Today, aerospace is a rapidly growing innovations industry with an ever more pronounced presence of private companies. Satellite TV, communications, and navigation systems are now part and parcel of our everyday life. The brand new segment of space services is expected to continue on the rise going forward. Human organ growing, equipment manufacturing, and even asteroid mining projects are already underway in space.
The total size of the global space industry, global navigation satellite services (GNSS) equipment, and government space budgets is estimated by the US Federal Aviation Administration to be USD 335 billion.
At USD 98 billion in revenues (29%), satellite television represents the largest segment of activity. Coming second are services enabled by global navigation satellite systems, which represent about 24% (USD 81 billion), and government space budgets make up 23%, or USD 77 billion.
A major trend has been the growing share of private companies, with space exploration no longer monopolised by governments.
In 2012, Falcon 9, a rocket created by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, delivered the Dragon spacecraft onto the orbit for rendezvous with the International Space Station. Reflying the upper stage of Falcon 9 makes it possible to reduce the costs of orbital transportation of cargos, including for the government: the US Air Force is ready to contract SpaceX to have military satellites delivered to the orbit. SpaceX is currently developing its Falcon Heavy, a super heavy lift space launch vehicle capable of taking 63.8 tonne payloads to the orbit, compared to almost three times as little for Russia’s Proton M.
A vibrant segment is space tourism, where the top player is Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. In December 2016, the company completed the first successful glide test of its VSS Unity, a SpaceShipTwo-class suborbital spaceplane for tourists. A suborbital tourist spacecraft project has also been developed by Russia’s Cosmocourse since 2016.
In 2012, Russia’s Dauria Aerospace, based in Skolkovo, started creating micro and nano satellites. The company seeks to build a cloud-based platform similar to AppStore and sell its own space data to developers of applications and services. In 2014, Dauria Aerospace’s Russia-made private satellites first made it to the orbit.
The vibrant growth of space technologies in telecommunications is spurring a rise in orbital traffic, which may lead to more debris and crashes. Orbital debris removal and satellite repair are emerging as one of the space industry segments.
In April 2017, Astroscale, a Singapore-based startup, announced the beginning of tests for its first satellite to collect space debris in 2019.
By 2020, NASA plans to complete a project to develop a robotic spacecraft that can refuel and do basic maintenance work on satellites already in orbit.
A promising trend we see today is the potential that space offers for manufacturing.
Techshot, nScrypt (3D printer producer) and Bioficial Organs (bioink provider) are planning to print beating heart patches aboard the International Space Station by 2019. Growing a heart on Earth requires a support structure, which currently cannot be removed without damaging the organ. In space, microgravity makes it possible to grow a heart without a scaffold.
Scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences launched a programme for growing human organs in space. In April 2017, Tianzhou-1, China’s first cargo spacecraft, delivered embryonic stem cells to the orbit to grow the new organs.
In 2018, the US-based FOMS is launching a project to produce exotic fiber optic cable on the International Space Station. The manufacturing process in space requires less power compared to Earth, and the cables will be much clearer, meaning that more data can be sent through with minimum signal loss.
The Government of Luxembourg and Société Nationale de Crédit et d’Investissement invested EUR 25 million in Planetary Resources, a startup focused on asteroid prospecting and mining. The first commercial asteroid prospecting mission is expected to take place by 2020.