Space technology is increasingly driven by the private sector, and costs are dropping while opportunities for research and investment open to a broader market. Now, the consumer sector is beginning to emerge in the space industry.
Previous trend alerts, Satellites to the rescue & New space decade, have focused respectively on the increasing benefit of satellites on the global economy and the new technology driving an expanding space industry. However, citizen scientists, open source engineers, and students are contributing to innovation and significant scientific research, and a consumer grade space industry is not far behind. This consumer sector could help advance the space industry as a whole while making space exploration a more immediate reality for a wider population.
What is changing?
While large corporations are promising space tourism in the very near future, the costs begin at $95,000 and run upwards to $250,000 for short suborbital flights. However, space technology has more to offer than just short sightseeing trips. Thanks largely to the miniaturization of electronics, satellites have steadily become smaller and less expensive allowing more organizations to invest in the industry. And thanks to open source designs for both the hardware and software, universities and secondary schools have been launching their own satellites for the past few years for research and education purposes.
These satellites are small, weighing less than 1 kg, and can be attached to rockets as secondary payloads. NASA offers free rides for small satellite projects chosen on their scientific merit. Some of the projects are accomplishing research that would have cost NASA millions of dollars. An eight person team of high school students from California studied the mixing of concrete in microgravity. The results could not only prove whether concrete could be used to build a moon base but could also help develop a stronger type of concrete here on Earth. Another project has measured space weather activity from space as opposed to measuring it from Earth as NASA has always done. Such studies could help researchers better understand ways to protect telecommunication systems, electric utilities, and other services exposed to space weather.
Now, several private companies are offering individuals a chance to personalize their own satellites starting around $100. For a few hundred more, companies like NanoSatisfi will allow individuals to program the satellite and perform their own experiments. Whether these consumer projects are useful will depend on the motivations of the people funding their own experiments, but the open source community is getting involved and further innovations are expected.
Building affordable satellites is only part of the solution due to the exorbitant costs of sending them into orbit. NASA is working with a 3D printing company to develop components that can be manufactured in less time and with less money than conventional techniques. The first component—a rocket engine injector, one of the most expensive rocket components when manufactured by traditional methods—was printed and tested successfully earlier this month. Usually, the injector would take more than a year to manufacture, but 3D printing the component only took four months and reduced its costs by 70%.
SpaceX is also working on an innovation to reduce the costs of rocket launches, a reusable launch system that can guide itself back to its launch pad. If rockets can be reused in this way, the price per launch will drop considerably. One part of their reusable launch system, a first stage rocket, just reached 1,000 feet and safely landed itself back on Earth instead of falling to its destruction or parachuting to the sea like most stage one rockets. The president of SpaceX believes the rockets will be capable of rapid reusability—even on the same day—in two to three years, and one analyst thinks this innovation could eventually drop the price from $40-60 million per launch to less than $10 million. That kind of reduction in costs and time opens the door to space research and investments for a broader audience potentially within five years.
The open source community is also involved in building launch vehicles. Copenhagen Suborbitals is a Danish non-profit organization with a budget of only about $200,000 a year, but their objective is to launch an astronaut into space. They have launched the largest amateur rocket, and just last month, they successfully tested their first rocket with an active guidance system. Although their accomplishments to date pale in comparison to SpaceX or NASA, they are accomplishing their goals at a fraction of the cost with open sourced innovations that could one day benefit the consumer space industry.
Why is this important?
No one knows exactly how the space industry will look 10 or 20 years from now, but industry experts are comparing this emerging sector to the computer industry 40 years ago. No one in the late 1970s knew what the consumer electronics industry would become when computers moved from massive rooms to desktops through miniaturization and price cuts. Now, the computing power of a 1970’s supercomputer fits inside a cellular phone enabling the mobile internet, an application that consumers could not even imagine back then. Similar unimaginable benefits may also arise as price reductions enable advances in consumer space technology forever changing how society views the Earth.
As with many technology sectors today, gaming may play a crucial role in fostering consumer interest and driving innovation. Playing sci-fi video games is fun, but what about playing laser tag with real satellites? Geocaching, a location based treasure hunting game, has already reached space with weather balloons and even a locker on the International Space Station. While some of the currently affordable offers are vanity purchases that send the buyers’ names or pictures into space, the projects still educate and prepare tomorrow’s workers, investors, and consumers for a burgeoning industry.
The private space industry has been building for years with little to show directly to consumers except the eventual promise of short suborbital space flights for the price of a small home. The promise of space tourism is still on the horizon with potential price reductions once underway, but the personal space age—at least for satellites—is emerging now. And a consumer grade space industry may be ready to take off in synergy with space tourism to provide both investors and consumers with new opportunities.
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