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Space Industry To Be Worth More Than $3 Trillion By 2050

The excitement of space exploration grabbed our imaginations in the late 1950s and 1960s. From the first Sputnik in 1957 to American astronauts walking on the moon in the summer of 1969, government agencies like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for the United States of America and Roscosmos or the Russian Aviation and Space Agency for the Soviet Union managed and paid for space exploration. The cost of launching a satellite into space or a payload to the moon or some distant planet was just too expensive for the private sector to handle.

Today, things are different. Welcome to the age of space exploration 2.0 where the private sector is the driving force. The revolution in space exploration has democratized the process so that it is no longer the exclusive territory of the world governments, but is also accessible for small businesses and even colleges.

And the expanded accessibility of space means a growing trend for the space market that is expected to reach $2.7 trillion by 2050 and $1.1 trillion by 2040.

Since 2010 a plethora of technology startups have taken hold of the process of exploring space and wrestled it from the governments.

There are companies concentrating on the construction and launch of vehicles that put satellites into space and there are companies that concentrate on constructing satellites that are affordable for even a small group of students to purchase so that they can transform their experiments from their imaginations to reality. The satellites are affordable because they are so small and accessibility has expanded because the companies that make the launch vehicles are leasing space on them to several companies per launch. This spreads out the cost of a launch to several companies or entities not just one making it more affordable for a company to participate. 

Space Exploration Awards

The revolution in the democratization of space exploration began when organizations like the X Prize Foundation offered awards to urge individuals and companies to get involved in space.

In 2004 the nonprofit X Prize Foundation formed Ansari X Prize and promised an award of $100 million to the first private team to construct and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometers above the Earth’s surface twice within two weeks. The first winners of the prize were aerospace engineer Burt Rutan and Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft who financed the endeavor.

Rutan helped Richard Branson and his company Virgin Galactic to develop their own passenger space plane system that won the X Prize award later.

Recently the X Prize Foundation partnered with Google to create the Google Lunar X Prize, which will award $30 million to the first privately funded teams to safely land a robot on the moon that travels 500 meters over the surface and sends images and data back to Earth. NASA has contributed $30 million for the winner.

The National Aeronautics And Space Administration (NASA) was also involved in programs that urged private sector companies into space exploration. The agency’s Centennial Challenges Program offered $200,000 to $2 million to support innovations in areas in which the agency had interests.  There is also the Heinlein Prize, formed to honor science fiction writer Robert Heinlein that rewarded projects in commercial space pursuits.

Startups And Traditional Aerospace Manufacturers

Various companies are involved in constructing launch vehicles. Well known military and commercial jet manufacturers Lockheed Martin and Boeing, and the two companies are involved in a joint venture called United Launch Alliance, which is constructing Atlas V Rockets that commercial entities will use to launch space planes and crew capsules. 

Sierra Nevada Corp. was founded in 1963 and manufactures defense electronics and small satellites. One of the company’s major projects is the Dream Chaser, a vehicle that will shuttle commercial crews of up to seven astronauts and cargo to and from the International Space Station. The Dream Chaser will be a reusable mini-shuttle that will be launched by a rocket and land like an airplane. 

NASA has also injected $20 million into Sierra Nevada’s coffers to help finance preliminary development and gave an additional $80 million in a second round of funding.

Sierra Nevada Corp. is a proven commodity. It constructed the hybrid rocket engines that were used to power SpaceShipOne, which won the Ansari X Prize and another engine that powered SpaceShipTwo on two successful supersonic test flights in 2013. 

Then there is SpaceX. Owned by Elon Musk, who is also the owner of the Tesla automobile company, SpaceX was the first to launch a privately owned ship that went into orbit and successfully returned back to earth. The company also constructs rockets that return to earth after propelling a payload into space so that they can be used again in later missions, saving a significant amount of money.

SpaceX has already been involved in shuttling cargo and astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The vehicle that has done the shuttling is called the Dragon.

Orbital Science Corp., based in Virginia, offers small and medium-class rockets as well as launch capability for companies or other entities that want to launch satellites into earth orbit, or send deep space probes and other payloads into higher altitude orbits. 

Spaceflight Industries is a commercial company that purchases launch vehicles from SpaceX and then offers ridesharing to companies, colleges, or other entities that wish to launch satellites into space. The concept of ridesharing allows several companies to participate in a launch. This spreads out the cost for the rocket and the launch among all the companies that are involved, keeping costs down for each company. 

EnduroSat is another company that offers launch services for satellites. The process is quite cost effective so universities and small business partnerships can afford them, thus giving these entities unprecedented access to earth orbit for experimentation and data gathering. 

The company must purchase the satellite from another company, but EnduroSat will certify and launch it and also provide digital ground stations around the world that will track the satellite and gather data that is then provided back to the company.

Manufacturers Of NanoSatellites

A main reason why commercial businesses are getting involved in the new frontier of space exploration is its affordability. We’ve already discussed why the cost of launching a satellite is now affordable for large, medium, and small businesses as well as colleges and other entities. 

Now there are also a number of private companies constructing and offering satellites for a very affordable price. These satellites are very tiny and are known as nanosatellites. These satellites have a total mass between 2.2 to 22-lbs. (1 to 10 kg). 

CubeSat is another company that manufactures and offers nanosatellites. The California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo and Stanford University’s Space System Development Lab created the company in 1999. 

Commercial Mining Of Asteroids

In order to explore the outer reaches of the new frontier of space, countries and companies will need the capability to mine resources needed by the rockets and astronauts that will make the trip. If the resources can’t be obtained, then we might as well forget about deep space exploration.

The final company to be spotlighted here is Planetary Resources, Headquartered in Bellevue, Washington and founded in 2008, the company is developing a way to mine much needed resources from asteroids.

The company has broken the process into four stages.

In the first stage, Planetary Resources plans to construct and launch a commercial space telescope call Leo. The telescope will be used to search for and study asteroids. The telescope will be available to the U.S. government, NASA and private businesses to observe earth. This ensures that the project will make money for the company and its investors.

In the second stage, Planetary Resources will add propulsion and instrumentation to the telescopes so that they can be used to actually prospect asteroids that travel between earth and the moon. The crafts and the data they gather will be made available to clients of the company.

The third stage of the program will involve launching spacecraft to rendezvous with asteroids and gather data concerning their shape, rotation, density, and surface and sub-surface composition. These crafts will also be a source of revenue because Planetary Resources will offer them to clients from NASA, scientific agencies, and private ventures to serve as interplanetary craft.

In the fourth stage, Planetary Resources will mine resources from asteroids. The resources mined will be sold to companies that wish to develop them for use either on earth or for space exploration.

The brave new world of space exploration 2.0 is an exciting one not only because it drives the further study of space, but also offers a great deal of revenue potential for earthbound companies that have the foresight to take advantage of the benefits.