The space industry has received its fair share of interest and, at times, hype based on the leaders of forefront companies and their promises of moon bases, settlements on Mars, and increased orbital tourism. Although, as of 2022, the space industry and its related economy have remained distinctly local in a cosmic sense. Despite that, 2020 saw a milestone in the industry with the first vehicle accessing space that was not built or owned by any government, but rather by a private corporation with its sights set on affordable space settlement. Despite that, over the past several decades, space and satellite technology has become a part of the foundation of the digital world, enabling technologies used on a daily basis. And with increased technological breakthroughs and reduced cost of launches of technology into space, the expectation remains that the space industry will continue to grow.
Much of the nascent growth of this industry has focused on private-equity projects that have gone towards projects to develop competitors to the government space agencies. The industry's growth has also seen public sector interest, such as the establishment of the U.S. Space Command and the signing of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2020, which is intended to help the U.S. Department of Defense focus on and accelerate investment in technologies and capabilities. Much of the interest is expected to focus on near-term opportunities in IT hardware and telecommunication sectors, while estimates suggest that medium-term opportunities will come from satellite internet broadband access and related industries.
Similar to the oil industry, the space industry is expected to have upstream and downstream effects. Within both industries, the upstream concerns itself with exploration, which, in space, includes exploring the outer regions of the universe and innovating ways to propel humans beyond Earth's atmosphere. Whereas, downstream deals with refining and marketing the final product. In the space industry, it is expected downstream effects will include the refinement and utilization of data, research, and information. Both exploration and refinement drive these industries forward, except, unlike the oil industry, the space industry is ever-expanding and will likely have unknown and unforeseen impacts on humans.
The space industry has slowly grown since the early 2000s, with commercial parties driving most of the growth. New sectors in the industry have grown, beyond the traditional sectors of satellites, launch vehicles, and ground stations. The industry now includes new types of satellites, space exploration, space exploitation, new propulsion systems, data generated from space, manufacturing in space, space traffic and transportation management, space-based activity management, space tourism, astrionics, and uncrewed space vehicles. However, satellites remain the largest single sector in the space industry.
The activities in any of these sectors can be further subdivided into civil, national security (or defense), and commercial. Each of these operates under its own goals and with its own or shared assets but relies on the same space industrial base, workforce, and infrastructures. Civil describes non-defense-related government space activities, national security describes defense and intelligence-related activities and operating assets, and commercial describes space-related endeavors provided by the private sector for government and non-government customers. The activity areas are increasingly overlapping, as the same commercial satellite can carry assets for commercial customers, civil uses, and defense applications used independently of each other.
Much of the interest and growth of the space industry is in low Earth orbit (LEO) or geosynchronous orbit (GEO) satellite and space travel initiatives. These are expected to continue to drive the space-for-earth economy. This is understood as the use of space to enable products or services on Earth. For example, the space-for-earth economy includes telecommunications and internet infrastructure, earth observation capabilities, or national security satellites, among many other applications. This is where much of the early interest in the space industry has been focused.
However, as the space industry expands, and space exploration or beyond orbit space travel increases, it is expected a space-for-space economy, or goods and services produced in space for use in space, will grow. This could include activities such as mining the moon or asteroids for materials to use in the construction of in-space habitats or supply refueling depots. These are concepts that reach as far back as the 1970s, when NASA-commissioned research first predicted the rise of a space-based economy capable of dwarfing the space-for-earth economy would rise. But with no more than thirteen people in space at one time, prior to some of the space tourism launches in 2021, there have been limits to the growth capabilities for such an economy. New activities in the space industry on the behalf of private companies hold the promise that this space-for-space economy will begin to grow at a rate similar to the space-to-earth segment of the space industry.
A large component of the space industry remains the government agencies that oversee the regulatory environments and collaboration between commercial and governmental entities to achieve mission success. This includes agencies such as the Australian Space Agency, NASA, UK Space Agency, Canadian Space Agency, European Space Agency, UAE Space Agency, CSIRO, and CNES. The collaboration between these agencies is expected to increase in importance as space becomes more cluttered.
Regulations signed by these agencies, such as the Outer Space Treaty and the UNOOSA guideline on Space Debris Mitigation, already require space debris mitigation, environmental protection, liability to third-party and space insurance, and safety of humans and properties. Further, international conventions, from 1972 to 1979, included conventions on international liability for damages caused by space objects, conventions on the registration of space objects launched into outer space, and agreements governing activities on the moon and other bodies.
Regulatory levers impact the attractiveness for potential commercial companies looking to enter the space industry. These regulations could include procedure duration, application fees, and insurance amount to be underwritten by applications. While traditional regulatory levers could include tax law, corporate law, and economic law which can impact the ease of doing business. Many of these government agencies are also responsible for space-related policy and program design, implementation, and economic analysis.
For example, the Italian Space Agency is a signatory to the Artemis Accords, a United States-led program to bring the first woman and next man to the moon, meaning the Italian Space Agency is expected to work with NASA on a variety of programs including the first mission of the Space Launch System with a small ArgoMoon satellite, to the Lunar Gateway Project (Habitation And Logistics Outpost, HALO). There are expected to be new opportunities under the Artemis program with which Italy is expected to negotiate with NASA including building crew habitation for the lunar surface, conducting scientific experiments on the lunar surface, and providing communications technology for the project.
Another example, the Swedish National Space Agency (SNSA) contributes to Swedish space operations through calls to give companies the opportunity to develop new innovative products and services from satellites, rockets, and data deployment. However, the SNSA is implemented in international cooperation, within the framework of the European Space Agency (ESA). And the ESA promotes scientific and technological space cooperation in Europe by developing and implementing a long-term European space policy. The ESA is built up of voluntary programs in a variety of areas, such as carrier rockets and Earth observation, in which each country can decide how much money they want to invest, and the countries base their participation on social interest or expected industrial exchange. ESA also applies a so-called juste retour system, which means any money the member states invest in ESA goes back to the respective countries. This means, with respect to the SNSA, the contributions are returned to Sweden in the form of industrial contracts, long-term knowledge building, and access to international data and research results.
As the United States continues to play a large role in the space industry, especially from a governmental regulatory perspective, it is important to know the key federal agencies involved in the regulation, oversight, and promotion of commercial space activities. Multiple federal agencies regulate the commercial space industry, based on statutory authorities that were enacted separately and have evolved over time. Examples include the following:
- The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) licenses commercial launch and reentry vehicles as well as commercial spaceports
- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) licenses commercial Earth remote sensing satellites
- The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) licenses commercial satellite communications
- The Department of Commerce and State license exports of space technology
- The U.S. Department of Defense overviews U.S. national security policy and the U.S. Space Force
- The Office of Space and Advanced Technology formulates policy on topics including space diplomacy, commercial development of space resources, and the regulation of artificial satellites, satellite navigation systems, and satellite-based earth observation systems
In response to industry concerns over the complexity of this regulatory framework, the Administration and Congress have made reform proposals, including Space Policy Directive-2, Streamlining Regulations on Commercial Use of Space; the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act; and the Space Frontier Act of 2018. How the United States federal government makes use of commercial space capabilities has also changed. Previous to 2012, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration owned and operated their space shuttles that contractors built for them. Since 2012, it has contracted with commercial service providers to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). Similarly, while the Department of Defense (DoD) has its own satellite communications capabilities, it also procures communications bandwidths from commercial satellite companies.
