In the 1920s, astronomer Edwin Hubble found that galaxies are moving away from Earth at speeds proportional to their distance, referred to as Hubble's Law. His findings led to the widely believed idea that the universe is expanding. In 1998, two groups of scientists discovered that the universe is not only expanding; the expansion is accelerating and is not linear.
Therefore, creating the only industry scientifically proven to keep expanding: the space industry. An expanding universe filled with scarce resources builds a financially lucrative case for commercial exploitation of space. But barriers have held back the privatization and commercial use of space. The main obstacles have been excessively high launch costs of rockets and a long-held government monopoly on space travel.
It has been nearly half a century since humans first set foot on the moon, and since then, human space exploration has mostly focused on low-Earth orbit satellite missions and unmanned scientific explorations. The great public interest in space in the mid to late 20th century faded away over the decades. But now we are witnessing a revival of the space industry due to high levels of private funding, advances in technology and growing public-sector interest.
Many eccentric founders of the current technology behemoths have put renewed focus on space travel. Most famously, Elon Musk with SpaceX, Jeff Bezos with Blue Origin, and Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic. The emerging private space industry disproportionately consists of extremely rich and nerdy science fiction enthusiasts now wanting to realize their youth science fiction fantasies. The space industry has in part become a space race between Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. A space race that is not centered on capital, but on which of the two, is most innovative and capable.
While the renewed investment and developments in space exploration has been made by a select handful of companies, public sector interest has grown in parallel. Growing interest from Russia and China has made the US cautious. According to reports, China is prioritizing the development of space resources as part of its efforts to challenge the U.S. in the area of economic and security dominance. We may be witnessing the second space race, which could reach far greater objectives than setting foot on the moon; space mining could be the new gold rush, space tourism is not science fiction anymore and new satellite constellations can contribute to growth of technology on earth.
This article sets out to explore the commercial possibilities of space with a focus on satellites and space mining, given the surging interest in the last decade.
The orbital altitude (the length from earth to the satellite) of satellites is an important factor to decide on when launching a satellite. As seen on the illustration below, the coverage area becomes bigger the farther away the satellite is, but the time to receive information (latency) increases as well. Usually, satellites are organized into three categories, all serving different purposes:
- Low-earth orbit (LEO): Altitude 500 to 1,200 km
- Medium-earth orbit (MEO): Altitude 5,000 to 20,000 km
- Geostationary Equatorial orbit (GEO): Altitude 36,000 km
GEO satellites appear stationary from Earth as they move at the same velocity as the Earth and orbit parallel to Earth’s rotation. This makes GEO ideal for weather forecasting, satellite radio, and television. Critical and fast communication is not handled over GEO as the latency is big due to the high altitude.
The MEO satellites have traditionally been used for GPS and navigation applications. Although in recent years MEO satellites have been used to provide internet broadband connectivity to service providers, government agencies, and enterprises.
With their lower altitude, LEO satellites are ideal for very high speed and low latency communications, where the delay often is under 0,05 seconds. They are smaller, faster, and cheaper to produce compared to their bigger brothers. As they cover less of the Earth’s surface, more satellites are needed for full coverage. This is one of the areas where SpaceX attempts to become the leader; in establishing a network of satellites in LEO to accommodate high speed communications.
The most significant short term opportunity from satellites arises from the expansion of internet access through satellites in LEO. More LEO Internet Satellites would drive down the cost of data, all the while the demand for data surges worldwide. I would argue that more Broadband Internet Satellites could solve two major issues.
Firstly, the UN estimates that 37% of the worlds' population has never used the internet. That is 2,9 billion people. By deploying more sophisticated Broadband Internet Satellites, more of Earth’s surface area could access the internet, especially in rural areas in developing countries. This would likely contribute to an economic boost for less developed economies, but also vastly improve the speed of communication channels.
Secondly, the demand for data bandwidth is increasing as new technology emerges. One major obstacle in developing fully autonomous cars is the need for a higher bandwidth network, hence faster internet speeds that can deliver more data. For autonomous cars to work, the software has to calculate and make hundreds of decisions per second. This cannot be done with the current internet bandwidth. A new network of high speed satellites, like the one SpaceX is trying to establish with LEO, would be able to accommodate the data requirements of autonomous driving. Furthermore, the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence and virtual reality all rely on and assume that the internet bandwidth will widen, otherwise these technologies will not work at scale.
Another future commercial use of space is the process of extracting resources from asteroids or planets, also called space mining. According to McKinsey, investment in space has historically not flown to the lunar and beyond segment, which is an umbrella term including space mining and operations beyond our moon. But in the last 5 years, investment in space mining have grown rapidly, showing the increased interest in long-term space projects. Broadly speaking, there are two opportunities for mining space resources: returning them to Earth or using them in space. While the first seems more logical, the latter is to prefer if the aim is to build an ecosystem to support space tourism, space mining, and generally increased space activity.
Astronomical objects like asteroids and planets contain potential sources of natural materials that to us are very valuable. A lot of rare Earth metals, which counts 17 different metals, can be found in space in much larger quantities. This includes lanthanum, neodymium, and yttrium, which are required for electronics and chips to support the high-tech economy. Water may also be very attractive as it is possible, with solar energy or nuclear fission, to split water into oxygen and hydrogen and then use it as rocket propellant. This would facilitate in-space refueling and make longer space missions possible.
In the long-term, space mining would likely focus on exotic specialized metals that do not compete with earthly mining production. This could be rare products like Helium-3, which can be used in nuclear fusion to create energy with virtually no radiation and no waste.
There are two near-term achievable targets to aim for if you want to mine in space: the moon and asteroids. The moon has long been the primary planetary target for space mining as it is relatively close, and it has low gravity, resulting in little energy expenditure when delivering materials to and from Earth. The journey to the moon only takes about three days by rocket. The relatively short distance results in low latency (communication lag), making remote operation of robots possible.
On the other hand, asteroids are another target for space mining. The asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars contains a large amount of the asteroids in our solar system. About 1,5 million of the asteroids are more than a kilometer in diameter and densely packed with minerals and water. The challenge for asteroid mining comes down to the vast distance to the asteroid belt and the lack of technology to mine asteroids.
Although space mining opens a new world of possibilities, there are major challenges ahead. Many space mining targets experience extreme temperatures, and have almost no atmosphere. Radiation is more prominent in space, endangering not only humans but also the electronics and equipment. At the moment, space missions are limited to minimal cargo because large amounts of energy are required to navigate and travel in space. Furthermore, the surface of asteroids consist of a rocky material called regolith, challenging current mining equipment. Lastly, the price of launching cargo into space remains excessively high, while the demand for space-mined materials is uncertain.
The commercial space race is on. The public and private focus on space will likely remain high as technology has made space exploration more accessible. The near-term opportunities arising from new satellite constellations are to make the internet accessible from rural regions in developing countries and to create the infrastructure for emerging technology such as autonomous driving, artificial intelligence and Internet of Things.
On the other hand, the long-term benefits of space mining cannot be ignored, but the lurking reality is that space mining is science fiction for now, at least from a commercially viable perspective. Although NASA has succeeded with extracting small samples from astronomical objects, the amounts have been very small and in no way represented the production of mining.
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