The universal glee that surrounded the launch of the crewed Dragon spacecraft made it easy to overlook that the Falcon rocket’s red glare marked the advent of a new era — that of private space industrialization. For the first time in human history, we are not merely exploring a new landmass. We, as a biological species, are advancing to a new element — the cosmos.
The whole history of humanity is the story of our struggle with space and time. Mastering new horizons, moving ever farther; driven by the desire for a better life or for profit, out of fear or out of sheer curiosity, people found ever faster, easier, cheaper and safer ways to conquer the space between here and there. When, at the beginning of the 19th century, Thomas Jefferson bought Louisiana from Napoleon, actually having doubled the territory of the United States at that time, he believed it would take thousands of years for settlers to populate these spaces in the center of the continent.
But after just a few decades, the discovery of gold in California mobilized huge masses of industrious people, created incentives for capital and demanded new technologies. As countless wagons of newcomers moved through the land, threads of railways were stretched coast to coast, cities and settlements arose, and what Jefferson envisioned more than 200 years ago was actualized — and in the span of just one human life.
Growing up in a small Mongolian village near where Genghis Khan began the 13th-century journey that resulted in the largest contiguous land empire in history, I acquired an early interest in the history of explorers. Spending many long Siberian winter twilights reading books about great geographical discoveries, I bemoaned fate for placing me in a dull era in which all new lands had been discovered and all frontiers had been mapped.
Little did I know that only a few decades later, I would be living through the most exciting time for human exploration the world had ever seen.
The next space race
In recent years, the entire space industry has been waiting and looking for what will serve as the gold rush of space. One could talk endlessly about the importance of space for humanity and how technologies developed by and for space activity help to solve problems on Earth: satellite imagery, weather, television, communications. But without a real “space fever” — without the short-term insanity that will pour enormous financial resources, entrepreneurial energy and engineering talent into the space industry, it will not be possible to spark a new “space race.”
Presently, the entire space economy — including rockets, communications, imagery, satellites and crewed flights — does not exceed $100 billion, which is less than 0.1% of the global economy. For comparison: during the dot-com bubble in the late 1990s, the total capitalization of companies in this sector amounted to more than 5% of global GDP. The influence of the California Gold Rush in the 1850s was so significant that it changed the entire U.S. economy, essentially creating a new economic center on the West Coast.
The current size of the space economy is not enough to cause truly tectonic shifts in the global economy. What candidates do we have for this place in the 21st century? We are all witnesses to the deployment of space internet megaconstellations, such as Starlink from SpaceX, Kuiper from Amazon and a few other smaller players. But is this market enough to create a real gold rush? The size of the global telecommunications market is an impressive $1.5 trillion (or almost 1.5% of the global economy).
If a number of factors coincide — a sharp increase in the consumption of multimedia content by unmanned car passengers, rapid growth in the Internet of Things segment — satellite telecommunications services can grow in the medium term to 1 trillion or more. Then, there is reason to believe that this segment may be the driver of the growth when it comes to the space economy. This, of course, is not 5% (as was the case during the dot-com era), but it is already an impressive 1% of the world economy.
But despite all the importance of telecommunications, satellite imagery and navigation, these are the traditional space applications that have been used for many decades since the beginning of the space era. What they have in common is that these are high value-added applications, often with no substitutes on the ground. Earth surveillance and global communications are difficult to do from anywhere but space.
Therefore, the high cost of space assets, caused primarily by the high cost of launch and historically amounting to tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram, was the main obstacle to space applications of the past. For the true industrialization of space and for the emergence of new space services and products (many of which will replace ones that are currently produced on Earth), a revolution is needed in the cost of launching and transporting cargo in space.
The mastering of new territories is impossible to imagine without transport. The invention and proliferation of new means of moving people and goods — such as railways, aviation, containers — has created the modern economy that we know. Space exploration is not an exception. But the physical nature of this territory creates enormous challenges. Here on Earth, we are at the bottom of a huge gravity well.
