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This is part two of a five-part series on the business of space
Today the first company that comes to mind when you think of commercial space is SpaceX, which has multibillion dollar contracts with NASA. But there are many other companies in the emerging space economy. Scrappy startups with big visions and ideas that could revolutionize the commercial industry. As launches get cheaper and technology gets smaller, it’s now possible to get in on an industry that was once reserved for superpowers with superbudgets. Today tech billionaires and venture capitalists are pumping money into these startups, many of which are in Silicon Valley.
Private space company Planetary Resources believes that incredible amounts of platinum and other rare earth minerals could be mined from asteroids — minerals, often used in electronics, that are now mined mostly in China.
Asteroids also hold water. Water that Planetary Resources believes could be harvested on the asteroid and broken down into hydrogen and oxygen, the two key elements in rocket fuel. The idea is to strategically position space refueling stations to take rockets even deeper into space. The company believes it has a multitrillion dollar idea. Film director James Cameron, Google CEO Larry Page and other big names have invested in the company.
“The ability to access resources in that environment, as opposed to digging up the Earth and hauling things up out of the gravity well — I mean that is a change in the economic equation of the cost of doing business in space,” said Rusty Schweickart, Apollo 9 astronaut.
The prospector for their galactic enterprise: an orbiting telescope called Arkyd, which will comb space for asteroids that might be ripe for mining. But there are setbacks.
In October the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded seconds after launch, destroying 5,000 pounds of cargo set for the International Space Station. Planetary Resources’ Arkyd telescope, headed for testing, was destroyed in the explosion. But the company said this kind of risk is inherent in space innovation.
“As this launch failure and history have demonstrated, spaceflight is inherently risky,” the company said in a statement. “The A3 [Arkyd] is the first example of our strategy to use space as our test bed and to tolerate failures by building success into the development path.”
Many other commercial space startups lost equipment as well. Planet Labs, a company developing and launching nanosatellites, lost 26 satellites in the explosion.
“Putting things into orbit is not a trivial task,” said Will Marshall, CEO of Planet Labs. He said the company took a hit but not on a large scale, since the company already launched 71 of its tiny satellites into space in the last 18 months.
Planet Labs is one of a handful of space startups in the nanosatellite business. Its satellites are just 12 inches long and 4 inches wide — not what one normally pictures when it comes to satellites. The company calls them doves and sends them into low Earth orbit in flocks of 20 or 30 at a time. The aim is to take pictures of the entire planet in real time. The nanosatellites cover 100 square kilometers per picture, with an estimated resolution of 10 to 16 feet. They’re are smaller and less expensive to manufacture than their predecessors. And they are disposable. After a year or two they burn into the atmosphere, and more are launched.
“They give us the option of accessing space for sometimes less than $100,000 or even cheaper,” said Alex MacDonald, an economist for NASA. “With that kind of low-cost technology, we have the capability to image the Earth like we’ve never done before.”
Nanosatellites enable companies and countries to buy data about Earth and how it changes, daily —changes to the environment, commercial structures and more.
Nanosatellites and cube sats are among the fastest-growing sectors of the space industry. The number of Earth observation satellites is expected to increase by almost 90 percent over the next decade and result in more than $35 billion in manufacturing revenue.
3-D printing in space
Jason Dunn wants to help those satellites get into orbit quicker. He’s the chief technology officer for Made in Space, a startup that has built a zero-gravity 3-D printer. The company sent its first 3-D printer to the International Space Station in September for testing and just 3-D-printed its first part in space.
He believes the 3-D printer could be a game changer for nanosatellites by 3-D-printing parts of the satellite in space, where they wouldn’t have to be built and protected to withstand the stresses of launch. “We are actually finding ways we can launch some of the parts — the electronics, for instance — that you can’t 3-D print and then printing the rest of the satellite, assembling it on the space station and launching it,” he said. The satellites could then be released into space, dramatically reducing the cost of launch.
“What this actually ends up doing for the satellite industry is it makes it easier to constantly get new satellites into orbit,” said Dunn.
He believes Made in Space’s 3-D printer will be crucial in the short term to help astronauts 3-D print spare parts. But in the long term, Dunn sees a much more ambitious picture.
“In the long term it really points to a vision where we can remove dependency on Earth. We can go to the moon and use the resources there and put that into a 3-D printer and turn it into a house on the moon,” he said. “It points to a direction where human space exploration is headed.”
Fantastical ideas, with big payoff
While some of these big visions may seem out there, the companies could be big money makers. “As an investor, what you really want to look for is things that are pushing boundaries,” said Chad Anderson, managing director for the Space Angels Network, a company that represents an investors’ group that seeds fledgling space companies.
“Things that might seem fantastical to some, that are developing technology that’s an order of magnitude better than anything else or is creating an entirely new market,” said Anderson. “That’s how you make outsized returns, and that’s what Silicon Valley was founded on, that mentality in the beginning. “
The industry is still too small to analyze the failure rate of these space startups. But Anderson said space entrepreneurs are savvy and coming to the table with business plans that make sense. He said that of the 100 space companies that have applied to the Space Angels Network this year, 20 have made it through screening to private investors as credible businesses.
“That’s resulted in five investments so far this year, and we’re in due diligence talks with a couple more as well, so we could have another deal or two before the year is over … They know how to do a lot more with less.”