As these key government and federal agencies continue to shape and dictate policy for space-based operations, they also are a part of the change the industry has experienced slowly since 2001, with a push towards commercialization that has included increased funding, businesses scaling, and changing mission priorities, and it has seen space and its related industries become a topic of everyday conversation again. As the industry is increasingly commercialized, this will require the agencies to be clear around the expectations for the role commercial partners and the respective agency will play, as well as for that respective agency to have a better understanding of how regulations can impact the overall space industry. To better understand the role government agencies have played, and will continue to play, in the space industry, it is necessary to understand, at least in part, the history of the commercialization of the space industry.
Government space agencies
What makes an activity in the space industry "commercial" can be difficult to define. Some consider commercial activity to be one in which a private sector entity puts its own capital at risk and provides goods or services primarily to other sector entities or consumers rather than the government. This could be something like direct-to-home satellite television, satellite radio, and commercial communication satellites capable of transmitting voice, data, or internet services.
Meanwhile, other definitions are broader, including sales of consumer equipment by companies even though the satellite system is owned by the government, such as the Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation satellite system owned and operated by the U.S. Department of Defense, but with an array of consumer users ranging from automobile navigation systems to cell phones to precision farming.
A still broader definition of commercial space activities could include those in which a company provides services to a government customer, such as the Boeing-Lockheed Martin United Launch Alliance (ULA). These activities, however, tend to not be considered commercial because they rely on the government for revenue, and the government shoulders a majority of the risk.
Between 1963 and 1982, U.S. expendable launch vehicle (ELV) manufacturers only produced vehicles under contract to NASA or the DoD. Further, when a private company or a foreign government purchased communications satellites, these were produced by a private company in contract with NASA, which in turn was contracted to launch the payloads. Through NASA, launches could be procured on any one of four expendable launch vehicles: Tita, built by Martin Marietta; Atlas, built by General Dynamics; Delta, built by McDonnel Douglas; and Scout, built by LTV Aerospace Corporation.
This largely ushered in the Age of the Space Shuttle, from 1972 to, arguably, 2011, when the access paradigm was one controlled by governmental regulatory bodies, such as NASA, and a promised routine access to space was unrealized. This was, in part, due to unsustainable and unrealistic expectations of satellite proliferation, and because the government assumed the risk of space travel and the cost of the ELVs. While NASA's Space Transportation System (STS) or "space shuttle" first offered a vision of human spaceflight as a business, a public infrastructure sustained by private capital concentrated in the hands of those willing to invest in the technology. Proponents of the STS advertised it as a technology that would drive the cost of delivering payloads so low it would create launch traffic that did not yet exist.
The 1970s was largely a period of shifting focus from lunar landers, often thought of as the bright spot of NASA, towards a Skylab idea that moved from space exploration to space residents. Trying to maintain the pace of its missions, NASA had to strain resources to undertake commercial endeavors, as private companies such as AT&T used NASA to launch their commercial satellites. In this scheme, the launch would occur under the supervision of NASA with a launch vehicle purchased from one of these contractors. With NASA serving as a provider of launch services, the organization found itself unable to respond as the demands for new launches increased. During this period, the U.S. military began to take on the responsibility of launching satellites, while NASA's budget was cut during periods of wider economic downturns. Meanwhile, the demand for new satellites to be launched increased, further burdening the launch capabilities of NASA, which led, according to some, ultimately to the Challenger disaster.
In 1979, seeing an opportunity, the European Space Agency developed its own ELV, Ariane, which became the first competitor to NASA for commercial launches. By 1984, a private company, Arianespace, took over the commercial operation of the Ariane ELV. On May 16, 1983, President Ronald Reagan issued National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 94, "Commercialization of Expendable Launch Vehicles," which stated the U.S. Government fully endorses and will facilitate the commercialization of U.S. Expendable Launch Vehicles and will license, supervise, and/or regulate U.S. commercial ELV operations to the extent required to meet its national and international obligations and to ensure public safety.
On August 15, 1986, President Reagan issued NSDD 254, "United States Space Launch Strategy" which limited NASA's role in providing commercial launches to only those satellites requiring the unique capabilities of the shuttle or for which there were unusual foreign policy considerings. This created unavailability for NASA as a civilian launch service and led to the emergence of the U.S. commercial launch services industry. On February 11, 1988, President Reagan issued the "Presidential Directive on National Space Policy," which required U.S. government agencies to purchase launch services from commercial companies. The U.S. licensed commercial space industry made its first launch in March of 1989 when Space Service, Inc. sent a scientific payload on a suborbital trip aboard a Starfire rocket.
On August 7, 1995, DOT announced that the office of Commercial Space Transportation would move from the Office of the Secretary of FAA, as part of a larger DOT reorganization. The transfer was delayed until sanctioned by legislation, signed by President Bill Clinton on November 15, 1995, which cleared the way for greater commercialization in the space industry.
The commercial aspect of space flight began to emerge in the 1990s and 2000s. During this period, the moguls, referred to by author Tom Wolfe as the Masters of the Universe, began to emerge with openly commercial space projects. This included Elon Musk with SpaceX, Jeff Bezos with Blue Origin, Robert Bigelow with Bigelow Aerospace, and Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic. The origin of these commercial companies and their contributions to commercial and governmental space travel came with the suggestion that this was a "New Space" era.
As these companies emerged, often with big ambitious long-term goals, such as SpaceX's goal to settle on Mars, NASA began to experiment with a new way of doing business. Known as fixed-price contracting, the idea was that the space agency would put out a call for a service, and these new companies could pitch their own ideas and vehicles to make this happen. If NASA liked the pitch, it would hand over a sum of money as an investment, and the company would go into development. Once complete, NASA would pay for what was produced, which was meant to be a win-win, with NASA paying less money upfront, and allowing the private companies to own and operate their final creations.
Research into the New Space companies found that early investments from a government agency, such as NASA or the Air Force, were often, if not always, a crucial step in the evolution of these commercial space companies from start-ups to businesses. This includes the government programs that have been deemed, by some, to have worked best in this scheme, specifically the NASA and Department of Defense's Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) initiatives, both of which have given money to small entrepreneurial companies in their earliest stages and were able to attract additional private investment.
