share-imageThe Soviet Union built the first spaceport, Baikonur Cosmodrome, in 1957. In October of that year, Sputnik 1 launched and stayed in orbit for a few months. Since then, about 30 more launch sites were built around the world, and over 1,000 satellites are currently orbiting Earth.

Click through to learn:

  • When (and where) humans started building spaceports [interactive map]
  • Why Italy and France built spaceports in Africa instead of Europe
  • How to choose a site for a spaceport
  • Commercial applications of satellites

paeegaf30dg-steven-coffeyToday’s space industry is dominated by:

  • Rockets
  • Research
  • Satellites

But are you familiar with newer segments of the industry? Here are five awesome business models that will get more people thinking off-world — and these ideas have nothing to do with Mars colonies.

1. Tourism

What makes space tourism so interesting is not that it’s tourism but that it’s gonna be big business. Rocketry and satellite communications companies are huge. Tourism will be huge too. Space tourism is also the first consumer space enterprise, which means a few things.

First, a wide variety of people will try it. They’ll all be wealthy, initially, but they’ll have different occupations and backgrounds. Versus other space enterprises, which largely serve highly specialized customers.

Second, a large number of people will try it. It’s affordable enough for a millionaire. Virgin Galactic has 700 people ready to pay $250k for a suborbital flight on SpaceShipTwo. And their XB-1 supersonic aircraft will debut $5k pond hops for elite business travelers at the end of 2017. With few competitors, Virgin Galactic may see the 10 million millionaires on Earth as a big enough market to start with.

2. Global business intelligence

Earth-facing satellites aren’t just for three-letter agencies anymore. The earth observation market is expanding from defense surveillance applications into commercial applications in two cool ways:

By monitoring ship and aircraft signals

Spire Global in San Francisco watches radio data from seafaring ships to track “90% of global trade” for shipping and logistics companies.  As of 2017 they’ll also be observing flight traffic, recording aircraft positions every 15 minutes. That will make lengthy post-crash searches a thing of the past.

By taking pictures and infrared sensing every week

Planetary Resources likes the term “hyperspectral” imaging. Their network of ten satellites facilitates agricultural monitoring and fossil fuel surveys. Plus they let investors analyze it all for financial forecasting purposes. The Seattle-based company closed a $21m Series A round in May 2016.

The San Francisco-based Planet (formerly Planet Labs) is even further ahead. Planet just acquired Alphabet’s Terra Bella to add their satellites to their already large satellite network. Plus, Planet is launching 88 satellites on Valentine’s Day 2017. They already partner with farmer apps like FarmLogs and run a self-service platform for ordering imagery based on address or GPS coordinates.

What’s hard about global imaging is getting satellites into proper orbit. To image every bit of the earth, you need at least some of your network to take what’s called a polar orbit — and that’s expensive. (Satellites have gotten cheaper, but not that cheap.) It’s physically harder to get into a polar orbit (90°) than, say, something closer to the ISS (51.6°). An ISS-like orbit can launch from Florida and take advantage of the momentum of Earth’s rotation. Polar orbits have to go straight north, with no assist from rotation. This can double the launch cost.

3. Solar system resource utilization

Many entrepreneurs want to be first to grab the loot in our solar neighborhood. That loot being: heretofore-unimaginable quantities of gold, silver, platinum, and other precious metals. For example, some asteroids have been estimated to contain up to $5 trillion worth of platinum.

Mining the moon

The moon might have large quantities of Helium-3, which would be useful for building powerful fusion reactors. China has declared they’re going for it.

Mining the asteroid belt

Planetary Resources (mentioned above) and Deep Space Industries are working on identifying mineral-rich asteroid targets now. I’ve mentioned Made In Space on this blog before, and they landed a NASA contract in July 2016 to figure out how to turn asteroids into spacecraft.

To be clear, 2017 is too soon to actually take receipt of any of that delicious space platinum. But if you’re looking to invest or work in the space industry, watch those three closely.

