FEATURE: E&T MAGAZINE – The new space economy is ready for lift-off

The new space economy has arrived. From universal communications to space tourism and printing organs in zero gravity – what does it promise and is it a positive human endeavour?

Few things expedite innovation faster than competing billionaires with elastic budgets and a steely determination to make history. This has certainly proved true for the modern-age space race.  Billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX in 2020 was the first private company to send humans into orbit. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin journeyed to zero gravity not long after. Their endeavours have pushed down costs and ushered in a new era of space activity. The cosmos is now more accessible than ever.  

Since 1957 around 10,000 objects have been launched into space; 30 per cent of these were in the last six years alone. This coincided with a spike in annual investment from below a billion dollars a year to $7.6bn (£5.8bn) in 2020, according to BryceTech, a space-focused engineering and analytics company. Morgan Stanley now expects the sector to reach $1tn (£763bn) by 2040.  

“Bezos, Musk and Branson have invested billions into the space industry and really shaped its perception, as well as attracted private investors and venture capital into the ecosystem,” says Manny Shar, head of analytics at BryceTech.

However, around a third of today’s space industry still comes from public-funded goods. The Global Positioning System, for example, developed by the US military in the 1980s, has generated roughly $1.4tn in the US alone, according to estimates from RTI International. Space technologies – largely satellites – have enabled everything from flight communications to ever more accurate weather forecasts and detailed Earth observation, to name but a few. Less tightly controlled private money promises to deliver much more.

“Space is a catalyst for innovation,” says Martin Elvis, an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics, Harvard & Smithsonian. “It’s about catalysing potential solutions and making them work better here on Earth.”

Several futuristic applications emerging include the possibility of 3D-printing organs in zero gravity, which is thought to be an optimal environment for handling tissue culture because it tends to collapse in the presence of gravity.

The 3D BioFabrication Facility and the Advanced Space Experiment Processor (ADSEP), both developed by US-based Techshot, print human cells and mature them into organ-shaped tissues. The technology has been tested at the International Space Station (ISS), and the company hopes one day to print entire human organs in low-Earth orbit (LEO).

Similarly, US-based Made in Space wants to take advantage of zero gravity to commercially produce high-fidelity optical ZBLAN internet fibre, which, compared to the silica-based glass used today, can transmit broader spectrum, and requires fewer signal boosters because it absorbs less light. Manufacturing it in zero gravity is easier because the fibre develops smoothly and clearly, and with far fewer defects.

But in the medium term, improved connectivity via satellites is by far the biggest space market emerging. As part of its Starlink programme, SpaceX has launched around 2,000 satellites – including 50 in February – to LEO, which is less than 2,000km away. It’s one of several mega constellations being built, including from London-based OneWeb and Canadian Telesat, that effectively blanket the Earth to provide low-latency internet and telecommunications.

At first these constellations will provide connectivity to underserved remote communities – Starlink recently turned on its satellites over war-hit Ukraine after a plea from the President for connectivity – but could eventually create opportunities for autonomous vehicles, unmanned marine and aerial systems, and operations beyond the visual line of sight, says Stewart Marsh, head of aerospace at Cambridge Consultants.

“Some early satellites could only operate in certain geographies, but these LEO constellations could make it possible to control a flotilla of ships at sea streaming high-definition video,” he explains. “This could emerge in the next few years.”

The foray into space by private enterprises is also helping Nasa and other state space agencies to save money by becoming customers of private companies, rather than running operations themselves, with the eventual aim to relinquish operating any space assets, says BryceTech’s Shar. Nasa has already saved $20-30bn (£15-23bn) this way and SpaceX has cut the cost of shuttling cargo into space by a factor of seven.