It's a brave new world for business leaders and emerging economies that want to flex their strength at zero gravity.
In the original Space Race of the late 1950s and 1960s, the United States won the battle for strategic dominance over the USSR with the world-stopping 1969 moon landing. But now a new race has started with even more ambitious goals.It launched in earnest in 2003 when China became the third nation to independently send a human into space. Since then there has been a marked acceleration in the programs of newer spacefaring nations, including India, Japan, South Korea, Israel, and perhaps more surprisingly, Iran and North Korea.
According to Australian space commentator and analyst Dr Morris Jones, author of The New Moon Race, the motivations behind this space race have moved on since the early days of space exploration.
“Space is no longer a new frontier,” explains Jones.
“We are also in a more complex, multifaceted geopolitical situation than the over-simplistic East-versus-West narrative of the Cold War. Thus, there are more players in the new space race, with different agendas. It is more about technology and economic strength than military and strategic issues.”
Increasing numbers of private ventures have also joined the race or operate on its peripheries.
Leading today’s space race is China, which landed a probe on the moon in December 2013 and has declared its intention to conduct its first moonwalk before 2030. But plans to reach Mars hit a setback in November 2011 when its Yinghou-1 orbiter failed to leave Earth’s orbit.
While the rise of China’s space program grabbed headlines, India’s efforts received less attention, despite an Indian mission reaching the moon in November 2008 and becoming the first to detect water in the lunar soil. But the tendency to overlook India’s ambitions changed in September 2014 when an Indian probe entered Mars orbit.
Pallava Bagla was in Indian Mission Control when the Mangalyaan (Sanskrit for Mars-craft) sent back its first images from the Red Planet. The space commentator and co-author of the book Reaching for the Stars: India’s Journey to Mars & Beyond, Bagla says the mission was a source of great national pride; especially as India had become the first nation to reach Mars on its maiden attempt, and because it got there before China.
“To have pictures taken by your own cameras, sent back from 200 million kilometres – you can imagine how excited 1.2 billion Indians were that day,” he says.
Also remarkable about the Indian mission was its cost. At US$73 million, it was just over one tenth of NASA’s most recent US$671 million MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) Mars mission.
“India has paved the way for low-cost access to space, and low-cost interplanetary missions,” Bagla says.
“The mission itself has shown it’s robust, is asking good scientific questions, and has some sophisticated payloads.”
Despite these achievements, the intent of India’s program is rooted in more terrestrial ambitions.
“India has always looked at space as an effort that can help eliminate poverty. It is not looking at space for dominance but for helping its poor people.” Pallava Bagla
India now has launched a constellation of space-based sensing satellites that do everything from monitoring crop health to detecting schools of fish. Bagla says space has played an important role in reducing disaster-related death tolls by delivering satellite information in advance of the severe storms that periodically batter the nation’s 7500km of coast.
Satellites are also a key link in India’s telecommunications network, which has helped it become an information technology superpower.
“There is a study that shows that for every dollar invested, the space program has given back more than two dollars,” Bagla states. “So there is a tremendous return.”
Meanwhile, Japan’s activities in space are on par with India’s, however Morris is unclear where Japan wants its space program to go.
“It suffers from a lack of long-term vision and planning,” he says.
North Korea and Iran have boasted of their spacefaring capabilities, although reports in 2013 that Iran had sent a monkey into space have been discredited.
“They are tied to their nation’s military missile programs, just like the development of the US and Soviet programs at the start of the space age,” Morris observes.
While Asian nations are pushing ahead, the space program in the US has had setbacks, including the grounding of NASA’s Shuttle program in 2011, and the cancellation of its ambitious Constellation Program, which aimed to put people back on the moon by 2020 ahead of a larger Mars program.
The question now being asked is whether the US has lost its once famed pre-eminence in space – and if so, whether it can get it back.
“This is one of the biggest questions right now, and nobody can answer it,” Morris says.
“It depends on politics and willpower. Both are very fickle and unpredictable.”
The US blasted back into space, however, in December 2014, with an unmanned flight of its Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. Manned missions are expected for 2021.
While Western governments may have scaled back their ambitions in space, a new set of private ventures has emerged, dubbed by some as “Space 2.0”.
