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Commercialising the space economy – when do we lift off?

5 min read

The benefits and risks of ‘New Space’, where the commercialisation of the space economy has led to a more affordable and accessible space industry. But how about regulation? 

‘New Space’, the commercialisation of the space economy with the advent of private companies, has democratised the industry to allow greater innovation than ever before, but there is still an important role to play for nation states when it comes to funding and regulation.

So say the latest two guests of Dr Helen Sharman’s Zero Pressure podcast, a series of informal conversations with people on the cutting edge of science and technology, supported by Imperial College London and Saab.

Helen, who in 1991 became the UK’s first-ever astronaut, speaks to two prominent actors in ‘New Space’, who are convinced of the benefits of the space industry’s commercialisation: Professor Andy Koronios, CEO and Managing Director of the SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre, which is helping to boost Australia’s presence in the space industry; and, Pekka Laurila, co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Iceye, a Finland-based microsatellite manufacturer that launched the world’s first Satellite Aperture Radar.

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The benefits of New Space

“New Space makes it possible for everyone to participate. It democratises space. That has led to unbridled innovation for space products for the benefit of humankind,” says Professor Koronios, citing vehicle satnav, more accurate weather forecasting and disaster management, mobile phone cameras and even powdered foods as innovations that have come from humankind’s embrace of space technology.

For Pekka Laurila, New Space is about “…the increasing pace of innovation, cost-effectiveness and sustainability of the space industry.”

The main enablers of this new accessibility have been the huge advances in computational technology. “The miniaturisation of electronics and increasing computational and storage power of computers” have made it possible to lift reasonably inexpensive satellites into space, says Professor Koronios. Indeed, the professor points out the simply staggering fact that there’s more computational power in our smart phones today than there was available for the Apollo 11 Moon Landing in 1969.

Pekka Laurila adds that these technological advances have enabled the “economies of scale” that continue to allow new players to enter a space market that is fast becoming ‘colonised’ by private industry; so much so that in the US Elon Musk and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos have become the driving forces in space exploration.

And when it’s estimated that in little more than a decade new, smaller satellites could cost as little as USD 2,000 per kilo to launch in an industry projected to be worth USD 1.4 trillion, it’s clear that the days of the traditional space industry are behind us.

Both experts expect this trend to continue as the market becomes more mature and businesses sustain themselves through the rising demand for satellite technology for communications, analysis and even financial technology. Maturing technology and environmental risk management will also make credit, payment and insurance processes easier and cheaper which will lead to a more resilient New Space business.

The risks of New Space, and why states still have a role

Though Professor Koronios and Pekka Laurila share an optimistic viewpoint of the benefits of New Space, both are also aware of the risks. In particular, the same sorts of cybersecurity issues we see with terrestrial communications are possible in space technology, especially if the current friendly and collaborative nature of the industry gives way to rogue actors.

“Although it’s not a huge problem yet, we do see more and more satellites up there, and we are beginning to see the same sorts of threats we see on Earth,” says Andy Koronios, while Pekka Laurila adds, “You have to be concerned to some degree”, though he believes the best security practices we see on Earth will also apply here.

Ultimately, Andy and Pekka agree that nations will still have an important role to play in the New Space economy: the former’s Cooperative Research Centre has benefited from Australian Federal Government funding and state-level support, and much of Iceye’s key R&D has been backed by the Finnish Government and the European Union. Both believe that countries will also be important customers for private entities as the industry develops.

And, as Professor Koronios adds, the many thousands of satellites that will head heavenward will need regulating, something which only countries and multinational organisations can do.

“When cars proliferated on our roads, we needed traffic rules. Otherwise it was chaos. It’s the same thing now with debris and other uses of space,” he says, adding that it requires “regulations, treaties and understandings for the benefit of everyone”.

How to follow us

This sixth podcast in Imperial College London and Saab’s Zero Pressure series is available on most podcast platforms including Spotify, Google and Apple.

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