Outer space and its potential are no longer the stuff of science fiction as the space industry advances and lower costs lead more and more businesses to look to the stars for new opportunities.
The rapid rise of companies such as SpaceX launching the Starlink low-Earth orbit satellite (LEOs) network enabling low-latency broadband connection is just the beginning of a fast-developing space economy that’s expected to take off within five to seven years. And that’s not just for businesses with roots in outer space.
At the Workday Rising conference in September, IT consulting firm Accenture’s CEO Julie Sweet said when she imagines what Accenture will be doing in the next decade, “I think about what we’re doing in space.” In April the company invested in Titan Space Technologies, a digital space lab founded in 2021 offering real-time Earth monitoring that aims to accelerate the development of innovative technologies such as carbon capture.
Accenture won’t be the only company investing in business opportunities in space, which range from satellite technologies to, eventually, more futuristic possibilities like space tourism and lunar missions. Between 2020 and 2021, the global space economy value rose 9% to $469 billion. It will exceed $1 trillion by 2040 — more than double its current value, according to financial institutions, including Morgan Stanley, who assess the market.
“The industry itself is really booming, and we have not seen this kind of growth in a very long time,” said Kelli Kedis Ogborn, vice president of space commerce and entrepreneurship for the Space Foundation. The foundation, based in Colorado Springs, Co., is a nonprofit organization focused on education and advocacy for the global space ecosystem.
Though technical and potential regulatory challenges face the growing space economy, Kedis Ogborn said space is rife with opportunities for companies of multiple backgrounds.
Space, she said, is “going to require every skillset, background and interest.”
Why business interest in space has accelerated
One of the most significant reasons behind the recent space boom is that satellite launch is becoming cheaper.
Satellite launch costs dropped from more than $100,000 per kilogram in the 1980s to $2,500 per kilogram in 2010 with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 satellite launch, according to a May 2022 report from financial services firm Citi.
Companies like SpaceX use LEOs, which differ from traditional geostationary (GEO) satellites not only in cost to manufacture and launch but also proximity to Earth.
GEO satellites cost millions to make and launch due to their size and placement above the Earth. LEOs, on the other hand, are smaller, costing much less to manufacture, and don’t need to launch nearly as far as GEO satellites. Indeed, GEO satellites are more than 22,000 miles from Earth, while the Starlink LEOs orbit around 250 miles away from the surface.
“They are much closer, and that makes a big difference in how they’re used and what you can do with them,” said Bill Ray, an analyst at Gartner.
Kelli Kedis OgbornVice president, space commerce and entrepreneurship, Space Foundation
Companies such as Apple, Samsung and Google, spending billions developing mobile phones over the years, kickstarted the development of small antennas, batteries, chips, processors and radio equipment that have helped make LEOs more cost-effective.
“If we go back to Iridium, which is a low-Earth orbit satellite system launched in the 1990s, they paid about $17 million per satellite,” Ray said. “Starlink pays about $200,000 per satellite. That’s mainly because of mobile phone technology going in there. It has made it much cheaper, and that’s really important.”
As mobile phone technology enabled smaller and more cost-effective LEOs, SpaceX instigated reusable rockets, reducing the cost of space flight, said Phil Brunkard, an analyst at Forrester Research.
“Now that we can actually afford to put more satellites up into space and we can put them into low-Earth orbit, that creates a new market of opportunity,” Brunkard said.
The applications of cheaper launches also translate to more futuristic opportunities like space tourism. For years, space has largely been accessible only by nations, meaning governments launched most spacefaring endeavors.
Now, Kedis Ogborn said the opportunity has been equalized to where everyday citizens have access to space. Indeed, in 2021 Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin flew 14 people into space and is planning for more.
Kedis Ogborn said as launches evolve to become cheaper as well as more routine, reliable and reusable, they will drive the space industry forward and open up more business opportunities.
“This launch equation — that it is becoming more tangible — is really what I personally think is driving the boom,” she said.
LEOs opening up greater business potential
Currently, two-thirds of all commercial revenue in space is from commercial space products and services — mostly satellites used for broadcasting, position navigation, communications, and earth observation, Kedis Ogborn said.
Businesses are becoming interested in business opportunities associated with LEO satellites due not only to their low cost but also their capabilities as well. While GEO satellites remain static and fixed to a certain point on Earth, LEOs constantly orbit Earth, providing greater coverage and connectivity over hard-to-reach areas, such as ships and airlines. Brunkard said LEOs are also particularly beneficial for data analysis, citing oil rigs as an example.