Companies such as Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace have gained headlines for their plans to send tourists into suborbital space, while US-based entrepreneur Elon Musk’s
SpaceX has docked spacecraft with the International Space Station (ISS) on multiple occasions since May 2012, and has ambitions of eventually reaching Mars.
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According to former US Army Space Support Team leader Jason Held, the old model of spending upwards of US$500 million on long-term projects such as the Hubble Space Telescope and the ISS have slowed considerably.
Held worked as an engineer on both Hubble and the ISS, and is now a director of Australian space technology company Sabre Astronautics, which has created an artificial intelligence-based space vehicle mission control centre. He says the new era of space is characterised by satellites weighing between just 1kg and 12kg. These small satellites are often dubbed “nanosats” or “CubeSats” due to their box-like shape.
“That reduces the cost of missions from US$500 million down to between US$150,000 and US$5 million,” Held says.
“That means the financial barrier is very different. You can have a start-up that gets a small business loan, or funds a project through KickStarter, and as long as you can make a business case and grab customers, with these small satellites, you have a business.”
The world was shocked and saddened by the death of test pilot Michael Alsbury in the crash of the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo vehicle in November 2014, but commercial ventures show no sign of scaling back their ambitions.
“Test pilot programs do have a history of having mishaps like this, and this is why you test as often as you can before you send human beings on board,” Held says.
“These are the types of technical problems that are unfortunately normal for high-altitude, high-performance aviation and spaceflight.”
The lower-cost framework offered by CubeSats have spurred renewed development of the UK space industry, which is looking to grab 10 per cent of the space market.
And while the Australian Government is yet to show interest in entering the new space race, commercial interests are pressing ahead. At the core of these is the Delta-V Space start-up accelerator, incorporating Held’s Sabre Astronautics and fellow Australian space start-up Launchbox, along with the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER) at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and the SpaceNet Project at the University of Sydney, with support from NSW Trade & Investment.
Founding CEO Tim Parsons says the goal for Delta-V was to be an incubator for space companies, but it has expanded to offering everything needed to send a mission into space.
“We can build a standard CubeSat and get that to various altitudes,” Parsons says.
“We can orient the CubeSat, and we can even potentially add an electric thruster to give it the ability to manoeuvre.”
Potential customers might include anyone from pharmaceutical companies wanting to test compounds in zero gravity through to the production of silicon carbide wafers used in high-voltage, high-temperature semiconductor electronics.
“That industry alone could be worth A$2-3 billion dollars a year because of the efficiencies of silicon carbide,” says Parsons.
More immediately, there is potential for CubeSats to replace aerial surveying for tasks such as monitoring ecosystems or detecting hot spots during bushfire season.
“We could probably reduce the amount of money they spend each day tenfold with a satellite,” Parsons says.
ACSER director Professor Andrew Dempster says Delta-V is essential for Australia, which has no government space agency – a distinction shared only with New Zealand and Iceland in the OECD.
“That’s a serious problem for an advanced economy like ours,” Dempster says. “The rest of the world gets the importance of space but Australia doesn’t.”
Dempster says the goal of Delta-V is to create an ecosystem from which a sustainable space industry can grow. “If we are not going to get any leadership from the federal government then we have to give them something good to follow,” he says.
“Space does not burn money, space makes money. And that is fundamentally misunderstood in this country.”
Included in that vision is the desire to see Australia participating in the nascent asteroid mining industry. UNSW held its first Off-Earth Mining Forum in 2013 and is planning another for 2015, in conjunction with the Future Mining Conference.
“There are all sorts of resources available in space that we can’t get our hands on here,” Dempster says. “There are individual asteroids that have more of a particular resource than all of the Earth does.” The next step for Delta-V is to prove it can do what it says.
A launch slot has been booked for November 2015 carrying a CubeSat with eight payloads. Delta-V is now looking for A$500,000 in seed funding to get off the ground.
With the entry point set so low, the returns for potential investors could be great. Held says numerous companies globally have raised between US$1 million and US$10 million but are achieving exits for shareholders valued between US$50 million and US$500 million.
“There is a business education that is happening with the space community that they never had before,” Held says.
“And on the actual technology side you are seeing rapid iteration and lean practices being implemented. And these are two things that space has always lacked up until 10 years ago.
“We’re not in the new Golden Age yet but we see the sun coming over the horizon.”
This article is from the February 2015 issue of INTHEBLACK.