The cost of space access remains prohibitively high for most people. While that will change within the next decade, there are many pitfalls.
Imagine the cost of the ticket, if, every time you flew between New York and London, the jet had to be thrown away.
That was the case with space launches up until a few months ago. But when Elon Musk launched and landed SpaceX’s partially reusable Falcon 9 — including Block 5, a vehicle to carry humans to space — it marked a new era of rocket recycling, and a key step towards making space cheaper, therefore more accessible, for more than just a handful. Other innovations in space technology will help to significantly reduce the cost per unit, say experts, buoyed by massive investments from figures such as Elon Musk of Tesla, Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin and Virgin’s Richard Branson, to boost the industry.
“If you look at the airline business in the 1930s, relatively few people could afford to fly,” points out Prof Sir Martin Sweeting, founder and executive chairman of Surrey Satellite Technology, speaking at The Great Festival of Innovation in Hong Kong this year. “With space tourism, it will initially be travel for the super-rich. But as we’ve seen with aircraft, 50 years later and everyone could fly around the world.”
To date, there have been only seven space tourists, starting with US businessman Dennis Tito who in 2001 paid US$2 million for the experience. Today, a ticket aboard one of the first suborbital tourism flights starts from around US$150,000 (XCOR Aerospace) to around US$250,000 (Virgin Galactic and Russia’s KosmoKurs). Blue Origin has not yet released ticket prices, but they are expected to also be in the low hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Space has become more accessible in the last 15 years and over 650 people have already signed up for a flight with Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo already. But still, US$250,000 for a 15-minute experience is far from universally accessible.
A more practical way of reaching space is through satellite exploration. The satellite industry is in a state of flux, with small satellites having changed the economics of space over the years. Prof Sweeting’s company, for example, manufactures a range of different-sized satellites, from navigation satellites as large as a bus to nano-satellites or CubeSats weighing only 4kg. These satellites will soon cost only a few thousands of dollars. Traditionally, satellites could only be made and launched by multi-billion-dollar firms such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Today, start-ups, universities and even high schools are developing and launching them into orbit.
“Now we can take advantage of the technologies built for your smart phones and laptops, and use them to bring down the cost of space,” explains Sweeting.
According to a recent report from Frost & Sullivan, small satellite launches will explode in the next decade, reaching around 11,740 small satellites by 2030, with revenues soaring to US$70.1 billion. Investors funnelled US$2.8 billion into space start-ups in 2016, a record amount for a second consecutive year.
There are many good reasons for wanting to make space more accessible to a wider audience: from mapping the impact of hurricanes in Florida to giving farmers in New Zealand better oversight of which pasture to direct their sheep to. It will create connections over long-haul flights, enable the internet of things, and benefit residential and enterprise broadband services. Crucially, satellite internet will help developing countries, addressing issues associated with terrestrial internet latency in the most rural of areas.
Indeed, a lack of internet is one of the factors responsible for the world’s widening wealth gap. Forty-five percent of the planet’s population — some 3.5 billion people — do not have broadband internet access. Companies from SpaceX to OneWeb, Telesat and LeoSat have pledged to help democratise the internet using satellites. Tom Choi, a space industry veteran and founder of Airspace Internet Exchange, a technology company that aims to reduce costs of payload for satellites, believes it is key for “humanity”.
“I strongly feel that people like me need to innovate and reduce the costs of providing internet to these rural areas. Otherwise we’re going to see a situation where half of mankind gets left behind,” he said at the panel discussion at the Great Festival of Innovation.
And, also, ownership in space is a development that some people are simply feeling entitled to, whether that be a private individual or high-school research department. Last year, an Azerbaijani rocket scientist and billionaire, Igor Raufovich Ashurbeyli, launched into orbit what he claims will be the first space nation: Asgardia. This nation takes the form of two bread-tin-sized satellites containing the data of the first 250,000 “space citizens”: anyone who applied for citizenship in the new state. Ashurbeyli is planning to apply for a nation-state designation from the United Nations to officialise the entity. Ashurbeyli makes the point that space — just like land on Earth — should be available to all, not just a handful of rich governments, the military and billionaires.
He believes this interest will prompt more people to take the matter of space democratisation seriously. “We believe that the creation of a new legal platform for the exploration of near-Earth and deep space is crucial to keep pace with humanity’s rapid technological and scientific expansion off-planet,” he says. “Universal space law and astro-politics have to replace the current outdated international space law and geopolitics.”
Choi agrees that there are many reasons to be concerned about the current imbalance of space ownership, and it is moving dangerously towards “another form of unfair economic imperialism”.
“Until the end of the Second World War, for several hundred years the great nations with fire arms colonised most of the known world to the detriment to the nations who were colonised,” he explains in a recent note. “Similarly, wealth, not gun powder, allowed great nations to ‘colonise’ most of the known standard C and Ku-band geostationary spectrum [in] the past 40 years.”
C and Ku bands are the most common portions of the electromagnetic spectrums for satellite communication systems, operating at a geostationary altitude of 36,000km.
There are, on the other hand, many reasons to be concerned about allowing more satellites into space, such as the threat of collisions and resulting rogue space debris. The US government is tracking around 20,000 pieces of space junk larger than 5cm in orbit, which have broken off rockets. When two satellites collide, they create hundreds of thousands of fragments that often collide with other satellites and damage or destroy them. “If we’re not careful we could create a deadly debris field around the world into which we can no longer launch scientific missions,” warns Choi.
Further regulation of satellites will be essential, he adds. There’s already quite a bit of regulation in space, especially regarding satellite communication. As part of the United Nations there’s a 195-country member organisation called the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which regulates how corporations use frequencies in space.
Governments are also required to ensure commercial operators can bring down satellites and accurately predict their orbits. But space weather is still unpredictable and, until this improves, extreme weather events are likely to cause satellites to be knocked off course.
In the mid-1990s one of Prof Sweeting’s satellites was hit by a piece of space debris, he recalls. Luckily it was only the satellite’s tail that was damaged, and the satellite survived. He adds that, in a few months, his company is launching a new type of satellite that will clean up debris from orbit.
“In future, commercial satellites will have to employ techniques to come down into the atmosphere and burn up when they’ve finished their useful life. But if we put too big a burden on companies it will be too expensive to go up to space, so we have to balance it,” says Prof Sweeting.
Security is another issue. There are 2,000 communication satellites orbiting the planet, which, according to cybersecurity company IOActive, would be “scarily easy to hack”. Hackers could exploit existing SATCOM vulnerabilities to impact the aviation, maritime and military industries, with the potential to disrupt transmissions on a passenger aircraft, to being able to pinpoint the location of military units, says IOActive.
“We definitely need some form of governmental regulation and laws, so people are behaving correctly,” agrees Prof Sweeting.
He adds that with more people being able to afford a space presence, a virtuous cycle will begin to occur. “People come up with many more ideas as you have a much bigger community involved. It will lead to an explosion of new entrants into the industry.”