Humanity is evolving in the 21st century, dominated by an accelerated series of technological progress.
AI is making most of our work easy and occupations redundant. Medical marvels are slowly increasing life expectancies, and blockchain technology is making everything transparent, decentralised and democratised. Neurology, machine learning and psychology are deciphering the secrets of our brain.
Humankind is also making giant strides in uncovering another mystery called space.
The new space race
The rivalry between Elon Musk’s Space X and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin is a much-hyped one, so much so, that it parallels the space race between the United States and the erstwhile Soviet Union from 1955-1975.
Since the first successful manned mission on the moon in 1969, costs have decreased to the point where even private ventures can launch space missions. Numerous such corporations now fund space programs. According to estimates, today’s space business includes over 10,000 companies and about 5,000 investors.
The industry is flourishing
According to The Space Report 2022 by the Space Foundation, the space economy had a value of $469 billion in 2021, up 9% from 2020.
According to the European Space Agency, the deployment of new space infrastructure has benefited several sectors, including meteorology, energy, telecommunications, insurance, transport, maritime, aviation, and urban development.
The analysis estimates that more than $224 billion was made from products and services provided by space enterprises, with the private sector accounting for most of this money.
According to the Space Foundation research, there has also been an increase in state-backed funding for space initiatives worldwide. Government spending on military and civilian space projects increased by 19% in 2021. China increased its investment by 23%, India increased spending by 36%, and the US added another 18% to space-related projects.
Innovations paving the way
They call it a “space renaissance” when technical advancement drastically cuts prices and generates new capabilities.
Will Marshall, the CEO of Planet Labs, stated during the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos in 2022 that the cost of rockets had decreased fourfold since 2012. Due to the availability of less expensive components, businesses that previously may have had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to launch a satellite may now do so for a fraction of that cost.
According to Will Marshall, “This indicates that we are creating ten times as much Earth imaging by area as we were five years ago and that the bandwidth of communications being transferred around the planet has increased by 10.”
Furthermore, he claimed that improved imaging is raising accountability. For instance, commercial satellite data gives the world a bird’s-eye perspective of the Ukraine situation, enabling people to observe and document events.
According to Will Marshall, satellite photography may also help governments check CO2 emissions, businesses track their environmental, social, and governance performance, and farmers monitor their crops.
What about space waste?
Over 9,000 tons of equipment sent into orbit are causing severe issues. According to NASA, around 100 million particles of space debris orbiting the Earth are at least one millimetre in size.
Debris from previous missions, abandoned machinery, and malfunctioning spacecraft can all be included in this category. Even a tiny piece of junk, which is moving at rates of up to 17,500 mph (28,160 kph), can harm a satellite or spacecraft.
According to NASA, over the past 50 years, one piece of debris has returned to Earth on average every day. However, none has caused substantial harm, as most of these objects land in remote areas.
Will space renaissance save Earth?
The cost-performance of satellites has improved 1,000 times over the past decade, and artificial intelligence (AI) is making it possible to effectively extract crucial data from these databases. These are just a few of the significant technological breakthroughs that are causing this renaissance.
These developments are interacting with one another, releasing new applications, users, and functionalities from our space assets.
The data revolution comprises the core of the 21st-century space renaissance. We are producing ten times as much Earth imaging by area, and communications bandwidth is being transported throughout the planet by ten times as much. This is significantly impacting three key sectors:
The economy is one. There are currently two trillion-dollar-scale changes in the global economy. The first is the digitalisation of industries, which makes it possible for entire industries to function much more effectively thanks to big data and AI. Satellite data can speed up this transition. Farmers, for example, can use satellite photography to monitor their fields, identify issues early, and optimise inputs, thus lowering expenses and boosting both productivity and income.
The second scenario is the shift to a sustainable economy. Here, businesses track their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals, and governments do the same with their emissions. All of this begins with measuring. The sustainability transition depends on satellite data because it allows us to track changes in natural capital and consider them when making policies. For instance, 64 tropical countries’ forestry ministries are using Earth observation data to stop deforestation in a partnership with Norway’s Ministry of Climate and Environment (NICFI).
