Singapore. A shoebox-sized satellite costs about $100,000 per launch and start-up space companies are launching human missions and satellites into orbit.
By 2030, experts predict the global space economy will reach $1.4 trillion.
Big companies like Amazon Web Services (AWS), whose founder Jeff Bezos launched into space earlier in July, help fuel the growing space economy.
“With the number of mission satellites increasing across the next decade, we’re seeing an increased need for data analytics, geospatial analytics, business intelligence,” said Mani Thiru, Space Industry Lead at AWS, on Bloomberg’s Opportunities in Orbit panel last week.
“Customers cannot rely on traditional ways of fulfilling their space missions.”
Cloud services can support companies throughout the mission, from launch to on-orbit operations, replacing the traditional ground station.
California-based company Capella Space, which runs its IT infrastructure on AWS, provides on-demand Earth observation using synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites.
“Earth observation, using satellite images, has the power to solve some of the world’s biggest problems,” Thiru said.
“We’re monitoring change, and the ability to use satellite imagery to virtually see anywhere in the world in high resolution and to do it so quickly in rapid succession has never really existed before.”
Satellite observation can be used, for instance, to locate hotspots during large-scale fires and prevent devastating impacts. According to Thiru, Australian company Fireball International can detect bushfires within minutes using real-time satellite images and artificial intelligence (AI).
“They process 2.5 million images [about] 30Gbs of satellite data a day, and they’re able to inform authorities of potential wildfires within 3 minutes of smoke detection,” said Thiru.
Digital Africa, another start-up, uses high-resolution imagery from space to better understand drought and famine-prone areas across the continent. Governments can use this insight to focus aid delivery.
“Through Earth observation and the power of data analytics [and] cloud, there’s tremendous potential for us to positively impact the world,” said Thiru.
Planet Labs (Planet), a Californian aerospace data analytics company, has launched the largest constellation of Earth-observing satellites to date. With nearly 200 satellites orbiting Earth, Planet generates 25 terabytes of raw satellite data daily.
“We live on a planet that is not infinite, that is quite limited,” Planet Labs Vice President Andrew Zolli told the panel.
The company seeks to transform transportation, healthcare, energy, and agriculture systems through space data analytics to sustain life on Earth.
“The only way to be able to do it is by building data and AI-driven feedback loops,” he said.
According to the Satellite Industry Association (SIA), the satellite industry currently makes up 73 percent of the space economy.
“The next really big thing is going to be reusable and ultra-low-cost launch,” Zolli said.
Likening satellites to a ferry that leaves regularly every 15 minutes, Zolli foresees a need to “regularize and reduce the cost of launch to ‘widen the aperture for everybody”.
“There are amazing businesses that haven’t been conceived yet, but that will be conceived in the next 12 months. Now a generation of innovators and entrepreneurs is coming forth with an ability actually to think about reliably getting their material into space,” he added.
Beyond satellites, space firms are also on a mission to launch humans.
“By 2040, we envision at least 1,000 people living and working on the lunar surface… and more than 10,000 people traveling [between] the Earth and the Moon,” iSpace CEO Takeshi Hakamada said.
Based in Tokyo, iSpace leads the world’s first commercial lunar exploration program, HAKUTO-R. It aims to extract water from the Moon and deliver fast lunar transportation by 2022.
“Once we can obtain, for example, a [refueling] rocket in space, then we can establish a gas station. That would promote more activity in space, and as a result, we believe that would secure [the] sustainability of life on Earth,” Hakamada said.
Hakamada said he believes the next step is to establish a market on the moon.
“What I want to envision is some company [registering] a company on the moon. That would truly create an economy,” he said.
The last human to land on the Moon was in 1972, as part of the Apollo 17 mission.
“Sooner or later, humans go back to the moon by government mission but also by commercial activity. Once we identify water, we need human beings on the moon to support development,” the Japanese said.