The extraterrestrial economy

With the advent of an era of the privatization of space exploration, we have seen a plethora of new startups over the last decade. These startups not only represent a new field of space but also new fields within space. The extent of the variety of the new actors in the new field is epitomized by such industries in space such as asteroid mining, space tourism, space networking, space habitats to name a few. Many of the space projects that only the governments used to handle in the past are now under the public domain.

One such company in the field of space network is Audacy which aims to do similar job as NASA’s TDRS (Tracking and Data Relay Satellites). TDRS is a communications satellite and is one of the components of NASA’s Space Network Program. These satellites which are placed at geosynchronous orbit work in conjunction with two ground stations; thus relying less on ground stations and providing continuous coverage. According to the CEO of Audacy, Ralph Ewig, ‘In the simplest sense, you can think of us as a cell phone company for space. So we are literally like a cell phone network except that our users are people that own and operate objects in space rather than phones on the ground.’ The key difference between TDRS and Audacy is that the Audacy will be placed at medium Earth orbit while the TDRS operates at geosynchronous orbit. Thus it will enable to serve little satellites like cubesats and thousands of satellites simultaneously.

What fascinates me about space industries is the emergence of companies like these that can potentially alter the world economy. Imagine how much new business opportunities and job opportunities that lie in store for humanity to take advantage of. Suddenly with the opening of new doors in space we have resources not only here on Earth but the whole sky for exploitation. Not only does it have the potential to support the economy here on Earth but it is well on its course to develop a self-sustaining economy of its own. Take for example the plan of United Launch Alliance (ULA) in partnership with Bigelow Aerospace to build a self-sustaining space economy within the next 30 years. Dubbed ‘cislunar 1000’, the project forsees humans living and working between the Earth and the Moon. It envisions a number of milestones in space exploration like refuelling through propellants from the moon, mining the moon and asteroids and space tourism. The idea sounds fantastic! Doesn’t it?

In conclusion, it looks like we are heading towards three kinds of economies in the near future—the Earth economy, the Cislunar economy and the Mars economy! We in the 21st century must consider ourselves fortunate that our generation is being witness to this transition.

The Google LunarX Prize

There is something about the competition—a competition so intense that its outcome promises to be a game changer for humanity. A competition so huge in its very nature that its winner will claim to be the first to have brought humanities lost interest in space exploration back on track. Indeed, the Lunar X Prize competition is the competition of our generation and we are privileged to be its witness. Analogous to the spirit of St Louis when Charles Lindberg became the first person to travel across the Atlantic ocean and revolutionize the way we travel by air, the Lunar X Prize will certainly do the same for us in space.

The moon has been conquered 48 years ago; so what’s special about it? You may ask. Well, the special thing about this competition is that the final competitors—SpaceIL, Indus Team, Moon Express, Synergy Moon and Team Hakuto—are all private companies and there is minimal government involvement.

The rules have been laid out and the companies have geared up to confront the final frontier. What the winning company needs to do is simple—be the first to land a robotic spacecraft on the moon, travel 500 meters and transmit back high definition video and images. With the best of the best teams trying to edge out the other, who will emerge victorious in the end is a million dollar question.

Let’s look at the individual companies and try to figure out how their performance might be:

With the budget of US$ 36 million funded mainly by philanthropists, SpaceIL aims to launch the lightest and smallest vehicle ever to the surface of the moon. Their endeavour among the competitors is unique in that they plan to meet the travel requirement of 500 meters by having the lander hop from its site of landing to a site 500 meters away.

Moon express is an American company established with the aim of competing in the google LunarX prize and ultimately mining the moon. It has had a number of associations with NASA when it was selected for US$ 30 million dollar innovative Lunar Demonstration Data Program (ILDD) in 2010, conducted several free flight tests of its flight software utilizing NASA mighty eagle lander test vehicle and lunar CATALYST initiative program in 2014. Notable also is its work with the International Lunar Observatory Association (ILOA) to put a shoebox-sized astronomical telescope on the Moon and flight tests of its “MTV-1X” lander test vehicle at the Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility.

Synergy moon is a company formed with the purpose of competing in the google LunarX prize and involves members from 15 different countries. It is the only team involved in the competition which has membership from multiple countries. The company will be using a lunar-direct launch of an Interorbital Systems’ modular NEPTUNE rocket to carry a lunar lander and at least one rover to the surface of the Moon.

Team Indus led by Delhi-based IT professional Rahul Narayan is the only team to participate from India. It was awarded $ 1 million for successfully completing a test of their landing system. Its lunar lander will be launched by Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). The team has professionals from various backgrounds like science, technology, finance and media and it has raised US$ 35 million for the project.

Team Hakuto is a Japanese team led by Takeshi Hakamada in 2008 and it aims to finance the Google LunarX prize mission from advertising expenditure of large global companies. The team plans to launch its rover together with Team Indus through the PSLV launcher of ISRO. The team has also won a milestone prize: the mobility prize for a total of US$ 500000. The team is a global leader in space robotics and is developing a privately funded rover to explore the Moon.

If I had to choose a favourite from the above teams, it would certainly be the Moon Express. Having so much experience behind them and given their association with NASA in the past its difficult to rule them out as the favourite. However, it is a competition and one never knows who will emerge the victor. After all, history is filled with surprises where underdogs have outperformed.

Reusable rockets

Now let’s get this straight. If we (by we, I mean a common man with medium level income) are to travel to space it’s impossible with a single-use rocket. With a per launch cost of over 60 million dollars, a common man can only dream about going to space. It’s like flying by a 757 jet and destroying it at the end of the flight. Nobody would take the flight if they knew their planes would be destroyed in the end. The cost for rocket launch has to be drastically brought down and that is what a number of companies like Space X, Blue Origin, Masten Space Centre, Airbus and others have been trying to do. In fact Space X and Blue Origin have already been successful in bringing back the rockets and rocket boosters and landing them vertically.

