An astrounaut spaceman in outer space closeup shot
Our world, tomorrow by Viviane Lalande / Scilabus

New Space: the changing face of the space industry

Pierre Henriquet, Doctor in Nuclear Physics and Columnist at Polytechnique Insights
On November 3rd, 2022 |
5 min reading time
Key takeaways
  • Today, new economic models based on agility and innovation are emerging in the space sector, giving rise to the name “New Space”.
  • For the past twenty years, it has become easier to access space thanks to technological developments such as nanosatellites, modern rockets and so forth.
  • New Space offers a way to exploit all the potential uses of space: “low-carbon” space tourism, data tracking or synchronisation of terrestrial electrical networks.
  • Although New Space developed in the United States, Europe is now trying to regain ground, and France is one of the most motivated countries.
  • Nevertheless, growth in New Space and the satellites is involves has raised concerns about geopolitical tensions and the risk of space collision.

For decades, the field of space devel­oped thanks to large infra­struc­tures such as space agen­cies (NASA, ESA, Russ­ian Roscos­mos) and large aero­nau­tics indus­try groups (Boe­ing, Lock­heed Mar­tin, Air­bus, Das­sault). But times are chang­ing. Today, new eco­nom­ic mod­els are emerg­ing, based on agili­ty, inno­va­tion and greater risk-tak­ing – both tech­no­log­i­cal and eco­nom­ic. This shift has giv­en rise to bud­ding pri­vate com­pa­nies try­ing to make their mark in the high­ly com­pet­i­tive field of space.

What changes have enabled their appear­ance? What is this new dynam­ic? For what appli­ca­tions and mar­kets? Let’s take a clos­er look at what is known today as the “New Space”.

Space, more accessible than ever

The last two decades have seen sev­er­al changes that have made it eas­i­er (and cheap­er) to access and use space. First, tech­nolo­gies have seen con­sid­er­able evo­lu­tions mak­ing is pos­si­ble, today, to com­press equip­ment into a vol­ume equiv­a­lent to a few shoe­box­es. Such tech­nol­o­gy would pre­vi­ous­ly have required a satel­lite the size of a car. Hence, thanks to the minia­tur­i­sa­tion of elec­tron­ic com­po­nents, new mate­ri­als and on-board arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence algo­rithms, new satel­lites are small, flex­i­ble and much cheap­er than their predecessors. 

From ‘microsatel­lites’ weigh­ing bare­ly more than 100 kg, we have now moved on to nanosatel­lites (about 10 kg). These nanosatel­lites are now main­ly used by uni­ver­si­ties for edu­ca­tion­al and ped­a­gog­i­cal projects or by research organ­i­sa­tions to car­ry out space exper­i­ments at low cost (around €100 000 per unit). The DART probe that recent­ly crashed into the Dimor­phos aster­oid to test the pos­si­bil­i­ty of deflect­ing an aster­oid by “kinet­ic impact” car­ried a nanosatel­lite called LICIA (Light Ital­ian Cube­sat for Imag­ing of Aster­oids) that allowed real-time film­ing of the impact and imme­di­ate return of the data to Earth.

But the sav­ings are not just in pay­load mass. A com­pa­ny that needs to send a few nanosatel­lites into orbit for its oper­a­tions now has a much wider choice of launch­ers that will put their equip­ment into orbit. Along­side the tra­di­tion­al pil­lars of space (Euro­pean Ari­ane, Russ­ian Soyuz, Chi­nese Long March), new rock­ets are being devel­oped with this cen­tral idea of eco­nom­ic efficiency.

Space­Bus con­vey­ing nanosatel­lites into low earth orbit. Cred­it: Exo­trail TM.

