Archives for category: Space Business

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

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Christianna Taylor talks space debris at Dent:Space

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

 

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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.

Shortly after my “Made in Space” post, I discovered that a company called Made in Space exists. I followed them on Twitter last year as they installed a 3D printer on the International Space Station. Newsweek says:

Their first offering, launched to the ISS in the fall of 2014, is fairly simple: a 3-D printer that prints plastic parts. In itself, this will bring on a manufacturing revolution of sorts. “The first 3-D printers on the ISS will be able to build objects that could never be manufactured on Earth,” says Kemmer. “Imagine, for example, building a structure that couldn’t withstand its own weight.”

Made in Space’s next iteration will be able to print with multiple materials, including both plastics and metals, which means that sometime in the next five years, 60 percent of the parts in use on the ISS will be printable. And just behind this version is the real game changer: a 3-D printer capable of printing electronics.

…[Says Dunn,] “It’s hard to say for sure, but around 2025 we should be able to print electronics aboard the ISS. This means we’ll be able to email hardware into space for free, rather than paying to have it launched there.”

So there you go. Glad to see people working on this problem.