On the practical side, the New Space companies and the overall commercialization in the space industry saw advances in reusable rockets, lower per-launch costs, and the miniaturization of satellites opened new business opportunities beyond aerospace and defense, into IT hardware and telecommunications. This has also included growth into the commercial space offers the potential for a new paradigm for space exploration, one in which industry transitioned from supplier to partner.
Under the New Space label, the increasingly commercialized space industry has seen these private businesses enter the domain traditionally occupied by institutional players or the space agencies that would contract otherwise private companies to develop systems. While this development has stoked the interest in futuristic opportunities such as space tourism or asteroid mining, there have come with it challenges and concerns related to what had been a long-established business model.
One of the first associated challenges is to prevent space from becoming a lawless zone where the strongest take unfair advantage. This could apply to LEO, where the current regulatory framework could be developed and enforced to manage the increasing space traffic and prevent interferences or collisions. Meanwhile, interplanetary exploration and exploitation is considered another sphere in which new regulations need to be implemented with respect to established treaties and principles.
Of possibly greater concern, activities in space cannot be contained within the boundary of a country's border and have the potential to affect assets or areas of the planet beyond the jurisdiction of the launching country or the nation where a satellite operator is registered. This requires an international regulatory framework that should prevail over national regulations to limit the capability of countries to use less stringent regulations as a means to attract foreign business. At the same time, consideration has to be given as to how to appropriately enforce such regulations at an international level.
Other challenges can include how the governmental space agencies will cooperate with private companies, including in the development and implementation of space programs, and in the deployment of such programs. Other challenges New Space companies are facing, on the supply and demand side, include the following:
- Increased competition and pressure to reach lower price points
- Improved design processes and industrial optimization
- Disruptive changes of scale in terms of satellites produced and time-to-market constraints
- Technological issues facing the amount of data handled and/or generated in space
Companies in the space industry
Satellites are the largest sector in the space industry. The falling cost of satellite manufacturing, putting satellites into orbit, and the growing number of use cases for satellites and the various types of data they can provide have kept satellites as the majority of space activity, commercial and otherwise. Satellites have largely shifted from large geosynchronous orbiting (GEO) satellites into single-purpose, small and light low Earth orbit (LEO). The business of launching satellites since 2019 has become similar to launching a mobile application, with companies such as SpaceX or China's Galaxy Space committing to launching fleets of LEO satellites for customers in various industries, including communications, aviation, marine, and vehicle manufacturing.
The increased activity in satellite markets has also seen an increase in money raised for satellite-related ventures. This raise of capital has further increased the proliferation of satellite-related start-ups. Many of these start-ups have come up with innovations, such as optical or laser technologies, new uses for artificial intelligence, and software-defined satellite technologies. Which has, in turn, further spurred traditional satellite manufacturers to respond to many of the niche manufacturers and increase their own innovations. Much of the competition has seen the cost of manufacturing satellites driven ever further down. And with the niche manufacturers, the satellite sector has slowly subdivided into distinct activity categories.
Small satellites have increased in popularity and production, with miniaturized satellites, or nanosatellites, offering cheaper designs while advancements in related industrial technologies have further allowed for their mass production. Further, these satellites are at times capable of conducting missions larger satellites struggle with. For example, miniaturized satellites have been shown to be capable of use in wireless communication networks, scientific observation, data gathering, and Earth monitoring. For example, in 2017 NASA began testing the use of CubeSats (miniature cube-shaped satellites) for weather satellite technology. Called Microwave Radiometer Technology Acceleration (MiRaTA), these satellites were smaller and cost less to build than traditional satellites and were launched into orbit to demonstrate the technology's capability and the ability to miniaturize important instruments and still gather reliable data. In this case, the satellite was focused on weather data, which it was able to track successfully. And NASA was able to include calibration targets, allowing the MiRaTA CubeSat to self-calibrate the radiometers to maintain accurate data.
Miniaturized satellites continue to experience technological advancement enabled by their simpler and faster design and construction requirements. Further, their low cost has seen the range of possible missions increase, while the integration of new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics have enhanced their capabilities and mitigated some compromises. As well, the use of Very High Frequency (VHF), Ultra High Frequency (UHF), and visible transmission technologies to increase the signal frequency and reduce transfer speeds has increased the amount of data miniaturized satellites can transfer, while further simplifying and reducing the cost of ground systems. However, these satellites have been more prone to failures than traditional satellites.
This higher failure rate is part of the risk calculus on miniaturized satellites, as their expected functional window is around three to four years. Compared with a traditional satellite system, which is expected to be operational for around thirty years, these failures are less critical than a failure in a traditional satellite would be. Further, these satellites continue to get smaller, spurred on by the miniaturization of electronic components, and new materials for better thermal management adhesives to keep the electronics cool.
These advancements, the lower cost of miniature satellites, and the increased use cases for miniature satellites have created expectations for this industry to continue to grow from a USD $3.1 billion industry in 2021 to a USD $7.4 billion industry by 2026. This also marks this segment of the satellite industry arguably the fastest-growing segment in the space industry, and the most lucrative. This market is dominated by established companies such as Thales Group, L3Harris Technologies, Honeywell International, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Airbus.
Miniature satellite companies
A low Earth orbit (LEO) is an orbit less than 1000 km and as low as 160 km above Earth. There is a high degree of cross-over between the miniature satellites segment and LEO satellites, as many miniature satellites are launched into LEO. Ambitions for LEO satellites first arose in the 1990s, when companies such as Globalstar, Iridium, Odyssey, and Teledesic had plans for LEO constellations, but all but Iridium scaled back or canceled their constellations due to high costs and low initial demand. However, demand for low-cost, high-speed broadband with increased capacity for enterprise data has seen a renewed interest in LEO satellites, with developments in laser beam pointing and the reduced cost to manufacture miniature satellites increasing the capability of these satellites to achieve mission success and offer increased broadband service to under-served or unserved communities.
LEO satellites and their communication possibilities allow for both earth-to-orbit and vice versa communications, but further can be used for communications in deeper space, such as Mars or the moon, increasing the communication and data infrastructure for longer space exploration missions. Thanks in part to the generally smaller size of LEO satellites, the tasks they have been suggested for include various industrial applications, such as communication, Earth observation, logistics and geo-location, signal monitoring, and scientific missions. While these satellites have so far been mainly used for data communication, human space flight, and remote sensing, they are encroaching ever further on territory that belongs traditionally to geosynchronous orbiting satellites, thanks in part to the advancements in latency and applications, including the following:
LEO satellite applications
Defense and government
As LEO satellites can provide network coverage where terrestrial cellular networks are unable to reach, they can expand networks for defense and government customers. Further, they can be deployed rapidly and cheaply when compared to the cost of establishing new terrestrial network links. These could provide different mobile solutions to government and defense officials for voice, data, and high-speed connectivity terminals.
In the case in which communication infrastructure is damaged, such as in a natural disaster, LEO satellites can take over these networks. Further, disaster and recovery teams can use them to coordinate recovery and rescue efforts, especially where satellite voice and data services are the only services available.
