Space

To continue exploring space sustainably, we must act now

Comment

Image of a satellite view of Earth.
Image Credits: Bernt Ove Moss / EyeEm (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Luca Rossettini

Contributor

Luca Rossettini is the founder and CEO of D-Orbit.

More posts from Luca Rossettini

It was Branson versus Bezos, rocket against rocket, in the race to send the first billionaire into space.

Blue Origin announced on June 7 that Jeff Bezos, its founder, would fly on the firm’s first crewed mission scheduled for July 20. That same day, Parabolic Arc reported that Virgin Galactic was planning to send Richard Branson on a suborbital flight on July 11. And both aimed to beat the third space-going billionaire, Elon Musk.

More than half a century after Apollo 11 landed on the moon, space exploration is clearly on the upswing again. However, today’s missions reflect far more than the ambitions of billionaires, even if Musk, Bezos and Branson have generated the most headlines for their personal space plans.

Instead, we’re seeing the emergence of a true space economy. This new sector is in its exponential growth phase, and what unifies current commercial projects is the influx of investments in new technologies and infrastructure.

Today’s explorers have plans for expansion that range from the outer limits of our imagination — travel to other planets or colonizing Mars — to the launches of thousands of telecommunication, global navigation and Earth observation satellites, with massive investments being made.

The size of the global space economy — which combines satellite services and ground equipment, government space budgets and global navigation satellites equipment — is estimated to be about $345 billion. Startup space ventures brought in $5.7 billion in 2019, easily besting 2018’s $3.5 billion record. By 2040, Morgan Stanley estimates that the global space industry could generate revenue of more than $1 trillion.

In other words, we’re at the start of a gold rush in outer space — and our track record for the sustainable development of any environment during gold rushes hasn’t been particularly noteworthy.

The threat of catastrophic space collisions is growing

We are at a critical tipping point for ensuring the safe and sustainable development of new business opportunities in space. Many of these activities use the same regions of the Earth’s orbit, which is not an infinite space. According to NASA, more than 100 million pieces of orbital debris of about 1 mm or larger are tracked by the Department of Defense’s global Space Surveillance Network (SSN) sensors. Much more debris — too small to be tracked, but large enough to threaten human spaceflight and robotic missions — exists in the near-Earth space environment.

In an environment where both debris and spacecraft are traveling at velocities in excess of 15,700 mph in low-Earth orbit, even a 5 mm nut can shred a solar panel like it was made of paper. In fact, NASA reports that millimeter-sized orbital debris represents the highest mission-ending risk to most robotic spacecraft operating in low-Earth orbit. As space becomes more and more congested, unsafe or irresponsible actions by any one actor could have catastrophic consequences.

Advances in reusable rockets, which lowered the cost to launch 1 kilogram of payload mass to orbit, and the miniaturization of satellites have all helped to create this threat of a traffic jam in Earth’s orbit. Nearly 3,000 active satellites are currently in orbit above our planet, and this number will likely skyrocket in the coming years. A 230% increase in satellite launches per year is expected by 2025, with 24,000 satellite launches now in planning, according to MarketWatch. And that figure doesn’t even include launches by SpaceX, OneWeb or Kuiper. SpaceX’s Starlink alone has applied to fly 40,000 satellites.

The cost to launch 22 tons to low-Earth orbit has declined from $200 million to about $60 million thanks to reusable rockets. Satellite applications that once required one massive high-performance satellite with a cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars can now be tackled with constellations of cheaper ($1 million), smaller, lower-performance satellites working together to provide a global service.

While the performance of a single smaller satellite is still inferior to that of a much larger one, the use of data from multiple satellites can often produce comparable results. Moreover, the architecture of a constellation is highly scalable, so as soon as newer generations of satellites are launched, the performance of the infrastructure as a whole increases exponentially.

Sustainable development requires new technologies and better governance

Sustainable economic expansion will require innovative solutions to support traditional and new customers throughout the life cycle of a space mission, from a careful analysis of a mission’s requirements to end-of-life decommissioning.

