Tech & Science

Why Putting Something in Orbit Is Getting So Much Cheaper

NumbersSpace
05/06/16
In the Magazine
Jungyeon Roh

Rocket travel was supposed to zip us around the solar system like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, but that future—with goofy space suits and ray guns—never materialized. In fact, for most of the past few decades, space travel has been pretty blah: No one has even walked on the moon since 1972, and Mars seems as far off as it was for Galileo. Even the space shuttle is grounded.

But there has been one huge leap in the past decade: The declining cost of putting something in orbit. That is opening up space to the private sector and making it possible to put all sorts of new things up there. The shuttle promised to be able to put stuff in low Earth orbit, where most satellites live, for $1,000 per pound. It never got close—NASA’s numbers led to a calculation of about $8,000 a pound, although others put the figure much higher.

In recent years, that math has been changing, in part due to private rocket companies. SpaceX tends to get the most attention, but Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are also getting into the business of space cargo. Cheaper rockets, according to SpaceNews senior staff writer Jeff Foust, have put pressure on the traditional players: France’s Arianespace; United Launch Alliance, which handles mostly U.S. government contracts; and International Launch Services, which uses Russian rockets.

Prices are hard to pin down in this industry. SpaceX is one of the few companies that advertise them on its website, and it says it’s on the verge of even bigger price cuts to its Falcon 9 prices, thanks to a bigger, more economical rocket, the Falcon Heavy. And it just landed a rocket on a bobbing ship in the middle of the ocean, opening the door to reusable rockets, which will cut costs dramatically. SpaceX has been delivering cargo to the International Space Station and launching private satellites, and it is about to start competing for top-secret U.S. space missions.

It’s not just the cost of rockets that’s going down. It’s also getting cheaper to build the high-tech electronics that power satellites. Planet Labs is a private company that hopes to have 100 miniaturized “cubestat” satellites in orbit by the end of the year. It uses the 4-inch square craft to take nearly constant pictures of the Earth, which could, for example, allow scientists to watch environmental problems unfold or human rights groups to watch atrocities being committed. Another company, OneWeb, wants to create a network of 648 satellites to give the whole world internet access.

Earlier this year, U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly received the delivery of a gorilla suit from his twin brother to raise his morale during a yearlong stay on the International Space Station. Bet Buck Rogers would have been jealous.