Exploring the business of space

Susmita Mohanty, co-founder and CEO of Earth2Orbit

“Space is not a frontier; it is the extension of my existence.” – Susmita Mohanty, Co-founder and CEO of Earth2Orbit

On November 9, over 200 space enthusiasts and professionals packed the Museum of Flight in Seattle to attend The New Space Age: The Business Case to Dream Conference, organized by The Economist and sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the Sierra Nevada Corporation.

This inaugural event brought together members of the business community, government and higher education from around the world to discuss developments in space exploration and commercialization. That this type of conference could not just happen but sell-out is a testament to how far access to space has come, in terms of costs and variety of options, in just the last 10 years.

Many recent advancements in reducing the cost for launch satellites are tied to developments in small satellite technology. Smallsats, which includes CubeSats, can measure from 10 centimeters square up to the size of a mini-refrigerator. These satellites typically catch a ride to low Earth orbit on a rocket containing a larger, much more expensive to build, commercial satellite.

As little as 10 years ago, CubeSats were mostly a playground for university undergraduates. NASA and other government agencies helped subsidize the building and launching of Cubesats as a learning opportunity for students. But as the field matured, CubeSats became more sophisticated, and as the miniaturization of electronics continued, the private sector took notice.

There are now a whole host of companies that build and launch small Earth-imagining satellites (3 to 10 times the size of a CubeSat), thanks to the drop in cost to launch due to entry into the field by new private companies. During the conference, it was pointed out that many of these companies were started by billionaires that have brought in the field both a business sense and a desire to leave a legacy. The San Francisco-based company Planet Labs, for example, will soon have 200 small satellites in orbit, building an image of the entire Earth twice a day.

With all of those smallsats comes data. A major theme of The New Space Age conference was what can be done with all this data; how do the companies that gather the data make it easier for consumers to use, and what those uses might be. Many speakers likened the explosive growth in usages for data from commercial Earth-observing satellites to the past explosive growth in computing capacity.

Oliver Morton, editor for The Economist, declared, “data is the new oil”, a resource that will enable the creation of new and previously unimagined industries. One video featured how the high time and spatial resolution of data available now, was recently used to track track fishing vessels in the south east Pacific in order to locate, and apprehend, ships in which the workers on board were being held in slavery. This was made possible by the presence of a multitude of Earth-observing satellites with cutting-edge, imaging technology, along with newly-developed data mining techniques. Pete Roney, Chief Innovations Officer for Thales USA, described what he sees as the future usages of the Earth- observing data – one in which images are fused with scientific data, such as atmospheric conditions, to produce analysis that hasn’t yet been dreamed of, much like the way information from GPS satellites is now used in ways not dreamed of a decade ago.

The talk didn’t just focus on Earth-centered topics. Carolyn Porco, a senior research scientist at the Space Sciences Institute in Boulder, outlined the legacy of the Cassini mission in her keynote talk. This led to discussion of how to make space exploration economically viable. During a panel discussion on the global economic impact of space exploration, Tom Standage, deputy editor for The Economist, pointed out how 30 years ago innovation in technology was primarily driven by military applications; now innovation is driven primarily by the consumer market, and much of the discussion of beyond Earth space exploration centers on resource gathering and building to support humans living and vacationing in space.

One salient point that resonated with the audience, though, was made by Susmita Mohanty, co-founder and CEO of Earth2Orbit, who stressed that “the line between exploration and exploitation is very thin.” She called on the space exploration and technology community to find a word other than “colonization” for settlements beyond Earth, given the word’s application in our terrestrial history. But whatever word is used, the participants in the conference are eager for future exploration of the solar system by both humans and robots. When asked by panelists, to pick between human settlement of the Moon or Mars, most of the audience bristled at having to choose and shouted out, “Both!”

Erika Harnett is an associate director of Washington NASA Space Grant Consortium and a research associate professor in UW’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences. Her work focuses on planetary sciences and exploration.

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