Some of these solutions will require completely new space-based infrastructures that can streamline launch, operation and decommissioning. D-Orbit’s ION Satellite Carrier, for example, is a space transportation vehicle designed to host a batch of satellites, transport them to orbit and release them individually into distinct orbital slots. This deployment service complements the one offered by launch providers, which targets only the most strategic orbits, enabling satellite operators to cover the last mile in a significantly shorter time and use all the resources of their spacecraft to extend the duration of the mission itself.

This is the first step toward the creation of permanent space logistic infrastructures that can move spacecraft from one orbit to another, extend the life of older vehicles, perform repairs and collect satellite wrecks and other debris.

The issues surrounding sustainable growth in the space economy are too important and consequential to be left to a single company or country.

To strengthen international cooperation and establish a set of ground rules, we need a new model of space governance based on consensus among countries, with common standards. While the technology for debris-capturing spacecraft is already attainable, for example, there are still legal challenges to allow an operator based in a country to approach, capture and remove a space object launched by another country. Formulating global regulation to address this kind of operation is an essential step that can open new markets and business opportunities.

Forty-eight organizations and other government and industry stakeholders, including D-Orbit, formed the Space Safety Coalition (SSC) in 2019 to actively promote best practices for the long-term sustainability of space operations. The SSC has developed guidelines for avoiding launch and on-orbit collisions, minimizing human casualties from spacecraft or debris reentry and minimizing the impact of radio frequency interference (RFI) events, among other best practices for the overall long-term sustainability of space operations.

This industry-led sustainability effort needs to be adopted by all space stakeholders. How we develop and regulate the space economy will have long-lasting repercussions, and the window for avoiding mistakes is rapidly closing.

It is essential that we lose no time in developing the infrastructure, best practices and governance that will broaden humankind’s ability to operate in space and create still-unimagined opportunities for us all.

More TechCrunch

Zen Educate, an online marketplace that connects schools with teachers, has raised $37 million in a Series B round of funding. The raise comes amid a growing teacher shortage crisis…

Zen Educate raises $37M and acquires Aquinas Education as it tries to address the teacher shortage

“When I heard the released demo, I was shocked, angered and in disbelief that Mr. Altman would pursue a voice that sounded so eerily similar to mine.”

Scarlett Johansson says that OpenAI approached her to use her voice

A new self-driving truck — manufactured by Volvo and loaded with autonomous vehicle tech developed by Aurora Innovation — could be on public highways as early as this summer.  The…

Aurora and Volvo unveil self-driving truck designed for a driverless future

The European venture capital firm raised its fourth fund as fund as climate tech “comes of age.”

ETF Partners raises €284M for climate startups that will be effective quickly — not 20 years down the road

Copilot, Microsoft’s brand of generative AI, will soon be far more deeply integrated into the Windows 11 experience.

Microsoft wants to make Windows an AI operating system, launches Copilot+ PCs

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch Space. For those who haven’t heard, the first crewed launch of Boeing’s Starliner capsule has been pushed back yet again to no earlier than…

TechCrunch Space: Star(side)liner

When I attended Automate in Chicago a few weeks back, multiple people thanked me for TechCrunch’s semi-regular robotics job report. It’s always edifying to get that feedback in person. While…

These 81 robotics companies are hiring

The top vehicle safety regulator in the U.S. has launched a formal probe into an April crash involving the all-electric VinFast VF8 SUV that claimed the lives of a family…

VinFast crash that killed family of four now under federal investigation

When putting a video portal in a public park in the middle of New York City, some inappropriate behavior will likely occur. The Portal, the vision of Lithuanian artist and…

NYC-Dublin real-time video portal reopens with some fixes to prevent inappropriate behavior

Longtime New York-based seed investor, Contour Venture Partners, is making progress on its latest flagship fund after lowering its target. The firm closed on $42 million, raised from 64 backers,…

Contour Venture Partners, an early investor in Datadog and Movable Ink, lowers the target for its fifth fund

Meta’s Oversight Board has now extended its scope to include the company’s newest platform, Instagram Threads, and has begun hearing cases from Threads.