For individuals who like to adventure into far-off destinations where terrestrial coverage cannot reach, LEO satellites can provide an array of voice and data services. LEO satellites can also be used to extend voice and data services to underserved and unserved regions for consumer access.
Remote industrial business
LEO devices are capable of providing services to remote areas far from terrestrial coverage. This could include servicing the oil and gas, mining, and forestry industries. Services could include connectivity to the internet, voice communication, and even tracking and monitoring hardware and equipment.
So far, as more LEO satellites are launched into constellations, there is no comprehensive global or domestic system for on-orbit regulation, and there are no regulations related to on-orbit activities such as rendezvous and proximity operations, space situation awareness, or RF mapping. There remain regulations for launches and re-entries of satellites, while operators and investors have expressed interest in developing regulations for LEO satellites which would make investing more secure. However, these concerns have not stopped interested parties from launching LEO satellites, as SpaceX's Starlink has worked to deploy 2,000 satellites, with licenses for more than 40,000 LEO satellites. Blue Origin has plans for its own LEO constellation, named Project Kuiper, and is intended to offer high-speed internet access to customers. Meanwhile, the European Union plans to spend €2.4 billion from 2022 to 2027 on the development of LEO constellations to close connectivity gaps.
LEO satellite companies
Geosynchronous (GEO) satellites, or satellites in a geosynchronous orbit, have historically been where the majority of the activity in the space industry has been focused, and where the majority of private funding and government funding has gone. These satellites have previously been focused on satellite communications, such as those used for GPS and television coverage. The GEO orbit of these satellites allows them to appear stationary, with a 24-hour orbital cycle matching the Earth's, which limits them to a specific geographical region, although that may be the desired result from a satellite. The increased popularity of LEO satellites has shifted the satellite sector of the space industry from GEO satellites, but they remain useful for specific applications. These applications include communications; remote sensing, such as meteorological applications such as biomass imaging and data; and navigation services.
With the GEO especially favorable for satellite communications, it is expected that these satellites will continue to be launched and used. They require propellant to keep them in orbit, as gravitational forces will push and pull the satellite and change their orbit, and they use propellant to keep station. Once this propellant is depleted, they are often retired. However, with in-space refueling, these satellites could be used for new applications, such as deep space communications, or in-orbit database services. Further, as smaller GEO satellites are being developed, and new propellant systems that do not require refueling are being outfitted on GEO satellites, they are still being developed and used.
GEO satellite companies
One of the largest trends in the satellite industry is the use of satellites, LEO, GEO, or miniature satellites, for connectivity, including for satellite internet, communication technology, and related connectivity use cases. In addition, increases in government initiatives for adopting satellite communication technology, especially in developing nations where adopting a satellite-based network may be lower cost than developing a terrestrial-based network infrastructure. With the growth in supportive government regulation across nations, the satellite connectivity market has further developed, with the adoption of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and cloud computing sector creating new connectivity opportunities for satellites.
This has led to another space race, with participants competing to create constellations of satellites for connectivity, and connecting the world's unconnected and under-connected populations. With supportive regulations across regions, the plans to use satellites to increase the world's connectivity has been assumed to be done, while companies sending these satellites into space have already planned services they can sell to the government, defense, and businesses such as telecommunication companies, airlines, banks, or educational institutions. These offer various industries a chance to benefit from satellite connectivity, especially remote satellite connectivity, including the following:
- Civil services—increased connectivity offers the capability to connect schools, universities, administrations, public entities, and hospitals with efficient and reliable point-to-multipoint networks which can provide connectivity in even harsh environments
- Banking and insurance—connectivity offers opportunities to provide remote offices, ATMs, and insurance companies with scalable infrastructure that can grow with client base and ensure business continuity
- Energy and utilities—satellite connectivity offers a chance for various industries to collect and compute enormous volumes of data, but take that computation and storage off-grid to satellites, and thereby be more sustainable
- Retail and hospitality—satellite connectivity is expected to improve employee and customer satisfaction by offering customers new shopping and dining experiences at airports and large malls
- Construction and mining—satellite connectivity offers chances to develop remotely managed construction, mining, landfill sites, roads, railways, and infrastructure operations. This includes the development of IoT devices that can monitor and manage daily activities at these sites to increase safety and maximize efficiency
- Agriculture—satellite connectivity offers new opportunities for developing broadband access for distant locations, connecting suppliers and customers with stock market prices, and connecting remote sensors to provide critical data for monitoring soil, snow cover, drought, and crop development
One complication with satellite connectivity will be the terminals that users connect to. A terminal will contain an antenna, receiver, and additional networking equipment. Most proponents of satellite connectivity suggest that these terminals will need to be reliable and physically robust, while also easy to install and inexpensive in order to attract users, or else not lose users to those frictions and costs associated with an access terminal. This has been an area of increased research and development for satellite connectivity companies.
A subsect of satellite connectivity, satellite communications is as large a segment as the remainder of satellite connectivity sector. Satellite communication, also known as SATCOM, the communication is often used for wide area network (WAN) communications, cellular backhaul, internet trunking, television broadcasting, and rural telephony. It is also utilized for video on demand (VoD), Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), and telemedicine services. Various advancements in communication protocols have further enmeshed SATCOM with the larger satellite connectivity sector.
SATCOM uses various satellites to provide communication links between various points on earth. It plays a large role in the global telecommunications system. A satellite link in these systems involves the transmission or uplinking of a signal from an Earth station to a satellite. The satellite then receives and amplifies the signal and retransmits it back to Earth, where it is received and amplified by Earth stations and terminals. The use of SATCOM is to relay signals across the curve of the Earth, allowing communication among broadly separated geographical points, allowing SATCOM to reach a wide area around the world, while a single satellite is often capable of covering a whole country or location.
The rise of IoT in aviation has increased the interest in the SATCOM and overall satellite connectivity industry, with increased applications across the aviation industry for real-time data processing to help optimize the operations in the aviation industry. Further, SATCOM has seen an increase in use with the development of 5G communications systems, and demand for broadband communications has increased among various industries. The data is also being used among industries to collect operational data and improve overall efficiency, as well as realize sustainable business practices.
One major concern in the SATCOM industry has been cybersecurity, as the process of launching a satellite to transmit data is highly sensitive. The challenge lies in the negative impact that such cybersecurity threats can potentially make mission-critical vulnerabilities. This could include exposing launch systems, communication, telemetry, tracking and command, and mission completion to cybersecurity threats.
Satellite connectivity companies
Not surprisingly, the space industry requires launch systems to place the different assets of the industry into orbit, or to enable further space exploration. The increased demand for these satellites and satellite constellations has further driven the development of launch vehicles as these are required to place the satellites into orbit. The industry tends to be concerned about weight, the cost of the launch system, optimization of the propulsion in relation to weight, and related system costs, especially as these launch systems can be challenging to design and develop. The overall market for launch systems was valued at USD $19.2 billion in 2021, and it has been projected to grow at a CAGR of 3.5 percent during the period from 2022 to 2027. Launch systems, in these projections, are described as any vehicle or shuttle used to reach orbit.