At the moment, Space X’s ‘The SpaceX reusable launch system development program’ is far ahead of the other programs. It is a privately funded program. It’s aim is to develop a set of new technologies for an orbital launch system that may be reused many times in a manner similar to that of an aircraft. It’s long-term goal includes the redesigning of the launch vehicles of both the stages so as to relaunch within a few hours. Another company Blue Origin, has a rocket reusable program by the name of New Shephard reusable launch system which is a Vertical Take-off Vertical Landing (VTVL) suborbital rocket. In 2015, New Shephard booster successfully performed a powered vertical soft landing, the first time a booster rocket had returned from space to make a vertical soft landing. Similarly, DARPA XS-1 is a planned experimental reusable spaceplane/booster. It is designed to deliver small satellites into orbit for the US military.

There are so much of advantage to be had from rocket reusability. Along with saving money, time is saved across the board— time saved in terms of how fast you can get up and be flying again; you just have to make some spot checks just like an aeroplane, you don’t have to employ more people to check every little thing, you don’t have to have systems to check every little thing; If in case there is an issue, that issue can just be dealt with as opposed to taking the entire thing apart. There is no need to double check everything. It’s just a compound issue of time and money saved. With so many companies gearing up to make reusable rockets a reality, let’s hope space flight will be a reality for you and me in the near future.

Will the Chinese space program overtake NASA in the near future?

The 21st century has seen the rise of China in every aspect of influence—military, economic and political. Now will this trend of influence extend to space exploration is the obvious question. China is a relatively newcomer as a spacefaring country (the China National Space Agency just being established in 1993). However, it has risen as a major spacefaring country at a phenomenal speed. It already has all kinds of satellites –remote sensing satellites, satellite navigation system and communication satellites. To date it has already put 11 astronauts in space including two women. The Chinese space program has been achieving new milestones year after year.

As in other areas, China has not been much transparent of its space policy. But it has released three white papers akin to its wider space policy stating that it wants to conduct state exploration with purely scientific objectives and for peaceful purposes. These papers which were released in 2001, 2006 and 2011, envisage china’s growing space ambitions. In addition, China’s space policy can also be understood in the context of its grand strategy. Its grand strategy involves the pursuit of the ‘China dream’ which is an improvement of livelihoods, prosperity, construction of a better society and military strengthening. This dream resonates with what the Chinese leaders call as China’s rejuvenation. Throughout the last 2000 years, China had many times found itself at the centre of wealth and power. Its decline between the years 1839 and 1949 is blamed on the foreign subjugation. So the rejuvenation is about regaining China’s status as a great global power and one that has control over its own fate. As space is considered to be the frontier of technological advancement and thereby the benefits that it can provide to society, it’s not hard to understand where China’s policy on space stands in the context of this background.

The United States has always been wary of the growing influence of China in space. Owing to security reasons, the US federal law has banned NASA from conducting collaboration with the Chinese space program since 2011. This move however has been undeterred for china since it has found other partners such as ESA and Russia with whom it has collaborated and created avenues for technological transfer. China has shown little signs of restraint and its space power has been growing, so much so that by 2020, it aims to create space companies in par with such world class aerospace companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martins and Airbus group.

However, in a report, ‘Pathways to exploration: Rationales and approaches for a US program for human space exploration,’ published by The National Academies, it has been suggested that the exclusion of China could be counterproductive for the United States as it closes the door for future international partnerships and ‘substantially reduces the potential international capability that might be pooled to reach Mars.’

Meanwhile, China has made fruitful collaborations with other space agencies like ESA and Roscosmos. Currently, China and ESA have been working together in a space—weather observatory. There is also a long-term plan for a European astronaut to travel aboard a Shenzhou spacecraft to the Chinese space station which is due to be launched in 2018. Similarly, co-operations with Russia include but are not limited to the fields of engine technology, electronics, joint research of the universe, development of technologies and optimized use of space resources.

The annual budget of around $6 billion for the Chinese space program for 2016 is nowhere in comparison to the US annual budget of around $40 billion. Yet the pace at which it has caught up with the major spacefaring nations in the last two decades and the overall ascendency of its influence in international politics, militarization and economy in the same period is compelling enough for observers to predict the imminent Chinese leadership in space in the coming decade.

If the Chinese space achievements look like what the US and Russia have achieved decades ago, how about the recent launch of world’s first quantum satellite. Beijing claims this satellite will help to develop a hack proof communication system and will have implications on military and commercial applications. Yet another Chinese feat—plan to send probes to the dark side of the moon will be an engineering marvel involving a robot lander, unmanned lunar rover with sensors, cameras and an infrared spectrometer. This mission might as well search for helium-3, an element which can be used for nuclear fusion. Furthermore, for the first time, Chinese orbital missions have tied with that of the USA in 2016 with a total of 22 rocket launches.

Despite the obvious progress, China’s space program is still lagging far behind that of the US. The need for space exploration today is the international cooperation between various parties. As suggested by the National Academies’ report, mutual cooperation is the best way forward. The United States Congresses decision to refuse to cooperate may foil China’s ambitions for rapid progress, but it will not be able to stop it from becoming a major space super power. One thing that China has had to its advantage is the amount of ready made knowledge that it acquired through its co-operations with other space agencies, which otherwise would have taken decades to achieve on its own. As to the question of whether China will ever overtake the US as a space super power, or at least, be on equal footing, I think it is reasonable to assume that it will still take a decade.