How 2016 Heralded a New Kind of Race Into the Final Frontier

This time, it’s not one country against another as much as one enterprise against another, trying to capture the commercial value that space exploration brings along.

There is much to look up to in 2017 as space activities and the excitement around exploration and entrepreneurship in the sector heat up. Credit: SpaceX

There is much to look up to in 2017 as space activities and the excitement around exploration and entrepreneurship in the sector heat up. Credit: SpaceX

The year 2016 has been one of mixed feelings for the space community. It brought a breakthrough to new entrants, heartbreaks with unfortunate incidents to others – and at the same time a ray of new hope with more money being poured into investments into NewSpace than ever before.

It began with the big-ticket announcement of Airbus and OneWeb forming a joint venture to build 900 satellites to provide global internet broadband service. The service is expected to be operational by 2019. Then, the biggest investment of the year was announced: OneWeb received $1.2 billion in SoftBank-led investments. With the Airbus Group, Intelsat, Bharti Enterprises, Totalplay, Hughes Network Systems, Qualcomm, Coca-Cola Co., and the Virgin Group already onboard as investors, OneWeb is by far the biggest bet in the industry to bridge the digital connectivity gap by 2030.

On the home front, India made some big moves. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) decided to largely privatise Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle operations by 2020 via an industry consortium led ISRO itself. In another major move, ISRO awarded a contract to a consortium of private companies to build two navigation satellites – the second one independently at the consortium’s facilities. In a major technology experiment, India also tested/demonstrated a scaled model of its Reusable Launch Vehicle. And while India continued to launch several foreign satellites on its PSLV – including that of the US – American launch companies lobbied to maintain the ban on the use of Indian rockets.

China completed the construction the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), the world’s largest radio telescope – the size of 30 football fields – in its attempt to explore space and help in the hunt for extra-terrestrial life. It also unveiled the design of its 2020 Mars lander and rover. Finally, it extended its space-based diplomacy drive by declaring its openness to having non-Chinese experiments, payloads, astronauts and even complete space-station modules become part of the Chinese facility via a United Nations collaboration. The Chinese now seem to be interesting in expanding their commercial launch footprint with a new company, Expace Technology Co., floated to capture the small-satellite launch business worldwide. Expace expects to launch 10 of its Kuaizhou solid-fuelled-rockets per year between 2017 and 2020 with prices as low as $10,000 per kilogram of satellite payload.

Globally, a new wave of entrepreneurial ideas germinated in 2016, with companies such as Made in Space preparing to send a second 3D printer into orbit with an ambition of building one equipped with a robotic arm. Their bigger goal is to additively manufacture and assemble large, complex structures in space with NASA support. With SpaceX demonstrating the return of its Falcon 9 rockets’ first stage, a major industry player, SES, announced it would be willing to be the inaugural customer to be launched on rockets that used the refurbished stages. Finally, more interest is starting to brew in the in-orbit satellite servicing market, with the likes of Orbital ATK signing Intelsat as its first satellite servicing customer.

On a more intensely competitive front, the Google Lunar X Prize teams Synergy Moon and TeamIndus announcing verified launch contracts (after SpaceIL and Moon Express had verified theirs in 2015). Another team, Astrobotic, announced its withdrawal from the competition. All this while the X Prize Foundation announced its plans for another space competition.

State actors and regulations

Several smaller state actors increased their attention to the opportunities ahead. The Czech government announced that it is considering establishing a national space agency to boost the country’s domestic space sector. Luxembourg came out with a roadmap to investing more than $200 million in research, technology demonstration and in the direct purchase of equity in companies relocating to Luxembourg – with a bold bid to becoming the ‘Silicon Valley of space resource mining’.

The move from Luxembourg will benefit companies such as Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, which plan to mine asteroids within the next few decades. Deep Space Industries also unveiled its first asteroid-prospecting spacecraft and expects to launch its first experimental mission in 2017. Planetary Resources plans mining missions by 2020.

From an exploration perspective, the European Space Agency’s (ESA)
Rosetta mission touched down on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It sent its final signal to Earth on September 30 after having been in space for 12.5 years and flying around the comet for over two. In another ESA mission, the Schiaparelli lander crashed on Mars on October 19 caused by one-second measurement error (which delivered bad data to the lander’s computer and forced a premature release of its parachute). The event joined a persistent list of reminders of how complicated space exploration can be.