In the launch vehicle sector, the small vehicle category remains the highest revenue-generating segment, with companies developing technologies to provide small vehicle launch services, such as SpaceX Dragon's spacecraft, which have been used to supply the International Space Station. And while increases in launches of satellites act as a key driver in market growth, high initial costs associated with the launch services act as a market restraint. The market lacks skilled workforces, in the sense that they require highly skilled workforces, and tend to lack adaptability, which increases their resistance toward newer technologies. However, new market players operating in launch services have been able to push the launch systems segment.
The space launch services market is often segmented on the basis of payload, launch platform, service type, launch vehicle, end-user, and region. For example, NASA's Space Launch System, or SLS, is a super heavy-lift launch vehicle providing a foundation for human exploration beyond Earth's orbit. For the longest time, the SLS has been the only rocket that can send astronauts and cargo directly to the moon on a single mission. However, that has changed as companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin have worked to develop launch vehicles with similar capabilities. The SLS is designed to be evolvable, making it possible to fly multiple types of missions and usable across various mission parameters.
Almost all operational space launch systems through the history of space flight previous to 2020 were expendable launchers. These expendable launch systems were marked by concerns over launch cost, with reliability playing a key role in the competition between launch systems. Multi-stage launch systems were introduced early into the space industry by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who realized the technical difficulty involved in achieving a single-stage Earth orbitation and that the two stages was more accessible.
Since then, single-stage-to-orbit launch systems, specifically reusable single-stage-to-orbit launch systems, have been developed. These reusable launch systems for orbital vehicles dramatically lower the cost of leaving Earth's atmosphere and have been considered a kind of holy grail for the space industry as a whole, and for space travel especially. These reusable launch systems will make routine space missions such as launching satellites or resupplying the International Space Station more economical and open the space industry to new, if currently theoretical, space initiatives. So far, SpaceX's SN20 is expected to be the most powerful rocket built and launched in space history to that time, with test launches in early 2022, and a reusable rocket possible capable of taking humans to Mars. While in later 2022, Blue Origin is also attempting to launch a reusable two-stage New Glenn rocket into low Earth orbit, intending to be capable of twenty-five uses before being retired.
Launch system developers
Propulsion systems are used to generate thrust in spacecraft, launch vehicles, capsules and cargos, and rovers and spacecraft landers for orbital insertion, station keeping, lifting launch vehicles into space, and attitude control. These include various propulsion technologies, such as chemical propulsion including solid, liquid, hybrid, and cold gas propulsion; and non-chemical propulsion technologies, such as electric, solar, nuclear, and laser systems. Further, the components of propulsion systems include thrusters, propellant feed systems, rocket motors, nozzles, reactors, propulsion thermal control, and power processing units.
The increase in activity in the space industry, especially in LEO satellites, and a rising emphasis on decreasing costs associated with space missions, comes a rising need for non-chemical propulsion systems. Satellites, especially those capable of operating for long sustained periods of time, can use electric propulsion to offset the atmospheric drag through reduced propellant payload. As well, propulsion systems can be deployed for deorbiting a satellite to reduce space debris. However, certain limitations with propulsion systems, specifically electric propulsion, are expected to hamper the market, such as the need for high speed or thrust is needed, chemical propulsion systems are generally favored, even though chemical propulsion systems tend to be costlier with lower efficiency.
The propulsion systems market is largely subdivided by propulsion type, with major types including chemical propulsion, electrical propulsion, solar propulsion, and nuclear propulsion. The electrical propulsion system market is expected to grow fastest, especially as the lower-cost components can be used in LEO and miniature satellites, without concern of a loss of propellant fuel. As well, there are increasing government and international environmental policies hampering the use of chemical propellants in the atmosphere due to the emissions of carbon and hazardous gases. However, chemical propulsion remains the mainstay type for launching vehicles into space. However, as space exploration increases, the use of other propulsion systems, such as liquid propellants capable of working on hydrogen or nuclear propulsion technologies, are expected to increase in popularity as the technology becomes more available.
The application of smaller spacecraft is expected to realize nanoscale, artificially intelligent spacecraft, with NASA's 2015 Nanotechnology Roadmap Initiative, nanomaterials, and related material techniques the basis for these expectations. For these miniaturized space exploration vehicles, electric propulsion is expected to be a primary candidate for driving the development of these vehicles and their future capability.
Chemical propellant propulsion systems often feature very high thrust-to-weight ratios which make them suitable for launch. However, these small spacecraft and long-duration space exploration missions require propulsion systems with low thrust but high specific impulse to efficiently control the orientation of the spacecraft. Chemical propulsion systems have low specific impulse, while electrical propulsion systems that use electrical energy to accelerate ionized propellant deliver very high specific impulse and are a lead candidate for long-duration missions.
Hall-type and gridded ion thrusters are among the most advanced and mature electronic propulsion technologies with space-proven, relatively long-flight heritage. A Hall-type thruster is a device using a closed electron drift, so-called Hall current, as the principal physical effort to drive the main processes in the discharge chamber, namely propellant gas ionization and ion flux acceleration via a static electric field. Compared with other types of plasma thrusters, the devices based on closed electron drift tend to possess high efficiency due to low ionization losses and the absence of actively heated parts in the discharge zone. Hall thrusters are capable of creating small thrust levels, though no principal physical limitations are known to compromise the operation of Hall thrusters at power levels higher than 100 kW, and these devices have been scaled down to powers lower than 100 W. Further, Hall thrusters can produce a large number of thrust pulses without undergoing maintenance and part replacement.
In a gridded ion plasma thruster, the electrical potential is applied to the acceleration mesh accelerating an ion flux that is expelled from the thruster through the mesh. This is another type of efficient thruster device for plasma production and acceleration. Although a key difference between the gridded ion plasma thruster and the Hall-type thruster is the density limitation applied to the gridded ion thruster results in a larger ion thruster diameter compared with the Hall thruster.
Chemical propulsion systems are designed to satisfy high-thrust impulsive maneuvers. They offer lower specific impulse compared with electric propulsion but have significantly higher thrust-to-power ratios. The longest-serving chemical propulsion system is a hydrazine thruster, which has been in use since the 1960s. The low mass and volume of a significant number of larger spacecraft hydrazine propulsion systems allow those systems to be suitable for spacecraft buses. Further, newer green hydrazine propellant blends offer low vapor toxicity and high density of ionic liquids while retaining low reaction and preheat temperatures of traditional hydrazine, which increases both safety and performance while using conventional nickel-alloy catalytic thrusters, while offering a 100-fold reduction in vapor pressure and toxicity.