4. Garbage duty

This may be the least-recognized application of commercial space technology so far. What makes it interesting is how essential it is for functioning commercial operations. Debris and space trash pose a danger to future commercial development in space. (See NASA’s debris primer for context and Wikipedia’s Kessler syndrome article to get the fear put in you.)

A few different companies I know of want to deal with our orbital garbage:

Astroscale wants to make satellite debris collectors to remove dead satellites from orbit. The Singapore-based company has raised $42m so far.

Effective Space Solutions comes at it a different way: they’re looking at how to extend the life of old satellites by creating their own craft that will dock with a non-functional satellite and fix it. They’ve secured what looks like their first deal to provide life extension services for a satellite company, starting in 2018. Orbital ATK’s Mission Extension Vehicle will do this too; they’re a bit further ahead.

5. Insurance

This often-boring industry gets exciting when paired with the high risk and high reward nature of space. Risk like SpaceX’s launch pad explosion in September 2016. Reward like skimming off the world’s trillion-dollar businesses.

Commercial space enterprises are insured by multiple overlapping policies: for pre-launch, launch, operation, and third-party liability.

Spacecom had a $200m satellite sitting on that SpaceX rocket when it exploded during pre-launch tests. Not only did the explosion slow Spacecom’s pending acquisition talks to a crawl, but it also will drive up launch insurance premiums by as much as 100%.

A few space insurance players: Pembroke, Aon PlcXL Catlin, WillisBeazley, Israel Aerospace Industries.

Explosions and premium hikes may sound like bad news, except the insurance industry is already well entrenched in the space industry and learning fast. Insurance is so important and so expensive that it can delay launches. More on how the business works here.

Special thanks to Schuyler Erle, whose excited ramblings inspired part of this post.

Kurzgesagt is making the greatest science and history explainer videos around. Here, they explain what a space elevator is. Great concept that, if we could execute it, would save billions of dollars for space entrepreneurs.

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Unity VR Principal Designer Timoni West speaking at Dent:Space

Scientists, educators, startup founders, and authors came together for Dent:Space, a fantastically free conference at the Innovation Hangar.

Highlights

Susmita Mohanty, whose company builds deployable space habitats, called for a softening of US International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), as it’s interfering with rapid global innovation.

Then we heard about a way to build Martian habitats from Keegan Kirkpatrick, who advised Mars-bound engineers to consider in-situ additive construction. If we can figure out how to make Mars soil nontoxic to humans, we’d save a ton of money on the trip.

Timoni West (photo above), who runs Unity’s VR team, shared the most dazzling space-themed VR titles available.

And Scott Manley convinced an audience that they should finally try playing Kerbal Space Program. He remarked that the game had made it easier for students of rocket propulsion to understand the math, because they had developed a feel for rocketry while playing Kerbal.

Favorite quotes

“The space industry doesn’t yet fully realize they need people of different skill sets and backgrounds.” Ariel Waldman, co-host of Dent:Space

“Most space companies work in a very engineering-centered approach. But I think the ISS is over-engineered and under-designed. If you were a consumer or a scientist, you wouldn’t want to put up with that habitat.” Susmita Mohanty, Earth2Orbit

“$20 million usually doesn’t get you a space vehicle. Usually it gets you a 50-page powerpoint presentation.” Will Pomerantz, Virgin Galactic

Selected slides

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NASA Advanced Exploration Systems Director Jason Crusan speaking at Dent:Space

christianna-taylor-at-dent-space-2016

Christianna Taylor talks space debris at Dent:Space

And read a detailed writeup of the event at Popular Science.

 

spacex

EDIT: The document featured in this post is no longer being updated. For an up-to-date survey of commercial space companies, try Crunchbase.

Here’s a start to a survey of commercial space companies. The purpose of this document is to give industry newbs a directory of interesting, active companies they might be interested in learning more about.

View on Google Drive: Space Business

If you have any feedback or additions, or if you know of a better document out there, please leave a comment.

At San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences, the planetarium team hosts an event called the Benjamin Dean Astronomy Lectures.