The third one is the tranquillity and safety. A more transparent society is being created through daily imaging, a technology that promotes accountability by illuminating global happenings. This has never been more evident than during the conflict in Ukraine. An overhead picture of the battle is being provided by commercial satellite data, which is altering the equation. Satellite data provides a new degree of global transparency by allowing people to track change worldwide and shed light on international events. This is done by enabling the world to see and understand the difference in unprecedented detail, both in time and space. This responsibility is a powerful force for good.
As entertaining as it is to see the billionaires and new rockets in space, the data revolution driving sustainability and digital transformations—the two most significant economic shifts of our time—is a far more substantial opportunity for the space renaissance. It brings us new transparency, significantly impacting geopolitics and security, and removing the cover from actions that harm humanity.
This is the accurate tale of the space renaissance and has profound implications for life on Earth.
Can space economy be inclusive?
The expansion of activities from different parties beyond the Earth’s atmosphere is starting to outstrip governance, technological advancement is bringing costs down, commercial finance is at an all-time high, and more nations and businesses are clamouring to be involved.
Although it already contributes to advancing international security and environmental goals, space has far more potential. But achieving it hangs in the balance, and all parties involved can make the industry more successful.
Space in the future
Space technology has advanced over the last ten years, making it more accessible to more participants, unlocking new use cases, and positioning space to help with global concerns. Throughout it all, despite geopolitical separation, there has been cross-sector and international cooperation in several areas.
Yet, due to the accelerating growth and complex geopolitical dynamics, the ecosystem’s ability to advance industrially and sustain international cooperation is at risk. As a result, the international community will undoubtedly need to think rapidly about keeping space as a place for collaboration to fully reap its benefits.
A research that was influenced by the opinions of almost 100 business leaders outlines various futures for space. To fully achieve the societal and economic benefits of the space economy, it identifies five steps that could catalyse good governance.
According to interviews, industry leaders have identified four possible futures for space, which vary depending on the creation of commercial value and the degree of collaborative governance implemented in the sector:
In the best-case scenarios, there are a lot of opportunities, including tracking emissions on Earth to promote climate accountability and mitigation, early wildfire detection and forecasting to give people more time to prepare and evacuate, commercial space habitat construction in low Earth orbit (LEO) and on the moon where people could one day live and work, and robotic satellite maintenance to extend the life of space assets.
Priorities for the space economy
Industry leaders have come up with five high-priority steps to move the space economy toward access and self-sufficiency:
Develop and implement a practical framework for space governance involving all stakeholders’ input. Leaders listed the following issues like ethical conduct in space, outlining the ownership, access, and usage rights to property, creating and enforcing uniform standards for hardware and software and preserving the environment, infrastructure, and human life as the ones that needed to be resolved.
These leaders are also batting for spending money and time on developing technologies and skills that will help, such as better propulsion, re-entry capabilities, cheaper ways to get different materials into space, robots, artificial intelligence, and machine learning.
They also support the idea of encouraging cross-national, cross-sector, and cross-industry cooperation. Actors have a unique, if occasionally challenging, method of working together in space. Various approaches should be adopted to foster and promote deeper collaboration as activity increases. For example, space could become an increasingly important sector for businesses outside of aerospace and defence. In the majority of cases, the companies would then work closely together.
Another concern area is the support of a self-sustaining industrial base by giving industry-specific government support, investing in go-to-market capabilities, encouraging communication with end users, and attracting a wide range of top talent. By removing barriers to competition, educating people about the value of space for everyone, and growing the ecosystem, a robust industrial base could be built.
Increase the use of the space industry to improve security and sustainability. The sector can do more to build vital security infrastructure and ensure that Earth actors are held accountable. The ability of satellites to monitor the environment could help us monitor and mitigate climate change more effectively.
The fate of space lies in the hands of humanity. A peaceful, thriving space industry that generates economic value and improves the sustainability, security, and responsibility of actors on Earth might result from today’s wise choices in the long run.