Meta’s Oversight Board takes its first Threads case

The company says it’s refocusing and prioritizing fewer initiatives that will have the biggest impact on customers and add value to the business.

SeekOut, a recruiting startup last valued at $1.2 billion, lays off 30% of its workforce

The U.K.’s self-proclaimed “world-leading” regulations for self-driving cars are now official, after the Automated Vehicles (AV) Act received royal assent — the final rubber stamp any legislation must go through…

UK’s autonomous vehicle legislation becomes law, paving the way for first driverless cars by 2026

ChatGPT, OpenAI’s text-generating AI chatbot, has taken the world by storm. What started as a tool to hyper-charge productivity through writing essays and code with short text prompts has evolved…

ChatGPT: Everything you need to know about the AI-powered chatbot

SoLo Funds CEO Travis Holoway: “Regulators seem driven by press releases when they should be motivated by true consumer protection and empowering equitable solutions.”

Fintech lender SoLo Funds is being sued again by the government over its lending practices

Hard tech startups generate a lot of buzz, but there’s a growing cohort of companies building digital tools squarely focused on making hard tech development faster, more efficient and —…

Rollup wants to be the hardware engineer’s workhorse

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is not just about groundbreaking innovations, insightful panels, and visionary speakers — it’s also about listening to YOU, the audience, and what you feel is top of…

Disrupt Audience Choice vote closes Friday

Google says the new SDK would help Google expand on its core mission of connecting the right audience to the right content at the right time.

Google is launching a new Android feature to drive users back into their installed apps

Jolla has taken the official wraps off the first version of its personal server-based AI assistant in the making. The reborn startup is building a privacy-focused AI device — aka…

Jolla debuts privacy-focused AI hardware

The ChatGPT mobile app’s net revenue first jumped 22% on the day of the GPT-4o launch and continued to grow in the following days.

ChatGPT’s mobile app revenue saw its biggest spike yet following GPT-4o launch

Dating app maker Bumble has acquired Geneva, an online platform built around forming real-world groups and clubs. The company said that the deal is designed to help it expand its…

Bumble buys community building app Geneva to expand further into friendships

CyberArk — one of the army of larger security companies founded out of Israel — is acquiring Venafi, a specialist in machine identity, for $1.54 billion. 

CyberArk snaps up Venafi for $1.54B to ramp up in machine-to-machine security

Founder-market fit is one of the most crucial factors in a startup’s success, and operators (someone involved in the day-to-day operations of a startup) turned founders have an almost unfair advantage…

OpenseedVC, which backs operators in Africa and Europe starting their companies, reaches first close of $10M fund

A Singapore High Court has effectively approved Pine Labs’ request to shift its operations to India.

Pine Labs gets Singapore court approval to shift base to India

The AI Safety Institute, a U.K. body that aims to assess and address risks in AI platforms, has said it will open a second location in San Francisco. 

UK opens office in San Francisco to tackle AI risk

Companies are always looking for an edge, and searching for ways to encourage their employees to innovate. One way to do that is by running an internal hackathon around a…

Why companies are turning to internal hackathons

Featured Article

I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Women in tech still face a shocking level of mistreatment at work. Melinda French Gates is one of the few working to change that.

2 days ago
I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s  broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Blue Origin has successfully completed its NS-25 mission, resuming crewed flights for the first time in nearly two years. The mission brought six tourist crew members to the edge of…

Blue Origin successfully launches its first crewed mission since 2022

Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the top entertainment and sports talent agencies, is hoping to be at the forefront of AI protection services for celebrities in Hollywood. With many…

Hollywood agency CAA aims to help stars manage their own AI likenesses

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’