To deliver the cargo into orbit and defeat gravity, you need to accelerate things to the prodigious velocity of 8 km/s — 10-20 times faster than a bullet. Less than 5% of a rocket’s starting mass reaches orbit. The answer, then, lies in reusability and in mass production. The tyranny of rocket science’s Tsiolkovsky equation also contributes to the large rocket sizes that are necessary. It drives the strategies for companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, who are developing large, even gigantic, reusable rockets such as Starship or New Glenn. We’ll soon see that the cost of launching into space will be even less than a few hundred U.S. dollars per kg.
But rockets are effective only for launching huge masses into low-Earth orbits. If you need to distribute cargo into different orbits or deliver it to the very top of the gravity well — high orbits, such as GEO, HEO, Lagrange points or moon orbit — you need to add even more delta velocity. It is another 3-6 km/sec or more. If you use conventional rockets for this, the proportion of the mass removed is reduced from 5% to less than 1%. In many cases, if the delivered mass is much less than the capabilities of huge low-cost rockets, you need to use much more expensive (per kg of transported cargo) small and medium launchers.
This requires multimodal transportation, with huge cheap rockets delivering cargo to low-Earth orbits and then last-mile space tugs distributing cargo between target orbits, to higher orbits, to the moon and to other planets in our solar system. This is why Momentus, the company I founded in 2017 developing space tugs for “hub-and-spoke” multimodal transportation to space, is flying its first commercial mission in December 2020 on a Falcon 9 ride-share flight.
Initially, space tugs can use propellant delivered from Earth. But an increase in the scale of transportation in space, as well as demand to move cargo far from low-Earth orbit, creates the need to use a propellant that we can get not from the Earth’s surface but from the moon, from Mars or from asteroids — including near-Earth ones. Fortunately, we have a gift given to us by the solar system’s process of evolution — water. Among probable rocket fuel candidates, water is the most widely spread in the solar system.
Water has been found on the moon; in craters in the vicinity of the poles, there are huge reserves of ice. On Mars, under the ground, there is a huge ocean of frozen water. We have a vast asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. At the dawn of the formation of the solar system, the gravitational might of Jupiter prevented one planet from forming, scattering fragments in the form of billions of asteroids, most of which contain water. The same gravity power of Jupiter periodically “throws out” asteroids into the inner part of the solar system, forming a group of near-Earth asteroids. Tens of thousands of near-Earth asteroids are known, of which almost a thousand are more than 1 km in diameter.
From the point of view of celestial mechanics, it is much easier to deliver water from asteroids or from the moon than from Earth. Since Earth has a powerful gravitational field, the payload-to-initial-mass ratio delivered to the very top of the gravitational well (geostationary orbit, Lagrange points or the lunar orbit) is less than 1%; whereas from the surface of the moon you can deliver 70% of the original mass, and from an asteroid 99%.
This is one of the reasons why at Momentus we’re using water as a propellant for our space tugs. We developed a novel plasma microwave propulsion system that can use solar power as an energy source and water as a propellant (simply as a reaction mass) to propel our vehicle in space. The choice of water also makes our space vehicles extremely cost-effective and simple.
The proliferation of large, reusable, low-cost rockets and in-space last-mile delivery opens up opportunities that were not possible within the old transportation price range. We assume that the price to deliver cargo to almost any point in cislunar space, from low-Earth orbit to low-lunar orbit will be well below $1,000/kg within 5-10 years. What is most exciting is that it opens up an opportunity to introduce an entirely new class of space applications, beyond traditional communication, observation and navigation; applications that will start the true industrialization of space and catalyze the process of Earth industry migration into space.
Now, let’s become space futurists, and try to predict future candidates for a space gold rush in the next 5-10 years. What will be the next frontier’s applications, enabled by low-cost space transportation? There are several candidates for trillion-dollar businesses in space.
Energy generation is the first and largest candidate for the gold rush, as the energy share of the global economy is about 8.2%. Power generation in space has several fantastic advantages. First, it is a continuity of power generation. In space, our sun is a large thermonuclear reactor that runs 24/7. There’s no need to store electricity at night and in bad weather. As a result, the same surface collects 10 times more energy per 24 hours than on Earth.
This is not intuitively obvious, but the absence of twilights or nighttime, and the lack of clouds, atmosphere or accumulating dust create unique conditions for the production of electricity. Due to microgravity, space power plants with much lighter structures can eventually be much less costly than terrestrial plants. The energy can be beamed to the ground via microwaves or lasers. There are, however, at least two major challenges to building space power stations that still need to be resolved. The first is the cost of launching into space, and then the cost of transportation within space.
