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Dec 06, 2021
Space may be out there, but as a business, it’s very much here and now. While billionaire businessmen Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson have all taken to the skies and attracted the headlines, a host of small business operators sending satellite and other items into space are getting in on the act too.
The business of space is about winning the future at a game where the pot of cash is growing even as the rules are still being set. From zero-gravity factory floors to untold lunar treasures, big business and smart startups alike are betting on space as the next economic frontier. Strap yourself in — we’ll show you why.
— Based on reporting by Tom Cassauwers and Charu Sudan Kasturi
the orbital industrial revolution
1 - Eyes on Earth
Bezos and Musk are after a market that’s already taken off but is now poised to rocket. And they’re joined by hundreds of companies, from startups to aerospace giants, that want a piece of the global space economy. This market, according to Morgan Stanley, is expected to lift off from $350 billion in 2016 to over $1 trillion by 2040. Most of that will focus on areas like satellite television, geolocation services such as GPS, Earth observation and telecommunications. So whether it’s the massive constellations from SpaceX and Blue Origin that are set to connect millions to the internet, or satellites assessing deforestation and climate change, the commercial space industry’s focus won’t be on distant planets … but on good old planet Earth.
2 - Space Factories
That focus is sparking a race toward space manufacturing — with companies and innovators already dreaming of artificial hearts built on satellite factory floors. The process of making things on Earth is hindered by gravity. Take that away, and we might be able to build better electronics, faster internet cables and maybe even artificial organs by shipping manufacturing into orbit and then sending finished products back to Earth for use.
There’s a growing consensus that the dreams of mining asteroids for resources, which spawned a set of startups over the last decade, will remain just that: dreams. Yet there’s also mounting evidence suggesting that the moon might hold hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of minerals and other resources. NASA’s actually hunting for companies to partner with it on moon mining. But the push from America, enabled by an executive order from then-President Donald Trump last year, is bound to spark a race that will draw in other space powers such as Russia, China and India. Notably, Vice President Kamala Harris was named chair of the National Space Council in May, a group revived by Trump. “In America, when we shoot for the moon, we plant our flag on it. I am honored to lead our National Space Council,” Harris tweeted.
4 - Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Sat
All this increased activity in orbit comes with consequences too. There are now more than 3,300 satellites in orbit, and they’re hindering astronomers who are studying the heavens. Large concentrations of satellites obscure the view of the giant telescopes we use to study remote star systems. By tweaking schedules and making satellites that reflect less light, we can get around some of those galactic photobombing challenges. But regulation of the sector remains up in the air.
5 - Trapped on Earth
Heads-up! Another negative is all that space junk. Today there are so many objects, active and inactive, in orbit around Earth that alerts for collisions are now fairly common. In fact, a 21-ton part of China’s Long March 5b rocket fell to Earth last summer in uncontrolled fashion. Two objects crashing into each other in space would produce thousands of pieces of debris traveling faster than bullets. It might even cause a chain reaction of collisions that could cover the atmosphere in debris, preventing us from launching any more rockets and trapping us on Earth for the near future. That’s called the Kessler syndrome, though given the times we live in, you could also call it the planetary lockdown effect.
1 - Stocks to the Moon
The growth of the space industry, particularly through startups, has spurred increased financial interest in the area. So far, most new space companies remain private and you can’t buy their shares. Even SpaceX hasn’t gone public yet. But more and more stock opportunities are opening up, whether it’s with aerospace behemoths with a foot in space, like Boeing, or funds betting on share prices soaring in the future.
2 - UFOs on the Stock Market
The new space race has led to the creation of several exchange traded funds, or ETFs, that are dedicated to this industry. Share prices track the stocks of a portfolio of underlying companies, which in this case are focused on space. UFO, or the Procure Space ETF, was founded in April 2019 and currently has $110 million in net assets. That money goes toward businesses that mostly gain a large part of their income from space, with players such as Garmin, Maxar and Iridium in its portfolio.
3 - Tractors in Space
ARKX is the new kid on the space ETF block. Led by investment legend Cathie Wood of Ark Invest, ARKX made a splash when it arrived in late March, with investors pouring in $500 million in its first five days of trading. But there’s also been criticism after it turned out that a number of the companies in the portfolio weren’t actually space companies, but players like Netflix and tractor manufacturer John Deere.