“I’ve heard stories of oil rigs having to ship the data on helicopters back to a main site for analysis,” he said. “But with broadband connectivity and local applications, you can do more of that on location.”
LEOs also enable earth observation and real-time data reporting. San Francisco-based Planet, for example, is an earth observation company providing daily satellite data to governments, businesses, and researchers. Ray said the company takes high-resolution photos every day of every spot on the surface of the Earth.
Another company, U.K.-based Earth-i, uses observation data and advanced analytics to determine information such as the amount of nickel smelted daily. Earth-i knows the location of every nickel smelter in the world and, using a thermal camera, can tell if the nickel smelter is running, Ray said.
“They don’t sell photographs; they sell the quantity of nickel that was smelted yesterday, and that’s it. People will pay a lot of money for that,” he said.
LEOs, however, also have disadvantages. Brunkard said even this increasingly established market faces several hurdles, such as capacity constraints on the frequency spectrums satellite connectivity uses.
The frequency spectrum is finite, so as more organizations launch satellites, there will be friction between who gets priority access to the spectrum, Brunkard said. Additionally, with more satellites orbiting the Earth, there is greater likelihood for collisions and space debris. While only three GEO satellites are needed to cover the Earth, it would take about 15 LEOs, according to the Citi report.
Lastly, Brunkard said the policy landscape surrounding LEOs is complex because regulation takes global agreements. While global entities like the International Telecommunication Union provide recommendations for satellite communications technology, it cannot pass any laws. The United Nation’s 1967 Outer Space Treaty has served as a foundation for international space law but hasn’t been updated in years to address new commercial space activities, according to the Citi report.
“It’s a bit like the Wild West; there’s no regulation around all of this,” Brunkard said.
Future space opportunities driving business interest
While space’s future will be anchored by familiar infrastructure and technologies like satellites, Kedis Ogborn said it will be defined by “new and emerging markets.”
Space tourism is one of the main drivers of business interest because of its relevance to numerous industries. She said that someday, industries will adapt textiles, food and other material comforts for space as tourism advances.
“Everything commerce-wise that happens here on Earth will be necessary up in space,” Kedis Ogborn said.
Another up-and-coming industry is space debris removal. Kedis Ogborn said there is already a significant amount of debris in space. With even more satellites planned, space debris removal will be a major business interest. Starlink alone has launched 1,740 satellites, and Gartner’s Ray said he’s tracking 30 companies with plans to launch LEOs in the coming years.
Astroscale is a Tokyo-based space debris removal company with plans to launch its first debris removal mission in 2023. The company also offers end-of-life services to companies by pre-fitting satellites with docking plates for easy removal, working with companies like broadband satellite Internet service OneWeb.
Part of Astroscale’s focus also includes sustainability in space, said Nana Gordon, a market analyst at Astroscale. Gordon said tens of thousands of satellites are preparing for launch, and Astroscale wants to help drive companies’ interest in recycling, reusing and fixing satellites “instead of just continuously launching new ones.”
“We do have a throwaway culture in orbit,” she said. “Whatever launches just ends up staying.”
Deep space exploration as well as high-level missions transporting humans and cargo to the moon, Mars and beyond drives business interest as well. More than the technology needed to power such missions, Kedis Ogborn said other companies can play a role when considering enabling technologies needed to support humans during long-duration missions, energy storage on the moon and other planets, and other infrastructure necessary to sustain exploration.
Asteroid mining might be one of the more far out opportunities in space. But Kedis Ogborn said businesses see “stars in their eyes” when discussing the potential.
Gartner’s Ray said he believes asteroid mining will be a reality within the next 30 years.
“There are asteroids made of diamonds. We could have huge quantities of these rare materials if we wanted them,” he said. “It’s a long way; I don’t think we’ll send people. But machines could go there.”
A new commercial space station currently being developed will help enable these space industries, according to the Citi report.
Houston-based Axiom Space, which provides missions to the International Space Station (ISS) for companies and individuals, is currently assembling Axiom Station, a commercial platform that will succeed the ISS by 2031. Axiom is scheduled to launch and attach its first module to the ISS in 2025.
How businesses can plan for space
Kedis Ogborn said understanding opportunities for businesses in space is a creative process.
That involves understanding the company’s product, service and interest and where the company could potentially take part in the space industry — and planning now, she said.
Businesses interested in where they fit in space need to look at the industry’s economic drivers and begin “thinking about everything that is going to be necessary to enable that success,” she said.
Makenzie Holland is a news writer covering big tech and federal regulation. Prior to joining TechTarget, she was a general reporter for the Wilmington StarNews and a crime and education reporter at the Wabash Plain Dealer.