The combination of huge rockets and reusable space tugs will reduce the cost of transporting goods from Earth to optimal orbits up to several hundred dollars per kilogram, which will make the share of transportation less than one cent per kilowatt-hour. The second problem is the amount of propellant you’ll need to stabilize vast panels that will be pushed away by solar radiation pressure. For every 1 gigawatt of power generation capacity, you’ll need 500-1,000 tons of propellant per year. So to have the same generation capacity as the U.S. (1,200 GW), you’ll need up to 1 million tons of propellant per year (eight launches of Falcon 9 per hour or one launch of Starship per hour).
Power generation will be the largest consumer of the propellant in cislunar space, but the delivery of propellant from Earth will be too economically inefficient. The answer lies on the moon, where 40 permanently darkened craters near the north pole contain an estimated 600 million metric tonnes of ice. That alone will be enough for many hundreds of years of space power operations.
Centers for data computation and processing are one of the largest and fastest-growing consumers of energy on Earth. Efficiency improvements implemented over the last decade have only increased the demand for large cloud-based server farms. The United States’ data centers alone consume about 70 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. Aside from the power required to operate the systems that process and store data, there is an enormous cost in energy and environmental impact to cool those systems, which translates directly to dollars spent both by governments and private industry.
Regardless of how efficiently they are operated, the expansion of data centers alongside demands for increased power consumption is not sustainable, economically or environmentally. Instead of beaming energy to the ground via microwaves or lasers, energy can be used for data processing in space. It is much easier to stream terabytes and petabytes from space than gigawatts. Power-hungry applications like AI can be easily moved to space because most of them are tolerant of latency.
Eventually, asteroids and the moon will be the main mining provinces for humanity as a space species. Rare and precious metals, construction materials, and even regolith will be used in the building of the new space economy, space industrialization and space habitats. But the first resource that will be mined from the moon or asteroids will be water — it will be the “oil” of the future space economy.
In addition to the fact that water can be found on asteroids and other celestial bodies, it is quite easy to extract. You simply need heat to melt ice or extract water from hydrates. Water can be easily stored without cryogenic systems (like liquid oxygen or hydrogen), and it doesn’t need high-pressure tanks (like noble gases — propellant for ion engines).
At the same time, water is a unique propellant for different propulsion technologies. It can be used as water in electrothermal rocket engines (like Momentus’ microwave electrothermal engines) or can be separated into hydrogen and oxygen for chemical rocket engines.
The disruption of in-space transportation costs can make space a new industrial belt for humanity. Microgravity can support creating new materials for terrestrial applications like optical fiber, without the tiny flaws that inevitably emerge during production in a strong gravity field. These flaws increase signal loss and cause large attenuation of the transmitted light. Also, microgravity can be used in the future space economy to build megastructures for power generation, space hotels for tourists and eventually human habitats. In space, you can easily have a vacuum that would be impossible to achieve on Earth. This vacuum will be extremely valuable for the production of ultrapure materials like crystals, wafers and entirely new materials. The reign of in-space manufacturing will have begun when the main source of raw materials is not Earth, but asteroids or the moon, and the main consumers are in-space industry.
The future market opportunities enabled by the disruption in space transportation are enormous. Even without space tourism, space habitats will be almost a two trillion dollar market in 10-15 years. Undoubtedly, it will lead to a space gold rush that will drive human civilization’s development for generations to come.
The final frontier
I studied in high school during the last years of the Soviet Union. The Soviet economy was collapsing, we had no sanitation in the house, and quite often we had no electricity. During those dark evenings, I studied physics and mathematics books by the light of a kerosene lamp. We had a good community library, and I could order books and magazines from larger libraries in the big cities, like Novosibirsk or Moscow. It was my window into the world. It was awesome.
I was reading about the flights of the Voyager spacecraft, and about the exploration of the solar system, and I was thinking about my future. That was the time when I realized that I both love and excel in science and math, and I decided then to become a space engineer. In an interview with a local newspaper back in 1993, I told the reporter, “I want to study advanced propulsion technologies. I dream about the future, where I can be part of space exploration and may even fly to Mars … .”
And now that future is coming.