4 - PACs for Space
Unless you’ve been living on Mars, you’ve heard about special purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs. Now these “blank check” firms that are the latest trend in the world of finance are reaching beyond Earth, out into space. Tying up with SPACs — which are looking for companies to invest in — reduces the risk for space startups keen to go public. Some firms are taking advantage. Take launch vehicle manufacturer Astra, for instance. Earlier, Virgin Galactic also used the SPAC technique to go public in 2019.
follow the stars
1 - Mitsunobu Okada
The Japanese entrepreneur had a successful career in IT and management consulting. But when he hit 40, he remembered his childhood dream of going to space and his real-life encounter with Japanese astronaut Mamoru Mohri — and he switched course. Now Okada is leading one of the world’s most ambitious efforts to clear space debris. His startup, Astroscale, is planning to send satellites that will clean up the junk. Astroscale has raised more than $300 million in venture funding and this past March sent up a space sweeper.
2 - Will Marshall
In the maelstrom of new thousand-satellite constellations going up, it’s easy to forget a more basic space application: Earth observation. Yet more and more players, from governments to insurance agencies, are willing to pay good money to have accurate images and readings of Earth from space. Planet Labs is the biggest player in that area, with dozens of satellites in orbit since the company’s launch a decade ago. The American co-founder and CEO of that company, Will Marshall, is one to keep your eye on, while his satellites look on from space.
3 - Sarah Al Amiri
She’s the youngest person in the world to head a space agency — and not just any agency. The United Arab Emirates might seem like an oddity on the global space stage. But the small country in the Persian Gulf has sent up several satellites, including an uncrewed probe to Mars. Behind that push is Sarah Al Amiri, a computer scientist by training. The 34-year-old is the UAE’s first minister of state for advanced sciences and chair of the country’s space agency. As space tourism becomes more likely, her influence will only grow. Virgin Galactic, which together with companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin is leading the charge toward commercial flights, has signed an agreement with the UAE to make the country its hub for the launch of such efforts. The UAE is also a major investor in Virgin Galactic.
4 - Neha Satak
The 37-year-old Indian engineer with cropped hair and a ready smile is challenging the giants of the private space industry, promising something Musk and Bezos can’t offer yet. Her startup, Astrome, is building satellite transponders that have 11 times more capacity than traditional transponders and could revolutionize internet access in remote parts of the world. Her firm is also an example of a broader trend: Companies interested in space services can increasingly outsource their needs to startups like Astrome without worrying about building satellites or components on their own.
Space isn’t just the domain of Cold War–era powers anymore. Lower costs are making it easier for African countries and companies to launch their satellites, and Cape Town–based Ndaba is right on trend. She’s the co-founder of Astrofica Technologies, a fully Black-owned South African satellite manufacturer that’s serving the growing African demand for access to space. Space has been Ndaba’s calling since she saw a photo of a rocket engine in a textbook given to her by her grandmother. A generation from now, South African students might well find Ndaba’s photo in their textbooks.
next space hubs
1 - It’s Time for Africa
Alongside private players like Ndaba, African governments are recognizing that the growing demand for space-based services means that they need to dive into a world they’ve mostly just observed from afar. Last year, African nations declared Egypt the hub for a continental African Space Agency approved by the African Union in 2017. The move comes at a time when African nations are increasingly planning satellites of their own. Experts estimate that by 2024, at least 19 of them will have sent an orbiter into space, up from 11 in 2020.
2 - … and Latin America
The region’s countries know they don’t individually possess the resources to emerge as a major space power. So in October 2020, they banded together to launch the Latin American and Caribbean Space Agency (abbreviated in Spanish to ALCE). Mexico and Argentina are driving the initiative. Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Paraguay, Peru and El Salvador are on board too. The past year has exposed the limitations, even in a globalized world, of depending on supply chains you can’t control and other nations that might withdraw into a shell of narrow nationalism amid crises. Latin America doesn’t want its space ambitions caught in that vortex.
3 - Atlantic Outpost
When Hurricane Dorian hit South Carolina in 2019, help came from Portugal, where a startup used satellite imagery to help American counties understand how to better prepare for the future. Portugal launched its space agency in 2019 and is building a spaceport on the Azores Islands in the Atlantic Ocean, racing to tap into a growing market for small satellite launches. And beyond Portugal, small rocket operators like bluShift Aerospace are building technologies that could make launching things into space much easier and more accessible.
Luxembourg is best known as a European tax haven and banking hub. Yet the country recognizes that this show won’t go on forever, which is why it’s diversifying its economy into space. It is aggressively attracting foreign space companies to base themselves in the tiny country and has become a major player in international space politics, pushing for special regulations around mining beyond our own planet.
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