The history of space travel is barely 100 years old. Yet, a great deal has happened during this period. Whereas the world’s first satellite, the “Sputnik” was a real revolution back in 1957, satellites have since become a part of our day-to-day lives. When Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot upon the moon in 1969, it was a “great step for humankind”. Today, a mission to Mars looks set to be the next major step in human space flight.
Until now, space flight has been a privilege of the few. For decades, space projects and missions were commissioned by public institutions, i.e. national governments and large space agencies. This has changed over the last few years.
NEW SPACE: PRIVATE-SECTOR OPERATORS ARE DRIVING THE COMMERCIAL USE OF SPACE FORWARD
The major space agencies are still space companies’ main customers. Thus, the budget of the European Space Agency ESA came to around EUR 5.75 billion in 2017. However, there has been a strong increase in the emergence of commercial business models in the space industry over the last few years.
New companies are being established and frequently using venture capital. Startups and established companies from the space industry are developing ideas and applications for the commercial use of space. Nearly always, these companies attempt to develop business model at the interface of space and digital information technology. The combination of these factors forms the basis for what experts call “New Space”.
IT is a driver of new space applications
Unlike space research, New Space is focusing on the use of existing technologies in space rather than developing new ones. Generally speaking, the relevance of information technologies for space applications is rising and driving them forward. The opposite was the case fifty years ago, when space travel – which was still very much in its infancy – paved the way for IT. Put simply, without space travel there would be no satellite technology and, hence, no broad-based digitization.
Today, the IT sector is characterized by high momentum: “It is driven by a short generation of 2–3 years, heavy competitive and innovation pressure in the mass markets and the increasingly broader digitization of the global economy and private life”, as a New Space study published by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs explains. New Space would be inconceivable today without this development.
New Space focusing on asteroid mining
Here’s a possible scenario: A small unmanned space ship leaves the earth carrying on board a few robots and lands on an asteroid close to the earth. There, the robots mine the resources required on the earth. And because the asteroid also holds deposits of metals, water and other materials, the robots can build a larger spaceship and produce propellant to transport the commodities back to the earth. This is important because leaving the earth’s atmosphere with high masses poses major challenges for space flight. Does this sound too much like science fiction? Just a few years ago, asteroid mining or space mining was considered to be utopian or used as inspiration for films such as 2009’s “Moon”. Yet, today, this possibility its being explored by many New Space companies. Even though it is likely to take a few years for this vision to become reality, raw materials from space would solve many problems at once given the growing scarcity of resources on the earth.
WHAT AREAS AND SECTORS HOLD POTENTIAL FOR NEW SPACE?
Asteroid mining? Most New Space ideas are a good deal less spectacular. Yet, their benefits for humanity – and their feasibility – are within striking distance. Many New Space ideas are benefiting from the advances in space technology as they use data and information that earlier space missions have provided (free of charge in some cases).
New Space for satellite services
Thus, the European satellite navigation system Galileo forms the technical basis for New Space companies. This is because Galileo services such as highly precise timing and positioning data are opening up business potential for software used in high-frequency trading in the financial markets or for applications allowing logistic processes and supply chains to be managed more effectively.
The market for telecommunications satellites is also in a state of flux. Global streaming services and the “Internet of Things” are requiring more and more bandwidth.
This means that a greater number of more efficient satellites are required, while the payloads fitted to the satellites need enhanced functionality. At the same time, data security must be guaranteed. One clear consequence of this is the changed development and production cycles resulting from an increase in process modularization and standardization. At the same time, new production methods are required.
New Space for life sciences
The New Space market also holds considerable potential for the interdisciplinary field of life sciences. This is because the exploration of biological issues in the context of space travel is attracting a great deal of attention. In many studies, space research is looking at how life reacts in extreme situations: How do (complex) organisms respond to extreme cold, heat or other external influences and how do they protect themselves? The basis for this is the question as to how life can thrive in hostile environments. New Space proceeds from this to use the knowledge gained from beneficial space activities to improve life on earth and potentially also on other planets.
New Space for space transportation
For a long time, only national governments were able to afford the cost of space research and the development of rockets, satellites and spaceships. Now, however, various private-sector space technology companies have entered the field. They often stage their projects to maximize media attention, one recent notable example being the Mars rocket Falcon Heavy developed by Tesla founder Elon Musk. Musk’s company SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation) develops technologies which are to be used by humanity to colonize Mars and other planets.
Virgin Galactic, billionaire Richard Branson’s space company, wants to transport tourists to space and is building suborbital aircraft with rocket propulsion for this purpose. Back in 2000, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos established Blue Origin to offer suborbital flights using re-usable flight systems.
Now, however, there are also partnerships between government and private-sector space projects. For example, SpaceX is conducting supply flights to the ISS for NASA.
SELECTED OHB NEW SPACE PROJECTS
Triton-X: Small and versatile microsatellites
The New Space market requires relatively cheap and versatile products that are available quickly. OHB subsidiary LuxSpace is working on the Triton-X microsatellite platform as well as a production line for volume production.
Accordingly, Triton-X will be opening up new perspectives for the OHB Group in the New Space market and generating scope for commercial applications such as satellite communications, earth observation and the testing of new technologies in space. Triton-X is an inexpensive volume-made product that is available without major lead times. It is also suitable for arrays of multiple satellites operating in sync.
Turning barren deserts into blooming landscapes: Blue Horizon
OHB subsidiary Blue Horizon wants to create the basis for sustainable life in space and to use this experience for rendering desert-like regions on the earth fertile again (“re-terraforming”). To this end, it is pulling technologies, processes and other expertise from life science together.
OHB Venture Capital
OHB SE’s corporate venture capital company is investing in start-ups and companies all around the world offering innovative ideas and technologies for services or applications in the space. OHB is particularly interested in innovations in areas in which it is already active, such as satellite and launcher engineering as well as habitats for the exploration of our planetary system.
OHB has already acquired shares in some companies, such as the aforementioned Blue Horizon.
Rarely have there been such exciting times in the history of space travel as today. Start-ups with serious plans for the commercial exploitation of space are literally shooting up out of the ground everywhere. And that’s fine by us. As a ‘start-up with experience of life’, we are able to address the established markets and respond swiftly and with agility to new challenges.
Many experts consider New Space to mark a turning point. One thing we can say for sure is that start-ups with serious plans for the commercial exploitation of space are literally shooting up out of the ground everywhere. And more and more new ideas for improving mobility and connectivity are also challenging established business models.
More than any other billionaire, Elon Musk is closely associated with commercial space flight. His space capsule “Dragon” sends supplies to the ISS. At the beginning of 2018, his company “SpaceX” launched the third most powerful rocket ever built. Known as “Falcon Heavy”, it circled the sun and crossed the Martian orbit. Musk has great plans: He wants to send two tourists around the moon in 2018 and build a base station on Mars in 2024.