The new space race

The new space race

Forget about the old rules of space. Now anyone with enough money and enterprise can get there. This race isn't between's between companies.

From its early days with the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and Yuri Gagarin’s flight in 1961, human exploration of space has been dominated by the Cold War rivalry between the USSR and US – and in particular the race to be first to the Moon.

Throughout this tumultuous struggle for the “high ground of space”, business took a back seat – it was governments that paid for and sustained the space effort.

True, the world’s first commercial satellite – Early Bird – had been launched in 1965 but until recently the commercial development of space was largely limited to big telecommunications satellites.

Costing several hundred million dollars each and weighing several tonnes, these satellites are designed to last up to 15 years so investors can recoup the expense of building them in the first place.

But a revolution has been taking place. Technological advances are overturning traditional models for operating in space.

A host of firms are promising cheaper access to space, with innovations such as renewable rockets and horizontal launch systems.

Satellites are getting smaller and becoming cheaper to build – and there are now about 1,500 of them orbiting above us.

A flood of data and imagery is flowing from space and new players are now processing, interpreting – and marketing – this information revolution.

“We can now do something in a shoebox that previously would have taken the size of a bus,” says Stuart Martin, chief executive of Satellite Applications Catapult, a UK business incubator helping space start-ups.

That means we can really change and rethink the way we use space.”

Stuart Martin

Investment is pouring into the space sector. In 2016, the global space economy totalled $329bn with three-quarters of that coming from commercial activity – not governments.

Rockets are our gateway to space, the essential delivery trucks. To outsiders they encapsulate our endeavours to become a true spacefaring civilisation. And indeed when it comes to rockets, it’s billionaires who are leading the way.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is using its Falcon 9 rockets to supply the International Space Station, while Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is developing its New Shepard and New Glenn launchers.

Both firms have demonstrated revolutionary techniques which enable vertical landing – a significant step in the drive for reusable rockets.

Meanwhile Richard Branson’s Virgin Group is working on developing launching satellites from the air – alongside its plans for sub-orbital tourist flights.

One new player hoping to change the way in which space is used is New Zealand’s Rocket Lab.

Still in its infancy, it is the only rocket firm in the world with its own launch complex, on North Island’s Mahia Peninsula.

At the moment, no launch companies work purely on a commercial basis. “They are all heavily government subsidised one way or another,” says Stuart Martin.

While rockets haven’t changed that much since Sputnik in 1957 – you still have to get your payload out of the Earth’s gravity and into orbit – it would be a mistake to think of Rocket Lab as simply another traditional rocket manufacturer, argues founder Peter Beck.

The whole purpose of the company is not to build rockets [but] to enable access to space…
The kind of access and frequency to space we’re proposing has never ever been created.”

Peter Beck, Rocket Lab

Currently the average cost of a satellite launch is about $200m, and in the US last year, for example, there were just 22 launches.

Peter Beck says once his rocket is operational he’s looking to go to space for $5m, and “as frequently as once a week”.

At the heart of Rocket Lab’s sales pitch is its Electron rocket, designed specially to take small satellites into orbit. The rocket is mainly carbon fibre and its engines are all 3D-printed.

Whereas it would normally take months to produce an engine, “we can produce it in 24 hours,” says Beck.

In its first test flight this May, the rocket successfully entered space but did not reach orbit. Two more test flights are planned.

At the moment, small satellite makers often hitch rides on existing launches, which have a big satellite as their main cargo but still have some room to spare.

However, with demand for Earth observation increasing – weather, travel, maps – manufacturers need flexible ways to arrange getting into space.

It is this gap that Beck says Rocket Lab is planning to fill. Instead of waiting for a suitable space on a big rocket, “now you can just go online and click a few buttons and you’ve bought a launch”.

One firm keen to use Rocket Lab’s Electron launcher is San Francisco’s Planet Labs, which designs and builds its own miniature “cube sats” weighing just 4kg.

There is a big green field opportunity for fleets of small satellites that do a variety of missions.”

Planet Labs co-founder and chief executive, Will Marshall.

Unlike traditional commercial communications satellites in high geostationary orbits, 35,700km (22,200 miles) above the Earth, Planet Lab’s satellites (called Doves) fly much lower at just 500km – that’s the distance from London to Cologne in Germany.

This lower orbit means the spacecraft can use smaller cameras and still get decent image resolutions – bringing the weight and cost down to a fraction of traditional satellites.

Being small and relatively cheap means new designs can be tested and built quickly, the firm says.

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