Entrepreneurs and private companies are increasingly being attracted to the rich tapestry of new commercial space opportunities which are now opening up across the global space market, particularly in terms of future deep space exploration. TerraMetricâ€™s Clint Graumann assesses the exciting possibilities ahead and looks at where they might lead.
Commercialisation in NewSpace is growing and itâ€™s happening beyond Earth orbit too. Governments are supporting private investment in space technology startups as a way to attract talent, achieve greater agility and improve efficiency. And investors are motivated by the broad spectrum of opportunities and the wide range of possible downstream applications.
To date, this combination of private investment and government support has resulted in a focus upon Earth orbit – and for good reason. We have learned so much about ourselves and our planet while proving that private investment can create a sustainable space economy.
This new economy has produced constellations of Earth observation satellites which help us see both how our world is changing and how we have changed our world. Guidance and navigation constellations help us attach value to spatial data by understanding precise location in conjunction with adjacent observations.
Todayâ€™s entrepreneurs are limited only by the laws of physics rather than conventional industry norms
In the near future, high speed internet constellations in low Earth orbits (LEO) will make downstream adoption of technology around the world possible in locations where terrestrial broadband providers cannot feasibly invest. Up and down the value chain and across the technology spectrum, space exploration has accelerated technology on Earth beyond our wildest dreams.
But future space commercialisation already lies far beyond Earth orbit where the efforts of entrepreneurs to innovate, especially in the realm of NewSpace, are being met by several qualified enablers coming together at the right time.
Not so long ago space was largely considered as a â€˜government onlyâ€™ domain but in recent years – particularly in the United States – this has evolved to â€˜government as the customerâ€™, a shift which has been a major spur for innovation.
Government as customer has helped by providing a foundational bedrock of support upon which industry can build solutions to serve the much broader business-to-business market. This is allowing many companies to extend their ambitions well beyond Earth to the wider NewSpace market sector. The future is not just in Earth orbit – it is expanding out to the Moon, Mars and beyond.
Working across the NewSpace sector has allowed TerraMetric to witness businesses delivering innovations much more quickly compared to the previous steady pace of governments and it is fulfilling to help founder-led companies capture meaningful contracts which provide them with bedrock revenue.
Todayâ€™s entrepreneurs are limited only by the laws of physics rather than conventional industry norms. Working across the space market spectrum with a variety of NewSpace companies, we have had the privilege of taking ideas from concept to revenue generation, an invaluable experience that has enabled us to see how much potential there is to come both in Earth orbit and beyond.
Blue Origin National Teamâ€™s engineering mockup of its lunar crew lander vehicle at NASAâ€™s Johnson Space Center.
The smallsat market has seen tremendous technical innovation in recent years, key among them advances in sensor technologies leading to hyperspectral payloads for monitoring Earthâ€™s land and oceans, sensitive atmospheric monitoring payloads, synthetic aperture radar (SAR), security focused quantum key encryption and miniaturised propulsion advances for cubesats. The next steps will be to leverage these new technologies in spacecraft for use beyond Earth orbit, expanding the commercial remote sensing market to the Moon, Mars and even asteroids. Some of this activity is already being undertaken. Governments paved the way for the commercial sector beyond Earth orbit with affordable deep space missions.
We are at the very beginning of commercial-ising lunar activity and the momentum will grow as this decade progresses
In the context of the new Space Race, countries including the United States, Europe, Russia, China, India, Japan and the UAE are looking at ways of further exploring the deep space environment.
But what of commercial interests? As well as standalone private sector initiatives, there is potential for space technology and engineering companies to support government projects and develop on the back of them. For instance, newly developed hyperspectral technologies could be used to better understand the make-up of asteroids for identification of mining opportunities.
Once permanent Moon bases are established there will be a need for wider communications infrastructure and commercial companies could become involved in locating resources and landing sites ahead of wider human expansion into the solar system whilst, at the same time, minimising disturbance to planets, moons and asteroids.
Does this seem far-fetched? Companies are already contemplating how to answer such questions. New commercial markets are blossoming far beyond Earth orbit propositions, helped by the ever-increasing advances in relevant technologies. Increased attention from government in the form of budget and programmes has caused venture capital and private equity investors to take notice.
In the same way that spacecraft are improving for exploring deeper space, the launch industry is experiencing what will become an even more acute period of change. The traditional approach is being supplanted by newer, leaner contenders, which are innovating faster and across not only the technological domains but in management too, bringing a more agile approach to the industry, while still maintaining the safety culture which is so necessary.
The market has been dominated by medium-sized launchers, and it would be fair to say that in recent years this has been disrupted by SpaceX, with its Falcon 9 launch vehicle designed with reusable first stages and payload fairings.
Smallsats have always been the Cinderella of the market, with smaller payloads mainly being carried as secondary or sub-payloads, using rideshare and piggyback opportunities on larger launch vehicles.
Recently, however, with the arrival of Rocket Lab, soon to be joined by other smallsat launch specialists like Firefly and Astra, this market also looks like being next in line for disruption in terms of more accurate orbital delivery and more responsive access to space. This evolution is not only benefiting the launcher companies but also the launch infrastructure which has given birth to a growing number of sites around the world competing to become commercially viable spaceports from where the smallsat launchers can fly.
