The Dawn Of The Space Age: How Companies Are Commercializing The Cosmos

The late NASA astronaut Dale Gardner holds up a 'For Sale' sign on Space Shuttle Discovery in 1984. NASA

This is the second of a two-part series. You can read part one, Why You Should Care About The Private Space Race, here.

In mid-November, the inaugural SpaceCom Expo in Houston, Texas invited companies both big and small from around the world to reveal their planet to commercialize space, from major players like NASA to smaller start-up companies.

Here, in the second of our two-part series on the dawn of the space age, we take a look at some of the promising companies that are investing in a boom in the space industry to provide real-world applications for us here on Earth, and ultimately lead to a space industry that encourages innovations from data utilization all the way up to space tourism.

Space Mission U.K.

The SpaceCom Expo saw dozens of companies represented to show how the privatization of space isn't just the behest of large organizations like SpaceX and Boeing. If smaller companies can prove the space sector can be profitable, it will envitably encourage others to enter the fray.

The space industry is growing at such a pace that the U.K. sent a consortium of seven of its most promising start-up companies to SpaceCom this year as part of Space Mission U.K., under the guidance of Innovate UK. Many of these start-ups are utilizing the vast array of data being made available from satellites in orbit, not least countless images of Earth.

These companies were here to both seek investment from larger organizations, but also to create ties and gather advice from NASA and other major players.

One of the seven companies was Terrabotics. While you’re no doubt familiar with Google Earth, you probably don’t know about some of the other trickery that can be done with images available. Terrabotics is using multiple images to create 3D terrain maps of the ground (shown right) to help companies mostly in the energy sector plan future developments. While they don’t have a satellite of their own, their algorithm processes available images of an area to create these high-precision models that have a range of potential uses.

Another of the companies, Gyana, is using satellite and aerial imagery, combined with artificially intelligent “deep learning” software, to monitor the mood of people in a particular location at a particular time of day, by trawling through social media. Their ultimate goal is to create a sort of “Google for space,” where any user on the ground can ask a question of its software and get an answer instantly, such as whether you need to carry an umbrella today – based not just on weather conditions, but also the motion of traffic, your calendar, and so on.

Image in text: An example of Terrabotics' 3D terrain mapping software. Courtesy of Terrabotics

The Space Mission UK group. Ollie Graham, Thought TV

“Five years from now, not just companies but the regular person walking on the street should be able to get a test of this advanced technology without knowing all the science,” Gyana CEO Joyeeta Das told IFLScience. She said her company hopes to have a rough prototype in December 2016, with a consumer product to appear three years later.

Tim Just, Head of Space at Innovate UK, said they had had a welcome response from their American counterparts. "We're looking at how do we encourage growth, rather than how can we get to the Moon," he told IFLScience. "It means we've got a different perspective."

Whether the huge rate of growth at the moment can be sustained is anyone’s guess, but the signs are promising – albeit with some caution needed. “The poster boy of the space program has been Elon Musk, for what he’s achieved with SpaceX,” said Just. “But he’s also had his knockbacks. Space is hard. If you get it wrong, you have a fairly spectacular and very expensive firework.”

The Antares rocket explosion last year is a reminder of how hard space can be. NASA/Joel Kowsky

Science For All

It is not just classical commercial ventures that are growing, though. A rapidly emerging area of the private market is the ability to do privately funded science in space, without necessarily needing government grants or an official mission from a national space agency.

The U.S. portion of the International Space Station (ISS) has been declared a national laboratory and, managed by CASIS (Center for the Advancement of Science In Space), research teams can now send their experiments to the station to be performed by astronauts on board. Recent experiments have included tracking ship signals on Earth and various studies on mice in microgravity.

“This is an example of what happens as more and more people become cognizant and understand how micro-gravity has the capacity to benefit your business, your research,” Patrick O’Neill, marketing and communications manager at CASIS, told IFLScience. “It’s not only research, but also the other opportunities that are available, and how it is we can collectively work together to make this boom of research, this boom of really enabling a new commercial market, as a whole.”

And it’s not just high-profile laboratories like that on the ISS that are garnering attention. Another company that traveled with the Space Mission UK group was Blue Skies Space, showing off their novel approach to funding astrophysics satellites for a worldwide userbase.

In the past, scientists would approach national agencies like NASA and ESA with proposals for missions. But Dr. Marcell Tessenyi, CEO of Blue Skies Space, saw an opportunity. The scientific team he is part of was turned down for funding for an exoplanet telescope, so they decided to try and secure funding independently, something largely unprecedented in the field of astrophysics. One year later, Dr. Tessenyi was at SpaceCom to raise the rest of the $75 million (£50 million) needed to bring the project known as Twinkle to fruition.

Dr. Tessenyi points to the huge demand for time and data on telescopes that currently exists (Hubble, for example, is oversubscribed by 640 percent) as a reason for thinking the astrophysics community could be one to benefit from privatization. “We think it could be a game changer,” Dr. Tessenyi told IFLScience. “It’s the right time to do this. If we don’t, someone else will.”

If enough funding is received, Twinkle would be able to observe the atmospheres of the 150 brightest exoplanets to Earth from orbit for five to 10 years, with scientists paying for time on the telescope as they do with other facilities around the world. And the team has plans for more independently funded astrophysics telescopes to follow if the project is successful, although Dr. Tessenyi is tight-lipped on what those might be.

Image in text: An artist's impression of Twinkle. Courtesy of Blue Skies Space

The Space Era

All of this is just the start. Most people see the current private space race as being the precursor to something much more exciting: The rise of space tourism and other commercial endeavors that could see humanity become a true space-faring species.

“I hope, in 10 to 15 years, to see a sort of cis-lunar economy start,” Gary Martin, director of partnership at NASA Ames, told IFLScience. “I find it really hard to believe that humans are not going to be on the Moon and Mars one day. So if you figure we move off Earth, you’re part of a civilization, you finish working on the Moon, you’re going to want a beer, to be entertained, have a nice living environment, all the creature comforts. Think of the market there. Trillions and trillions and trillions of dollars, always ever-growing.”

Will we see bases on the Moon one day? ESA/Foster + Partners

Martin admits that the chances of that happening in the next few decades are unlikely, but the current progress made in the private space industry represents tentative steps towards this ultimate goal in the not too distant future. NASA, for its part, is keen to stimulate this growth as much as possible. They have done so recently with multi-billion dollar contracts to companies like SpaceX and Boeing to develop manned capsules, while continuing assistance in low-Earth orbit is helping other companies gain a foothold.

But you should care about the private space race because the commercialization of the cosmos is a crucial step towards this ulimate goal. To get there, we will need companies who have a knowledge of living and working alone in Earth orbit, without the steadying hand of NASA. It will be down to major players like Boeing, and start-ups like those part of Space Mission U.K., to prove just how lucrative a space industry can be.

“It’s still a ways off, but if we don’t push the edge of the envelope, no one’s going to get there,” said James Causey, Executive Director for SpaceCom. “If you need any other manifestation of whether the time is right, it is 1,500 people coming together for three days in the first event of its kind [SpaceCom] talking about this stuff.”

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