Technological Advancements Transform Space into a Broader Information Enterprise
The space industry is engaged in a remarkable technological transformation from primarily government-driven stand-alone projects to a private industry-driven supply chain collaborating to create exciting new services for businesses and consumers. The key technology trends that are driving the new space industry are recyclable and smaller launch vehicles that are reducing the cost of putting satellites into orbit. Another key trend is smaller satellites, weighing from less than one to a few hundred pounds, that lower the barrier to entry for new space applications.
“We are witnessing a vast array of new integrated services leveraging the communications and sensing capabilities of space to deliver pathbreaking innovations that will augment terrestrial solutions,” said Mike French, Senior Vice President, Commercial Space for Bryce Space & Technology (Brycetech), an analytic consulting firm that tracks technological and business trends in the space industry. “We are seeing proposals for smaller, lower costs systems to address many of the services provided by the space industry.”
One of the key drivers in the new space industry is cutting-edge launch vehicles that are dramatically reducing the cost of putting satellites into orbit. The price to launch a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket runs from $60 to $70 million, less than half the cost of traditional government-sponsored competitors such as the Ariane 5. SpaceX’s costs could drop considerably if they are able to increase the reusability of their rockets.
A more recent development is a new generation of micro launch vehicles that have taken advantage of the rapid reduction in the size and weight of today’s satellites. Rocket Lab is on the verge of launching the first operational flight of its 55-foot-tall Electron rocket from New Zealand with a payload consisting of four satellites that weight only 88 pounds in total. Small launch vehicles have the potential to increase the value of small satellites because they deliver them to just the right orbit with less waiting for launch than could be obtained as part of a much larger payload in a conventional launch vehicle.
The shrinking size of satellites is being driven by the continuing reduction in the size and weight of electronic technologies, including sensors and communications equipment. The increasing use of commercial off the shelf (COTS) components and new manufacturing technologies such as additive manufacturing are also reducing the cost of satellites. As an example of this trend, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) recently launched 104 small satellites, most weighing just 12 pounds, in a single flight.
“As hardware costs decrease and the value of data increases, space can be thought of as one part of the broader information enterprise,” French said. An example is the BlackSky global intelligence platform which combines images from 10, out of a planned fleet of 60, spacecraft with terrestrial data from sources such as news outlets, social media and radio communications to provide a 360-degree view of critical events.
For example, following the recent death of a civilian in Islamabad involving a vehicle driven by a US Embassy staff member, BlackSky employed its services to track news reports and social media posts from the nearby region. Geolocated detections helped to gauge the severity of the reaction following the staff member’s release from police custody. Comparisons of report locations to reference map data and new image collections clarified risk and response across the city.
Another interesting mashup of space and terrestrial technology is The Climate Corporation’s Climate FieldView digital agriculture platform which combines satellite and aerial imagery on a single platform to enable farmers to visualize and analyze the health of their fields. For example, satellite images might determine that an area is infested by pests. High resolution aerial images can be accessed to identify which type of pest and plan the response. The Climate FieldView platform is already being used on more than 120 million acres across the United States, Brazil and Canada.
The vast proliferation of new small satellites and launch vehicles raises the question of how to protect satellites from the growing amount of space debris. Astroscale is a startup based in Singapore that is beginning to address this challenge by developing space debris removal technologies. The company has a 49-pound satellite scheduled for launch in 2018 for monitoring sub-millimeter sized space debris and a second satellite in development for removing it.
“As the anticipated cost of access to space and satellites fall, we are seeing an ever-increasing number of proposed commercial space applications, especially in the communications and sensing fields,” French concluded.