How does this affect our ability to graduate commercially past Earth orbit to the Moon and beyond? The real game-changers in the launcher market might be at the larger end of the spectrum, most notably Blue Originâ€™s New Glenn launcher, which has a strong element of reusability, and SpaceXâ€™s Super-Heavy/Starship combination with both stages being reusable.
A successful lunar economy will lead to further deep space exploration
Rocket engineering is no small feat so time to market is unpredictable but ultimately well-laid plans and approaches will undoubtedly succeed, thereby driving down costs. We are already witnessing the effects of being able to launch the same hardware multiple times, and this can only expand the opportunity for new commercial services.
Letâ€™s consider for a moment the longer term. The need for a robust supply chain between Earth and the Moon will require an increasing cadence of launches, and the only way that this can be met cost effectively will be through reusable launch vehicles.
A concept for constructing a lunar base using automated 3D printers, making use of lunar regolith as building material.
SpaceX recently succeeded in the Falcon-9 launch of astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), the return of the reusable rocket, and then the return of the Dragon capsule – all massive achievements. However, could the much stronger motivation have been the start of building capability to venture much further away from Earth?
The gradual buildup of human infrastructure around Earth and at the Moon will also require larger pieces of hardware to be orbited, and the only way this can be met cost-effectively is with larger launch vehicles.
Other areas of commercial development likely to benefit from these most recent launch developments will be propellant depots, robotics, in-orbit servicing and the placement of computing resources off planet.
Jeff Bezos, of Amazon and Blue Origin, has long talked of manufacturing in space and large launchers will help to realise this potential. With greater payload sizes, reduced launch costs and increasing launch frequency, the prospect of an Amazon web services beaming directly from space is not so unlikely.
From a human perspective, government-led programmes have been especially active in supporting industry. The US Artemis initiative, with its associated small lander Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) programme, has provided tremendous opportunity for commercialisation and innovation.
Small landers will play a significant role in scouting the lunar surface, seeking out the best locations to find lunar ice, and the best sites for lunar bases. As this process develops, there will be a need for a lunar orbiting data network, to enable lunar orbiting satellite internet services (similar to Earth orbiting constellations such as Starlink), and communications between Earth and the Moon. At TerraMetric we foresee the same process then being repeated at Mars, only with modifications to allow for the challenges of operating at much greater distances.
Large lunar landers for the human lander programme will play an increasing role due to their load carrying capability, enabling them to transport supplies to the Lunar Gateway and to a lunar surface base far more cost effectively.
The Lunar Gateway and supporting logistics vehicles, such as the SpaceX Dragon XL and ESAâ€™s Moon Cruiser, provide a foundation for the establishment of a long-term permanent human presence on the Moon.
Whilst we should benefit commercially from our successes, we must also learn from the mistakes we have made on our home planet
ESA has proposed a â€˜Moon Villageâ€™ and China has serious development plans for a base at the South Pole of the Moon from the mid 2030s onwards. Consequently, from a commercial space perspective, new opportunities will constantly unfold.
It is our belief that the market for lunar surface habitats will be realised sooner than most expect. With many people one day working on the Moon and maintaining a continuous multi-national presence, there will be a need to ensure there is a reliable supply chain, much like we see today to the ISS.
We will have to consider not only hardware issues – such as spacecraft capable of travelling from Earth orbit to lunar orbit – but also life support systems and consumables, power generation and storage systems, lunar surface transport vehicles, etc.
Plans for sustainable lunar habitats will become more concrete over the next four to five years once the first landings of the new lunar programmes have taken place and we have gained an even better understanding of where the best locations to site lunar bases are.
An artistâ€™s impression illustrating a future European lunar telecommunications and navigation infrastructure.
For many years, the Earth observation sector struggled for commercial acceptance. Now the sector is witnessing investors double down on investment into satellite operators and data analytics companies, leveraging large datasets combined with increased automation, machine learning and exploration of artificial intelligence, expanding an increasingly lucrative market.
Reusability of commercial launch vehicles was once derided, yet now multiple launch companies have either embraced it wholeheartedly or are in the process of doing so. Within the next few years we will have global broadband connectivity through thousands of satellites providing broadband access around Earth. At TerraMetric we see the same with the lunar market and beyond. Today we are at the very beginning of commercialising lunar activity and the momentum will grow as this decade progresses.
Commercialisation of space exploration, however, will not end with the lunar economy which is the beginning and is foundational to carrying humanity further and learning more, though itâ€™s only one small step.
In the future we will see the Moon as a continually maintained outpost of human civilisation in which we all become stakeholders, and a successful lunar economy will lead to further deep space exploration.
The time when we land the first person on Mars may seem a long way off but, with the rapid developments in technologies, the future will arrive sooner than we may think.
We are the custodians of this planet but we must ensure that we are also proper fiduciaries of the next worlds that humankind inhabits and explores. And whilst we should benefit commercially from our successes, we must also learn from the mistakes we have made on our home planet. Governments and private industry can build a better future as we jointly become stewards of the solar system and reach for the stars.
About the author
Clint Graumann is considered one of the leading experts in the NewSpace economy. He is the CEO and Co-Founder of TerraMetric, a global space business development firm with proven expertise up and down the integrated space exploration value chain, helping small- to medium-sized NewSpace businesses worldwide break into new markets and achieve their vision. Clint has deep experience in the domestic and international markets, where he and his team work in concert with clients to provide market intelligence, secure large contracts, and connect with partners and customers.