One exam­ple is SpaceX’s famous Falcon9 with its reusable pri­ma­ry stage, which can auto­mat­i­cal­ly return to land at its start­ing base. Then, after a thor­ough tech­ni­cal inspec­tion, they can take off again. Some of the launch­ers are already on their 15th flight in a row with­out fail­ure. For a price of around $65m, it is thus pos­si­ble to afford the ser­vices of this orbit­ing tool. This launch­er is used for a wide vari­ety of pur­pos­es: send­ing car­go sup­plies (Drag­on Mis­sions) or astro­nauts (Crew Drag­on cap­sule) to the Inter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion, telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion satel­lites (Asi­asat, ABS-2A, etc.), sci­en­tif­ic study satel­lites (DSCOVR, TESS) or tens of thou­sands of Star­link micro-satel­lites, pro­duced by SpaceX, and intend­ed to pro­vide glob­al Inter­net coverage.

Anoth­er con­cept comes from New Zealand. Designed by the Rock­et Lab com­pa­ny, the Elec­tron launch­er, after suc­cess­ful­ly plac­ing 34 satel­lites in orbit, was recent­ly recov­ered by a heli­copter as it descend­ed to earth by para­chute. This is anoth­er way of putting the notion of reusabil­i­ty into prac­tice. This launch­er, which is less pow­er­ful than the Falcon9, spe­cialis­es in launch­ing nanosatel­lites for Earth imag­ing (DOVE from Plan­et Labs) or mar­itime sur­veil­lance (Bro-One from French start-up Unseen­labs). One exam­ple is the recent launch of the CAPSTONE satel­lite around our nat­ur­al satel­lite to test the sta­bil­i­ty of the orbit where the future Gate­way lunar sta­tion will be built.

There is no need to build a rock­et capa­ble of going to the Moon if you just want to place your pay­loads in low orbit.

There is no need to build a rock­et capa­ble of going all the way to the Moon if you just want to place your pay­loads in low orbit, a few hun­dred kilo­me­tres above the Earth­’s sur­face. Because it is at this alti­tude that the bulk of the mar­ket is to be found.

This is why sev­er­al start-ups are work­ing on the idea of ‘micro-launch­ers’, minia­ture rock­ets with just the capac­i­ty to reach low orbit. One exam­ple is the French com­pa­ny Ven­ture Orbital Sys­tem and its Zephyr microlancer (17 metres long), part of whose propul­sion sys­tem is built by indus­tri­al 3D print­ing for rea­sons of econ­o­my. Its maid­en flight is sched­uled for 2024.

New ideas to exploit the full potential of space

One of the great nov­el­ties of New Space is also its dis­rup­tive char­ac­ter, allow­ing new uses to be found for space tech­nolo­gies. And in this field, even in France, ideas abound.

The field of space tourism, for exam­ple, suf­fers from a mixed image because of the envi­ron­men­tal con­se­quences of space flights. While some launch­ers, such as the New Shep­ard from Blue Ori­gin, owned by bil­lion­aire Jeff Bezos, can boast of using fuels (oxy­gen and liq­uid hydro­gen) that pro­duce only water after com­bus­tion, oth­ers, such as the Space­Ship (from Richard Bran­son’s Vir­gin­Galac­tic) or the famous Russ­ian Soyuz launch­er (which has already sent wealthy tourists to the Inter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion), use fuels that emit oth­er car­bon compounds. 

One of the great nov­el­ties of New Space is also its dis­rup­tive char­ac­ter, allow­ing new uses to be found for space technologies. 

The pro­pos­al of the French start-up Zephal­to is there­fore to devel­op a stratos­pher­ic bal­loon capa­ble of offer­ing six pas­sen­gers and two pilots a “low-car­bon” jour­ney into space. The first flight is planned for 2024.

Some­times, the inno­v­a­tive aspect does not con­sist in build­ing new satel­lites but in mak­ing bet­ter use of the immense amount of data gen­er­at­ed by all the satel­lites already in place. The start­up Kayrros, for exam­ple, uses data from the Earth obser­va­tion satel­lites of the Euro­pean COPERNICUS pro­gramme to auto­mat­i­cal­ly detect large indus­tri­al methane leaks, mon­i­tor defor­esta­tion, or accu­rate­ly assess the car­bon con­tent sequestered in vegetation.