Alternative chemical propellant technologies have been developed and are being adopted as replacements for hydrazine, due to hydrazine's handling and toxicity concerns. This includes replacements such as hydrogen peroxide and electrolyzed water. The primary ionic liquid propellants with flight heritage or upcoming spaceflight plans are LMP-103S, which is a blend of Ammonium Dimitramide, and AF-M315E, a blend of Hydroxylammonium Nitrate. Some of these are lower performing than hydrazine, but offer more beneficial operating environments and require more readily available and lower-cost materials. These are also affiliated with a potential to remove Self-Contained Atmospheric Protective Ensemble suit requirements.
Solid propulsion, or solid rocket, technology is typically used for impulsive maneuvers such as orbit insertion or quick de-orbiting. Due to the solid propellant, they achieve moderate specific impulses and high thrust magnitudes that are compact and suitable for small buses. There are some electrically controlled solid thrusters that operate in the milli-newton range, which are restartable, have steering capabilities, and are suitable for small spacecraft accelerations, unlike larger spacecraft systems that provide too much acceleration. Thus, these systems can achieve thrust vector control, and coupled with existing solid rocket motors provide controllable high delta-v in a relatively short time. To achieve multiple burns, the system must either be electrically restartable, or several small units must be matrixed into an array configuration. But when electrically controlled solid propellants are electrically ignited, they tend to be considered safer than traditional solid energetic propellants.
Hybrid propulsion is a mix of both solid and liquid or gas forms of propulsion. In a hybrid rocket, the fuel is typically a solid gain and the oxidizer is stored separately. The rocket is ignited by injecting the oxidizer into the solid motor and igniting it with a spark or torch system. Since combustion can only occur when the oxidizer is flowing, these systems can be started or shut down by controlling the flow of the oxidizer. Further, as there is no pre-mix between the oxidizer and the solid motor, the propulsion systems are inherently safe from a handling standpoint when compared with other motor systems. Further, they offer the best of both worlds of solid and liquid propulsion but have drawbacks as combustion efficiency tends not to be as high as either system, and regression rate control and fuel residuals tend to be more problematic in these designs.
Cold gas systems are relatively simple systems that provide limited spacecraft propulsion and are one of the more mature propulsion technologies for small spacecraft. Thrust is produced by the expulsion of a propellant, which can be stored as a pressurized gas or a saturated liquid. Warm gas systems, in which propellant is heated but there is still no chemical reaction, have been used to increase thrust and specific impulse. Warm gas systems use the same basic principle as cold gas systems but have higher performance at the cost of added power requirements to heat the propellant.
Cold gas thrusters are often attractive for small buses due to their relatively low cost and complexity. Many gold gas thrusters use inert, non-toxic propellants, which are an advantage for secondary payloads that require a "do no harm" approach to primary payloads. Such systems tend to be well-suited to provide attitude control, since they provide low minimum impulse bits for precise maneuvering. However, the low specific impulse limits them from providing large orbit correction maneuvers.
Nuclear propulsion systems are used through a nuclear fission reaction, in which a liquid propellant such as hydrogen is pumped through a reactor core, which heats the propellant to convert it into gas that is expanded through a nozzle to produce thrust. In the reactor, the release of heat through fission is responsible for heating the propellant until it reaches its thrust potential.
These rockets are more energy-dense than chemical rockets and twice as efficient. The specific impulse of a chemical rocket is around 450 seconds, with the propellant efficiency of a nuclear-powered rocket at around 900 seconds. This is achieved through lighter gases, which are easier to accelerate, as chemical rockets when burned produce water vapor, a heavier byproduct than the hydrogen produced by a nuclear propulsion system. However, nuclear propulsion systems are not capable of achieving a high enough thrust for launch, and rather are expected to be used to reduce travel times on deep space missions, such as a trip to Mars, where a nuclear propulsion system is expected to reduce the travel time by up to 25 percent, while also offering greater shielding from cosmic radiation. These propulsion systems are also expected to enable broader launch windows that are not dependent on orbital alignments, allowing astronauts to abort missions and return to Earth if, and when, necessary.
Propellant-less propulsion systems are expected to generate thrust through an interaction with the surrounding environment, as compared with chemical or electrical propulsion systems that generate thrust by expulsion of reaction mass. The propellant-less propulsion systems that have undergone in-space demonstrations include solar sails, electrodynamic tethers, and aerodynamic drag devices.
Solar sails are expected to use solar radiation pressure to generate thrust by reflecting photons via lightweight, highly-reflective membranes. While no solar sail products have reached commercial levels, there have been various missions to demonstrate the technology using small aircraft.
Electrodynamic tethers employ an extended, electrically conductive wire with current flow. In addition to atmospheric drag on the wire, their interactions with the ambient magnetic field about a planetary body cause a Lorentz force that can be used for orbit raising or lowering. This technology has been used as a means for end-of-mission small spacecraft de-orbiting.
Satellites have historically de-orbited from low Earth orbits with the aid of thrusters or passive atmospheric drag. With an increasing rate of new spacecraft launched and the potential for new orbital debris following completion of missions, orbital debris management has gained increased attention, with aerodynamic drag devices providing a method to rapidly remove spacecraft from low Earth orbits upon mission completion, rather than allowing decades for defunct spacecraft to naturally decay from their orbit.
Companies manufacturing propulsion systems
Space exploration has long been the most thought about, talked about, and pointed to form of the space industry, even though space exploration further than the geosynchronous orbit (GEO), such as to the moon, has not been attempted, let alone achieved, since the 1970s. However, with various strategic possibilities, the cost of launch systems reducing (especially reusable launch systems), and increased private company interest, as well as the announcement of Project Artemis, space exploration is attracting increased attention. One major reason for the renewed interest in space exploration to the moon, if not further, is expected to be on small payloads, specifically autonomous instruments designed to locate, extract, and process elements from the lunar or Martian surfaces, while benefitting from the downstream effects of this space exploration.
These downstream effects have been seen in the past, as innovations inspired by the U.S. space program have resulted in developments in artificial limbs, computers, camera phones, foil blankets, memory foam, and tennis shoes. However, the technology flow has more recently reversed, with business innovation becoming fuel for space travel and the space industry. This includes developments such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, edge computing, quantum computing, and IoT, which all promise to make space travel more efficient and reduce the costs of space exploration.
While the history of companies interested in space exploration has been dominated by NASA and the Soviet Union, it has more recently expanded to companies. For example, SpaceX became the first private company to successfully ferry NASA astronauts to the ISS, with NASA certifying the company to begin routine missions. Meanwhile, NASA has also developed a collaborative program, including private sector companies, called the Artemis program which aims to place astronauts, including the first woman, on the moon by 2024. In 2020, NASA announced the landers developed for the program would be developed by SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Dynetics. The possibility of increased space exploration has seen further increases in interest in space mining and space tourism, technically two subsectors of space exploration.
