Why Everyone Should Care About Space

A pair of Planet cubesats launched out of the International Space Station https://goo.gl/images/fsq1aT

I like to say that space is sexy. It is sexy in so far as seemingly every person that I have ever met enjoys talking about it, dreaming about it, or just getting lost in a movie about it. Ask someone whether they prefer Star Wars vs Star Trek and a healthy debate is guaranteed.

Ironically, space as an industry lacks that same sex appeal. Space is an input — a medium from which data is collected — not an end product in itself. The average individual does not consciously think about space, satellites, or the hundreds of thousands of people working in the space industry, in any given week. Yet that same individual will leverage intelligence — only accessible from space — multiple times per day. Many common conveniences, such as having an Uber or Lyft arrive directly at your doorstep, or real-time weather reports that help you to choose the best outfit each morning, are directly powered or primarily enabled by intelligence from space. For instance:

  • Weather. While weather is experienced individually as a local phenomenon, it develops as a truly global system. Consequently, the accuracy of any weather prediction is reliant on the scope of the data ingested, and satellites ingest more holistic data than any other form of remote sensing. Satellites collect high-fidelity data over all land, as well as over the greater than 70% of the planet covered by water.
  • Location. In the mid-1970s an airline tragedy caused government interests to open access to the Global Positioning System (GPS), a network of satellites that allow for precise self-positioning of any device or individual on Earth. Today, GPS is ubiquitous, and the theory behind its implementation has expanded to provide even greater levels of accuracy and precision in positioning, including that which powers the future of robotics and autonomous vehicles.
  • Information. Space represents the ultimate high ground and a truly unique perspective on our changing planet. How are the rainforests of South America being impacted by deforestation? Is soil erosion from mining in Australia having a direct or indirect impact on coral reef degradation? Can the presence of stagnant water (mosquitoes) be tracked and correlated with the spread of infectious diseases? Space, like no other, provides access to ecosystem level intelligence.
  • Trade. More than 70% of Earth is covered by water, and the majority of goods that you and I buy transit over the world’s waterways before they reach us. Unfortunately, for most of the last century we lacked any meaningful visibility into where these goods were in transit. Consider any popular gadget, or children’s toys around the holidays — product shortages, or else overages for those retailers reading this, would not exist in a market with true data transparency.

In short, space may be the most overlooked though regularly utilized source for everyday intelligence. The industry may yet have its time in the spotlight, however. Over the past decade, access to space has become much easier as the industry experienced a dramatic drop in the cost to launch and an equally impactful increase in the number of available launch slots (i.e. number of satellites that can go up). The increased number of available launch slots has catalyzed a larger shift in the manufacturing of satellites and a near reinvention of the satellite itself.

So what has changed that allows for more opportunity and development today?

Space engineering has adopted agile processes.

Old Space: Aerospace engineering was traditionally defined by precision. Projects aimed for 5 9’s or better reliability, multiple redundancies, and ultimately, a satellite that could withstand the rigors and uncertainty of space for a decade or more. Hubble, for instance, was launched in 1990 and is still in active operation. In practice, the focus on reliability meant long development lead times (e.g. 20+ years for Hubble) and astronomical engineering expenses (e.g. $1.5 billion in upfront capital for Hubble). Teams were heavily skewed toward building as opposed to buying components.

New Space: New space companies are defined largely by cycle time, aiming to design, build, deploy, and iterate as quickly as possible. This new class of space company leverages advances in other industries (e.g. telecommunications, mobile computing, etc.) to decrease cycle time through a greater focus on buying and integrating systems over building from scratch. This shift is further enabled by a change in business model whereby new space companies deliver a product that relies more on spatial and temporal resolution as opposed to a single high-fidelity sensor (i.e. balancing timeliness of information against fidelity of information).

The emergence of small satellites.

Old Space: Most people think of satellites as massive objects the size of a car or small bus. It is hard to envision them otherwise given the increasingly large rockets that we watch lifting off to deploy them, or else the scenes of satellites orbiting the Earth in those movies that we all love. Leaning into the Hubble example again, that satellite weighed more than 11,000-kilograms and stands taller than a four-story building.

New Space: Satellites can sit in the palm of your hand and weigh less than some hardcover novels. The most frequently deployed satellites today weigh roughly 5-kilograms and are no larger than a shoebox. These alternative, smaller satellites leverage a wealth of knowledge, experience, and underlying technology advancements from the past two decades of mobile computing to bring down the size, and subsequently, development time (e.g. imagine this latest class of satellites as your latest iPhone or Pixel in space). In 2017 a record-breaking 100+ satellites, most of them the shoebox-sized variety, were deployed aboard a single rocket, whereas something like Hubble and similar would have been deployed as a solo mission.

Four shoebox-sized Lemur satellites image credit: Spire Global https://goo.gl/images/P14xsi

Deployment.

Old Space: Rocket takes off, satellite is deployed. It is easy to oversimplify the process, and also to think of space as a single destination. Space is vast (…the greatest understatement of my life).

New Space: There is a lot of area to deploy satellites, and unique orbital mechanics (i.e. business model implications) depending on where you choose to deploy. Legacy space companies focused largely on opportunities in geostationary orbit (GEO), whereas the latest class of space companies have reignited an interest in low-Earth orbit (LEO). LEO has both benefits and drawbacks. It’s prime drawbacks include:

  • a short lifespan (i.e. satellites will last ~2–5 years before disintegrating as they skip across Earth’s atmosphere);
  • a limited field of view (i.e. being closer to Earth means that to achieve global coverage, one will need many satellites deployed in a thoughtful manner to cover the entire planet in a timely fashion);
  • and conditional launch opportunities (i.e. most LEO satellites are hitchhiking a ride on the rocket alongside a much larger satellite).

On the other hand, LEO has many benefits as well, hence its increase in popularity; those benefits include:

  • a lower cost basis (i.e. it is possible to design, develop, deploy and operate a fleet of 5-kilogram satellites for a fraction of the cost of most legacy satellites);
  • a unique technological advantage (i.e. LEO satellites are meant to be nearly disposable, whereby networks of satellites are refreshed regularly with the latest and greatest sensors and technological advancements onboard);
  • and speed to deployment (i.e. satellites can go from drawing board to space in short order, offering a speedy return on investment, as well as a competitive advantage that leverages reliability through redundancy).

Implications and the space ahead

Space is sexy, whether you are talking about space itself or the industry. We are in the midst of a space renaissance and there is significant opportunity for enterprising entrepreneurs and investors to get excited about.

Just imagine a world where the weather will be forecasted — with precision — past 7-days to 10-, 15-, or 30-days out. Or one where the Internet — and the access to the knowledge that it engenders — is ubiquitous, available anytime and anywhere across the globe. These are merely two of the most obvious developments in space.

There are many others, and in truth, the non-obvious opportunities are the ones that excite me. In particular, I am interested in:

  • Data aggregation and analysis: unique uses for Earth observation data and sector specific business intelligence;
  • Alternative data streams: photos from space are easy to understand, though there is significant value to be extracted yet from hyperspectral imaging, infrared, or the RF spectrum;
  • Marketplace dynamics: stepping beyond the common broker/dealer relationships, consider how data and services can be delivered in a more efficient manner;
  • And other non-sexy enabling technologies (read: not rockets).

Space will continue to fundamentally transform our daily lives, and now is a perfect time to be part of it.

And next, I’d like a tea. Earl Grey, hot.