Back on Earth, in the field of agri­cul­ture, the start-up Agreen­cul­ture offers a solu­tion for autonomous agri­cul­tur­al machines guid­ed by satel­lites with a pre­ci­sion on the ground of less than a cen­time­tre, which enables the robots to car­ry out pro­grammed weed­ing and main­te­nance tasks.

Weed­ing robot for vine­yard main­te­nance. Cred­it: Agreenculture.

And if, final­ly, you need to put your satel­lites into orbit to mea­sure space radi­a­tion, pro­vide tar­get­ed telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion cov­er­age or syn­chro­nise ter­res­tri­al pow­er grids, U‑Space is offer­ing to help its cus­tomers design and build the nanosatellite(s) for their needs. Once these are built, cus­tomers will be able to choose the start­up Exo­trail and its “space van” to car­ry sev­er­al of these nanosatel­lites and, once SpaceX’s Falcon9 launch vehi­cle has released it into space, let it drop each pay­load into its own oper­a­tional orbit. 

New Eden or unchecked Wild West? 

New Space devel­oped in the Unit­ed States with the emer­gence of inno­v­a­tive start-ups sup­port­ed by dig­i­tal mil­lion­aires will­ing to invest mas­sive­ly in this new access to space at reduced prices.

More­over, dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy is nowa­days about space. Geopo­si­tion­ing, net­work syn­chro­ni­sa­tion, telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions, glob­al inter­net, these new mar­kets are open­ing up to any­one who wants to take them, and the com­pe­ti­tion is fierce. Today, Europe is try­ing to regain this ground. It is true that Amer­i­can com­pa­nies find it eas­i­er to raise huge sums of mon­ey, but they also spend a lot in the process, with an effi­cien­cy that is not, in the end, dras­ti­cal­ly supe­ri­or to the Euro­pean approach, which focus­es more on sobri­ety and efficiency.

One thing is cer­tain, the sec­tor of young com­pa­nies posi­tioned on space (whether in terms of inno­v­a­tive tech­nolo­gies or ser­vices using space data) is boom­ing in France. Today, sev­er­al start-ups are being cre­at­ed every month, and the pace is accel­er­at­ing every year.

Today, sev­er­al start-ups are being cre­at­ed every month, and the pace is accel­er­at­ing every year.

Of course, this grow­ing trend is not with­out its legit­i­mate con­cerns. What about the leg­isla­tive frame­work in which this new econ­o­my is devel­op­ing? In low orbit, a satel­lite nev­er stays over a sin­gle ter­ri­to­ry but cir­cu­lates freely around the world. This over­flight of an increas­ing num­ber of pri­vate eyes and sen­sors over for­eign ter­ri­to­ries is not with­out its own strate­gic and geopo­lit­i­cal problems.

And, last but not least, is the expo­nen­tial increase in the num­ber of satel­lites in low earth orbit and the risk of col­li­sion in space, threat­en­ing to send thou­sands of pieces of debris around the earth at tens of thou­sands of kilo­me­tres per hour (which could in turn dam­age oth­er satel­lites orbit­ing at the same alti­tude). The prob­lem is not so much the indi­vid­ual satel­lites as the satel­lite con­stel­la­tions, sets of thou­sands, some­times tens of thou­sands of microsatel­lites cov­er­ing almost the entire sur­face of the Earth, such as SpaceX’s Star­link glob­al inter­net project, cur­rent­ly being deployed, whose total num­ber of satel­lites is esti­mat­ed, if it is com­plet­ed, at 42,000.

It is true that some New Space com­pa­nies spe­cialise in the detec­tion and/or real-time track­ing of these hun­dreds of thou­sands of objects and debris in orbit, such as the French start-up Space­able, but will this be enough to guar­an­tee their safe­ty? Only time will tell.

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