The concept of space tourism is often one of the more exciting features of the wider space industry. Companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX have made news by outlining plans to deliver various forms of commercial spaceflight in the near future. The concept of space tourism refers to the activity of traveling to space for recreational purposes, and it is sometimes referred to as citizen space exploration, personal spaceflight, or commercial human spaceflight, and covers spaceflights that are sub-orbital, orbital, and beyond Earth orbit.
The concept of space tourism is not a new one and has existed for as long as the promise of space exploration has. The history of space tourism is older than assumed, with the first space tourist American businessman Dennis Tito having boarded a Russian Soyuz TM-32 shuttle on April 28, 2001. Tito paid an estimated $20 million for the flight and the seven days he spent onboard the ISS. Since then, billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos have both used their respective space platforms to reach space as space tourists, and both have previously expressed their interest in developing trips to space on a regular basis for interested individuals. Although, in 2021, the cheapest listed price for a seat on one of these jaunts to space cost at least USD $250,000, on a Virgin Galactic spaceship. While a trip aboard Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket is expected to be higher, and reportedly the cost to ride on SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule costs at least USD $55 million.
While this cost is naturally exclusive, if the history of the aviation industry in the 20th century is any example, these flights may begin as luxuries, but as costs drop over time, access to space would be set to broaden beyond ultra-rich as the market opens and technologies and infrastructure improves. And while the first six decades of spaceflight belonged to highly trained astronauts, companies including SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin have committed to bringing more people to space, opening those trips up to more people and traveling further in orbit for these trips. A key part of the space tourism landscape moving forward will be travel agencies, such as RocketBreaks, to help interested people book a trip on a rocket. While, spaceports, hotels, and space stations are planned to be built by Axiom, which is considered to be a key part of the landscape of commercial space tourism.
Space tourism companies
Space mining, or the mining of celestial bodies, has shifted from science fiction to reality, as private companies and individuals, through advances in space cameras and satellites have aided in the precise location of asteroids. These celestial bodies have been used to extract minerals such as platinum, gold, iron, or even water. In 2020, to further the possibility, NASA awarded contracts to four companies to extract small amounts of lunar regolith by 2024. Some have considered this to be the beginning of the era of commercial space mining.
Space is already being exploited, as space resources include non-material assets such as orbital locations and abundant sunlight enabling satellites to provide services to Earth. Mining for space materials, or rare Earth materials, is another matter, with the most attractive near-term being H2O. With assistance from solar energy on nuclear fission, the mined H2O can be split into hydrogen and oxygen to make rocket propellant, which would facilitate in-space refueling; many consider in-space refueling necessary for deeper space exploration. With various ambitions for deep-space exploration and control of rare earth minerals, some expect there will be a space gold rush at the end of the 2020s with fleets of space vehicles working to mine various minerals for use in manufacturing, mining water for in-space refueling, and mining materials that can be used for establishing habitats on celestial bodies.
The materials that are believed to be abundant, besides water, include gold, iridium, silver, osmium, palladium, platinum, nickel, and aluminum. The adoption of In-Situ Resource Utilization has been projected to push the industry of space mining further. The extraction of these minerals from space is considered necessary to address the possible shortage of minerals necessary for the mass rollouts of electrical vehicles and for investment in a renewable generation infrastructure. The current rollout of electric vehicles alone is expected to create a supercycle in which demand will wildly outstrip supply, relentlessly driving up the price. This has colored the interest of parties to mine space assets. However, those contemplating space-mining projects are likely to look at four aspects:
- Security of tenure—in mining terms, security of tenure means having secure and stable rights throughout the mining cycle. With the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, it is unclear who would own extracted resources, and interpretations vary. So far, Luxembourg and the United States have enacted domestic legislation favoring the claims of extracted resources, bringing security to space mining companies based in those locations.
- The fiscal regime—this refers to the payment of taxes, royalties, and the like, and which is directly concerned with the 1979 Moon Agreement. Only two space-faring countries are party to it: India and Australia. There's disagreement on the role the Moon Agreement would play in outer space law, with many arguing it is non-pertinent to non-party countries, while others point to the language and its parallels with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This agreement would dictate that royalties from mining operations would be distributed equally among all nations on Earth.
- Bankability of the project—the issue of project bankability concerns the capacity of the project to attract funding. To a large degree, this is determined by the previous issues and demonstrates the need for agreements on a clear legal framework.
- Project feasibility—this refers to several facets, such as technical feasibility, which enjoys a lot of attention with research and development into advanced robotics and automated systems needed for space mining operations. Technological breakthroughs to date include the discovery of water crystals on the moon and on Mars. Economic feasibility would mean space mining would need to make financial sense, and with the looming shortage in non-renewable resources, the mineral wealth present in a single asteroid could make it profitable enough.
Despite these concerns, and based on the possibility of the rewards, space mining has attracted attention from private companies and also from governments. Specifically, the exploration of space-based natural resources are in the Chinese space policy, and in April 2021 China's Shenzen Origin Space Technology Co. launched NEO-1, the first commercial spacecraft dedicated to the mining of space resources, from asteroids to the lunar surface. As China currently holds a monopoly on rare earth minerals extraction and processing, controlling around 90 percent, the country's space program further indicates that China's policy is to control space-based resources as much as possible as well. Firm Merrill Lynch predicts the extraterrestrial mining industry is expected to be valued at USD $2.7 trillion from 2020 to 2050.
Companies interested in Space Mining
Space colonization refers to the development of permanent human habitation and exploitation of resources off of Earth. This has long been the avenue of science fiction, but fueled by the ambitions of private companies in the space industry and the increase in space exploration, it is expected that the development of habitations on the moon, Mars, and other planets will be influenced and fueled by the space exploitation market. However, similar to other space exploration sub-industries, the biggest barrier to this part of the space industry will be technological.
These include the challenges in questions relating to data, discovery, and colonization. With increased funding, private companies are moving ever closer to solving those challenges. For example, the technology for using the Martian atmosphere to develop oxygen has been developed, and despite its limitations, it points to the capability for further developments, especially with advancements in nanomaterials and biomaterials that could create more habitable micro-environments for people to live more comfortably. It would also require further radiation shielding technologies, because much of the solar system's background radiation is blocked by the Earth's magnetic field, and barring shielding technologies, inhabitants on other worlds would be susceptible to high rates of cancer and other health complications.
Other complications include the speed at which current space shuttles travel, which make trips anywhere further than the moon, even to Mars, a lengthy trip, which would put a high level of stress on those traveling and their resources upon landing. Further, as shuttles travel further afield from Earth and the orbital systems for guidance, the ability for the shuttles to navigate through space becomes trickier. Keeping travelers healthy on these trips also presents challenges, from ensuring they have enough nutrition during the trip and once they get a habitat established, to keeping their muscles from atrophying on the long trip. And it will be necessary to find ways to keep travelers from space madness. Solutions to these problems involve inducing a long sleep for the travelers and keeping them on a nutrition drip for the duration.