Here’s what I know about astronomy based on five months of lectures:

1. Most astronomy presenters, like most people, aren’t that good at telling stories.

Most of the time, when I walked out of a Benjamin Dean lecture, my companions would turn to me with excitement, and I would feel confusion. What was that about? If I could recap the lecture quickly enough aloud, some of it would stick.

Sometimes when I sit in one of these lectures, I become irritated with the presenter’s inability to guide the audience through concepts and their poor type design. I feel annoyed that they won’t say at the outset of the presentation what we’re going to learn. One presenter, coming near the end and just at the point of making a possibly useful summary, decided to skip ahead, because her talk was running long. All the spinning plates in my head drop to the floor.

Disclosure

I am not well-read on astronomy. Here are my astronomy-related non-credentials: I took an introduction to astronomy class in 1998, at the University of Arizona. One of my college roommates at UC Berkeley was an astrophysics student. I have seen Gravity once and Interstellar twice. I have watched most of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos but none of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I follow 4 astronomers on Twitter and Patreon-ize my spacealicious acquaintance Ariel Waldman. One of my best friends, who is a smartie and general geek, frequently sends me links to Sixty Symbols and Crash Course videos, about half of which I watch. So I can kind of explain what a Lagrange point is and describe the light spectrum. My favorite kind of star is the neutron star. Because that shit is tight.

So when I say I went to five astronomy lectures at the planetarium and hardly understood them, it might be safe to say they weren‘t that well-done. If I then say that I mostly disliked them, maybe you should be concerned. Because I have an interest in astronomy and want to find a way to relate to it, but I’m not finding a way to dig in.

I’m either not smart enough for astronomy, not curious enough — both possibly valid points — or perhaps astronomy still isn’t accessible enough to the public.

That being said…

Even video bloggers, the most engaging of science presenters, talk too fast, include too much information, and use too few visuals to give their presentations a good chance of sticking. Unless 10-year-olds have mutated new biotech for absorbing information at rapid speeds. Which I wouldn’t put past them, the rascals.

2. Astronomy departments don’t know how to grow their audience.

At the first astronomy lecture I attended, the host asked the audience, “It’s Monday night. Do any of you care that this is happening at the same time as Monday Night Football?”

Cue twenty seconds of laughter, groaning, and loud dismissals from the audience. “Okay, okay, thanks,” said the host. Great job, everyone. Our biases have been confirmed. Because everyone who DID care about Monday Night Football was not in the theater: they were watching Monday Night Football. So that poll was the least effective way to find out if any people had been considering attending an astronomy lecture but decided not to because it was football night.

Do I think there are lots of football fans who wish they could have made it to CalAcademy? Not really. But if CalAcademy wanted to reach football fans for their opinion, they failed and didn’t even notice they failed. So much for science.

Pop science content creators are still serving only people who seek knowledge. Nerds. And while there are many more nerds in the world than there used to be, thank goodness, few people consistently pursue knowledge for its own sake. Most people seek knowledge to aid them in an immediate purpose.

And I come in…how?

Okay, I’m slightly embarrassed at all the ignorance I displayed above. I’m hoping I get better at this. Because I want to help. It’s important to me that people care more about the space sciences, rocket science, whatever science gets us closer to building an off-world habitat. This post is me making a note on my way to figuring out how I can help.

Tim Urban, who wrote one of my favoritest posts ever (“The Great Filter”), just shared a new article on creating offworld communities:

Let’s look at it another way. Let’s imagine the Earth is a hard drive, and each species on Earth, including our own, is a Microsoft Excel document on the hard drive filled with trillions of rows of data…

Now—if you owned a hard drive with an extraordinarily important Excel doc on it, and you knew that the hard drive pretty reliably tended to crash every month or two, with the last crash happening five weeks ago—what’s the very obvious thing you’d do?

You’d copy the document onto a second hard drive.

That’s why Elon Musk wants to put a million people on Mars.

Go read How (and Why) SpaceX Will Colonize Mars.