NASA made an important stride in deep space exploration with its Juno spacecraft entering orbit around Jupiter to study the gas giant’s interiors and magnetic field. The American agency also launched the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on a two-year outbound journey to the asteroid Bennu, which passes near Earth’s gravitationally stable L-4 point, in a bid to search for Earth-Trojan asteroids. These objects can be potentially mined in the future for minerals.

Space tourism activities took an interesting turn with an announcement by the United Launch Alliance and Bigelow partnering for launching commercial space stations, which plan to take advantage of the expertise built up with the deployment of the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). BEAM has been deployed on the International Space Station (ISS) and NASA plans at least two years of tests to understand how expandable modules could be used for deep-space habitats as well as commercial space stations.

Meanwhile, the Jeff Bezos-backed Blue Origin conducted flight tests and is believed to be on track for human suborbital test flights in 2017. The biggest surprise of the year, following SpaceX’s rocket-return, was Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket successfully landing after lift-off for the fifth time. However, it was expected that the rocket would break up since the primary goal was to test New Shepard’s passenger escape system.

In the regulatory environment, the International Civil Aviation Organisation expressed interest in expanding its work to include commercial spaceflight. These standards are widely adopted by national regulatory bodies around the world.

On another front, high-altitude platforms (HAP) are gaining momentum with enterprises like Thales Alenia Space planning to take to the sky with platforms that can support Earth-observation, telecommunications, etc. However, there is currently a gap in the international telecommunications regulatory framework for the operation of services based on HAPs. The U.S is leading efforts at the International Telecommunications Union to broaden the frequency regime for command and control of high-altitude drones to the Ka- and Ku-bands. These are already in mainstream use by satellite fleet operators.

Musk’s plans for Mars

On the more negative side of things, the space launch industry was shocked with the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blowing up during a static-fire test and taking the Amos-6 satellite it was carrying with it. Investigations revealed that the likely cause was frozen oxygen, which burst a high-pressure helium tank used for pressurisation during the second stage of the rocket’s launch. This was an unfortunate event following the SpaceX demonstration of a rocket landing on a small ship earlier in the year.

SpaceX is now looking to bounce back with a launch proposed during the January 7-9 window with Iridium satellites. On the other hand, faced by the threat of US competitiveness, Airbus and Safran finalised their space launchers merger to develop Ariane 6 with the first flight plans in 2020. While NewSpace launch companies such as Rocket Lab announced their preparedness for first flight in 2017, another major NewSpace launch start-up, Firefly Space Systems, furloughed its entire staff quoting a European investor back-out and with the CEO citing “Brexit” as a potential reason.

The two most exciting and boldest moves announced in 2016 have to be SpaceX’s Mars plans, unveiled by Elon Musk, to develop a large new launch vehicle and reusable spacecraft that could be ready to take large numbers of people to Mars as soon as the mid-2020s – and Russian venture capitalist Yuri Milner, along with physicist Stephen Hawking, announcing a $100-million initiative for exploring Alpha Centauri, the star-system nearest to our own.

At the International Astronautical Congress, Musk spoke about how the ‘Interplanetary Transport System’ will use 42 Raptor engines in its first stage, generating a lift-off thrust of 28.6 million pounds-force, or more than three and a half times that of the Saturn launch vehicle. SpaceX plans to launch a mission to Mars in every available window starting from 2018, with a goal to practice landing heavy payloads on Mars to help pave the way for human settlement.

The project called Breakthrough Starshot seems to be a follow-up to the $100 million Milner pledged to increasing the search for extraterrestrial life under the project Breakthrough Listen – the latter to allow researchers to study the billion stars nearest to Earth as well as 100 galaxies outside our own Milky Way. Starshot will explore technologies needed to create small, light-powered spacecraft capable of reaching Alpha Centauri in just 20 years.

There is much to look up to in 2017 as space activities and the excitement around exploration and entrepreneurship in the sector heat up. Slowly, but surely, there seems to be a race to space in the offing. Only, this time it’s not one country against another as much as one enterprise against another, trying to capture the commercial value that space exploration brings along.

Narayan Prasad is a NewSpace enthusiast.

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