.
Figure 4: 2018 Nano/Microsatellite Market Forecast, 8th Edition, Number of small satellite launches with an emphasis on Planet Inc., a small satellite manufacturing startup
Market Factors Behind Rocket Launches
With revolutionizing rocket designs comes revolutionizing launch prices. However, let us first consider the current price ranges of rocket launches.
Many factors must be considered when determining the costs of launching a satellite into orbit (i.e. weight of satellite, reusability of rocket, size of rocket, etc.). Companies such as Spaceflight “assist in identifying, booking and managing rideshare launches [so that] entities [can] achieve their mission goals on time and on budget.” Figure 5 provides detailed information on expected price ranges for satellite launches relative to their weight and orbital destination.
Figure 5: Spaceflight’s Launch Schedule for 2019
As a point of comparison, consider the top six promising small-satellite rockets in figure 6. Once in commission, they promise to offer prices that would revolutionize the established costs offered by companies such as Spaceflight.
Figure 6: SpaceWorks Enterprises’s 2018 Nano/Microsatellite Market Forecast; Only five are expected to fly customer payloads by 2020
What Should We Expect in the Next Thirty Years?
A recent space program report by Frost & Sullivan predicted a launch demand for over 11,600 small satellites over the next twelve years. As mentioned, they will be providing a litany of services that will dramatically change the way people live on Earth, and in outer space.
Already, there are space startups preparing for this future market. Companies such as Deep Space Industries are creating the technology for a future where asteroids can be turned into fuel stations for rockets to land upon and refuel, before heading deeper into space. With this level of innovation and progress, we can confidently assume that soon rockets be transporting people and supplies from Earth to small communities on the Moon and Mars, while returning raw materials from asteroids to Earth.
Posted by Richard Nederlander
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