Cislunar economy 101 — Part 1: Why We’ll Have a Space Economy Sooner Than You Think
Space is described as fascinating, exciting, and awe-inspiring — and that’s true for the most part. However, space activities have been pretty boring for the remainder of the 20th century after Apollo: human spaceflight was limited to low Earth orbit and different space stations, and we only went further than that for robotic scientific missions.
This is about to change.
Two years ago, I discovered the new developments in the space industry, from reusable rockets to asteroid mining, and decided I had to be a part of it. Lunar bases? Check. Mars colonies? Check. Space mining? Check . I was sold, and soon left my research position with particle accelerators to dedicate myself full-time to the development of the space economy.
The more new space projects appear, the more interesting the situation gets. Space is exciting again, and that’s why I’m creating this series. To kick things off, I’m covering the basics of the cislunar economy, what it is, and why it’s important for the space industry.
But first: what, exactly, is cislunar space?
“Cislunar” is a term commonly used in space jargon to denominate the region near the Moon, or the region of space closer to Earth than the Moon’s orbit. However, more recently it has been used to denominate the region of space within the Earth’s gravitational influence, which includes the Moon. This space is also called “Earth Orbital Neighborhood” (EON). When I talk about cislunar economy, I’m referring to economic activities taking place in space either on the Moon or in orbit around the Earth or the Moon.
This is an important distinction, mainly because a “space economy” already exists, at least up to the geostationary belt (GEO). There are some 450 satellites currently operating in GEO, about 75% of them commercial, most of them relaying video, data, or voice connections to Earth. Below those, we have the navigation constellations (GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, BeiDou) in medium Earth orbit, and below them in low Earth orbit most of the Earth observation satellites, an ever-increasing swarm of cubesats, telecommunications constellations and space debris, and the International Space Station. All this activity makes for a sizeable movement of money worldwide, with a total industry size of about US $320 billion in 2015 (which seems big, until you realize that Apple Inc. alone is worth almost twice that). The Space Report from the Space Foundation has a great summary of the current activities in space, both commercial and military. You can take a look at the latest edition here .
While current space activities are good and all, they’ve become stagnant and boring: government space programs have become risk-averse and have long ceased innovating , and private industry followed suit. When I talk about an exciting, future-changing cislunar economy that will effect real change, I’m talking about going beyond the GEO belt, something along the lines of what United Launch Alliance (ULA) has in mind with their CisLunar-1000 project.
While it would have been ideal to see a more ambitious timeline, ULA nailed it with their CisLunar-1000 . Their model of the cislunar economy includes lunar bases, lunar mining, space stations in strategic places between the Earth and the Moon, and even the mining of some near-Earth asteroids.
All these new activities are enabled by the extension beyond GEO, and the use of local resources on the Moon and asteroids (in space jargon: in situ resource utilization). The usual space approach is like a camping trip: you plan the dates, you bring everything you need, and you head off. Bringing everything along makes going far away exponentially more complicated (the “tyranny of the rocket equation”) and if the place you’re going to is empty vacuum, you must bring everything along. Satellites in geostationary orbit have enough economic interest to make the trip that far worth the effort, but beyond that, we only send scientific missions, and those are almost always one-way.
Camping trips make for fun experiences (set up camp, instragram some footprints, etc.) but rarely will they be more than that. The solution is, of course, to live off the land, and the closest land to Earth that is not Earth is the Moon. Some near-Earth asteroids might be easier to access than the Moon, thanks to the magic of orbital dynamics and space travel, and therefore must be considered as valid options. The next step in the space economy, then, is the extension to cislunar space.
The idea of mining resources on the Moon sounds nice, but everyone that knows a little about the history of space is — understandably — a little skeptical. After all, we were on the Moon back in 1969, believe it or not (but for the love of all that is common sense, believe it. If you don’t, you likely have little to gain from this series). Space is also full of bold promises and cancelled plans: Apollo 18 to 20, the Space Exploration Initiative, Hermes, just to name a few, but also countless others, crewed or robotic. What makes it different this time? Why am I so convinced that it is going to happen? Two things:
- Private iniative
If you watched the video above, you’d have noticed there is no mention of NASA. It’s all ULA.
Private companies all around the globe are aiming to get to space first in a kind of space gold rush that is being called New Space. But New Space is more than just private companies; it’s a new way of doing things, that sets this era apart from other private endeavors in space. Entrepreneurs are bringing the Silicon Valley philosophy from the late 90s and early 2000s to the space industry. This means new technology solutions, flexible organizations, consumer focus, and innovative, risk-prone approaches; essentially the opposite of the previous space industry.
ULA is far from alone. SpaceX (probably the best example of New Space) makes the cheapest rockets in history, has started landing them back for reuse, and is aiming for Mars, where they should land their first capsule by 2018. Blue Origin (from Jeff Bezos, the founder of yet another company that is worth more than the entire space industry put together) is also bringing their rockets back. Deep Space Industries has announced asteroid prospector missions before 2020, with Planetary Resources trailing close behind and at least other 18 companies working on asteroid mining in Luxembourg. The participants of the Google Lunar XPrize should land on the Moon before 2017 is out. Commercial crewed spacecraft is almost here, and private space station modules are currently being tested on the Space Station with positive results.
This is only those companies working directly on cislunar activities. New Space includes on-orbit manufacturing (Made in Space), Earth observation (Planet), microgravity research (Acme Advanced Materials), commercial spaceports (Spaceport America), satellite servicing (Orbital ATK), suborbital tourism (Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic), the complete CubeSat industry, and a huge number of smaller startups working on new components, techniques, technologies, and business models.
All of that said, private initiative is not the golden bullet. The key is timing. This whole array of companies covers essentially all the activities needed to create a real space-based economy, from a transportation network to resource extraction and utilization, with several other services, such as refuel and repair, along the way.
These companies are also emerging at essentially the same time, which is important. There are two eternal elephants in the room when it comes to commercial use of space resources: the customer, and the cost. Establishing all the infrastructure for extraction, beneficiation, processing, and manufacturing in space might be too expensive for one single player to do alone. And even once you have those precious materials ready in space, who do you sell to? There is no economic activity in space, so there is no one there to buy stuff from you, and with our current level of technology and infrastructure there is almost nothing worth bringing back to Earth (maybe platinum; but maybe not). NASA and other space agencies can provide support along the way, acting as potential first customers, but you can only subsidize an industry for so long.
This is why timing is then essential. With a diverse array of companies each taking care of one small part of the infrastructure and activities needed to keep a healthy economy going in space, the pieces of the cislunar economy are beginning to fall into place. This is all thanks to a combination of different factors such as policy initiatives, new technologies, and the new millionaires and billionaires that are part of the generation of Orphans of Apollo coming together at the right moment in history.
We live in exciting times for space — and for Earth — and we may be on the brink of the expansion of humans into space, once and for all.
Enjoyed the article? Then you may like the rest of the articles in the Cislunar Economy Series.