Companies working toward space colonization
As a part of space exploration, more countries and more private companies are developing space rovers, space probes, and landers as they seek to study the composition of the solar system, detect the presence of water, and seek potential asteroids for future exploitation. These activities involve the use of rovers to study lunar and planetary surfaces, and various space agencies are engaged in the activities to explore these surfaces or develop the necessary infrastructure and technologies for future exploration and resource extraction. In May 2021, the China National Space Administration confirmed a rover it had launched touched down on Mars, joining the United States, Soviet Union, European Space Agency, India, and United Arab Emirates as countries that have achieved similar feats.
Generally, rovers are separated into two categories. The first is fully autonomous rovers, which operate without real-time assistance from ground control for their operations. These autonomous vehicles have increased in capability with advancements in lightweight robotic arms, improved mobility systems, and inertial measurement units for enhanced exploration capabilities. The second category of rovers is non-wheeled rovers, which are capable of rolling, hopping, and using robotic legs as approaches to move, but have the same effect.
With landers, the industry has generally been dominated by government space agencies, but in 2022, NASA invited private companies in the United States for additional astronaut moon landers as part of the Artemis missions. This was to see if various private companies could develop lander platforms with similar benefits that other incursions of private industry have shown across the space industry. Namely, decreased costs for increased efficiency.
Meanwhile, space probes tend to continue to operate similar to they have in the past, operated by space agencies and built with the involvement of contractors. These probes are uncrewed vehicles, which are designed to withstand radiation, pressure, and high speeds in extreme environments to take samples, measurements, photographs, and otherwise analyze deep space. These include the Hubble space telescope or the Deep Impact probe, which was sent to crash into the Tempel 1 comet in order to study its composition.
Lander, rover, and probe manufacturers
Advanced space manufacturing, or in-space manufacturing, is an idea that was explored often in the TV series The Jetsons, but is becoming increasingly a reality. Earth-based advances in manufacturing automation and smart "lights out" factories are expected to be able to be transplanted to space, which would set the stage to support long-term space expeditions in which on-demand digital manufacturing could produce tools, parts, and products as needed.
In-space manufacturing also provides a benefit to certain manufacturing processes, as a litany of physical processes often taken for granted in Earth's gravity do not occur in the vacuum of space. This means a manufacturing space could be free from gravity-driven, earthly constraints, like sedimentation, buoyancy, convection, and hydrostatic pressure, which could allow for new manipulations of materials and biology leading to manufacturing techniques yielding new products. For example, containerless processing is possible in microgravity, creating an ultrapure environment for manufacturing or the study of new materials. For example, work done on the ISS has already demonstrated that microgravity is an ideal environment for manufacturing superior fiber optics, bio-printing of living tissues, manufacturing retinal synthetic implants, and growth of ultrapure protein crystals for drug discovery.
In-space manufacturing areas
3D printing in zero-gravity
The 3D printing in Zero-G technology in the ISS has been demonstrated, with the first samples fabricated using Fused Deposition Modeling of polymers and returned to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center to undergo extensive testing, and assess if there were any differences in the parts produced in microgravity from those manufactured on Earth. The results suggest there was no significant impact of microgravity on the fused deposition modeling process.
Additive manufacturing facility
NASA has also experimented with additive manufacturing processes on the ISS, first exploring the capability in April 2016, manufacturing pars through an Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity contract, and manufacturing parts for the ISS.
Multi-material fabrication laboratory
There have been various multi-material projects on the ISS since 2014 which have sought to expand the station's on-demand fabrication capability by increasing the number of printable materials available while improving overall manufacturing efficiency.
Multi-material fabrication with printed electronics
The objective of the multi-material fabrication with printed electronics is tasked to develop and characterize strong types of materials and processes including various metals, plastics, and digital/electronic inks to enable the fabrication of hybrid parts or components such as embedded electronics. The focus of multi-material fabrication with printed electronics have included radio-frequency identification (RFID) sensors, flexible sensors for crew health monitoring, structural health monitoring, and power generation.
Advanced space manufacturing companies
With the increased traffic in space and the expectation that traffic will continue to increase, be it of satellites, crewed or uncrewed shuttles, and related activities across various Earth orbits, there will be a need for space traffic and activity management. This includes de-orbiting services, in-orbit repair or augmentation services, and tracking and management services similar to that used in commercial airlines. This would create a minimum viable level of safety that could provide further commercialization in the space industry and bring the confidence necessary for increased space operations. This could include advanced and novel mission planning and decision support tools utilizing advanced Communication, Navigation, and Surveillance (CNS) technologies, as well as space traffic management similar to current Air Traffic Management (ATM) networks.
One such solution has been developed by private company Privateer, which has developed its Wayfinder product, a visualization tool that combines data from several sources, including from U.S. Space Command and provided by satellite operators to develop a capable space traffic management tool. This tool has been suggested for use in in-orbit servicing and de-orbit services, as well as for a collision warning system. The company, Privateer, is further working to launch their own satellites into LEO to further enrich their data. Similarly, the NOAA, which hosts the Office of Space Commerce, has demonstrated an open architecture data recovery system intended to host space situational awareness data for further commercial solutions for space traffic management.
As more activity occurs in space, there is an expectation that more debris will end up in orbit. There was, already, as of 2020, an estimated 23,000 pieces of debris larger than ten centimeters and over 500,000 pieces of smaller debris in orbit. This debris travels at high speed, and even a small piece can cause mission-critical damage or destruction. Relatedly, in February of 2022, the EU, with its space ambitions, tabled two initiatives for space-based secure connectivity, and a joint communication approach to space traffic management. This latter program would work to provide data to protect various, and especially EU, assets on launch and de-orbit. The approach put forward by the EU focuses on four elements:
- Assessing the space traffic management requirements and impacts for civilian and military craft
- Strengthening the technological capability to identify and track spacecraft and space debris
- Establish the appropriate normative and legislative framework
- Establish international partnerships on space traffic management and engaging at a multilateral level
Organizations developing space-based traffic management
While interrelated with traffic management, space-based activity management is more concerned with the management of movement and activity in space. This could include tourism, industrial missions, satellite servicing, food production, waste disposal, and space station improvement. One such proposed system would be space-based gas stations that would allow for an expansion of the operational potential of new and existing space assets and help in tackling unprecedented and sudden glitches in a vehicle.
Another example of activity management proposed is the development of a space station network. One such proposed network from Leviathan Space Industries would consist of fourteen space stations and use artificial gravity to advance space travel, trade, and tourism. Another example is the Canadian company Obruta Space Solutions, which has developed a device to enable satellites to be serviced in orbit.
Space-based activity management companies
Companies in this industry
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Chapter: Introduction to Plasma Based Propulsion System: Hall Thrusters