The Future of the Low Earth Orbit Space Economy

As the New Space sector becomes more robust, various industries are looking to push what is possible and encourage an innovative future that will allow humans to explore deeper into space.

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As the New Space sector becomes more robust, various industries are looking to push what is possible and encourage an innovative future that will allow humans to explore deeper into space. However, before we get to that future, we'll need to build upon the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) space economy that will serve as the stepping stone to distant planets like Mars and beyond.

NASA once described building a low Earth orbit economy as like scaling Mt. Everest; "It's not impossible, but it's difficult, expensive and risky." Developing a LEO space economy depends on creating demand and broadening commercial use through sustainable, scalable services led by private companies and government space agencies.

Advances in the space sector offer exciting opportunities to drive demand for LEO services beyond general research and development initiatives. Subsectors from space-enabled manufacturing to orbital debris cleanup are helping to spark growth and maintain an LEO space economy. Here's how the space economy may evolve in the next decade and what investors should be focusing on:

Microgravity Creates Superior Products

Commercial innovation in the private space sector, along with NASA's commercialization initiatives, have allowed space manufacturing to flourish beyond 3D printing and into other modes of manufacturing, which involve entirely new processes that produce high-value materials. Space-based manufacturing uses the unique microgravity environment, which naturally alters materials at an atomic level and transforms them into superior materials and products, compared to Earth-based analogs of the same material.

This advanced manufacturing process addresses specific market needs, adds greater value for the products needed in these markets and creates advanced items for customers on Earth. Ultimately, it helps create new markets while increasing demand for Earth-space partnerships and the necessity for space infrastructure to produce them, which we can expect to drive LEO commercialization.

As innovations advance and the ISS ecosystem becomes more accessible through lower launch costs, it will become more economically realistic for space-enabled manufacturing to build profitable markets in LEO. Currently, launching materials to the ISS and returning them to Earth is still expensive, but research indicates that revenue for creating space-made products in orbit far outpaces the operational costs of space manufacturing.

On-orbit servicing, assembly, and manufacturing (OSAM) technologies are at the early stages of commercial adoption, but specialized satellites and other high-value parts will need assistance from OSAM technologies. Companies are positioned to grow from early services that develop components to full spacecraft manufacturing in space, but the capability is still several years away.

The Telecoms Take Over

Satellite operators recognize value at all orbital altitudes, including Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), Geostationary Equatorial Orbit (GEO) and LEO. Some companies have invested in blending approaches to all three. While GEO remains the powerhouse in the industry, telecoms also want to provide diversified broadband services with offerings for consumers, businesses and governments. NovaWurks/Saturn Satellite Systems is developing an integrated Satlet group that will be used to create small GEO satellites for Saturn Satellite Systems.

In the future, telecommunications will have to work with regulators to navigate space as a shared resource, with spectrum rights and orbital debris being two major issues. Currently, the LEO telecoms industry works on optimal satellite constellation design and the best markets to operate. Aerospace, in-flight connectivity and maritime communications differ in service partnerships with space companies, while other telecoms companies prefer an integrated strategy.

Additionally, mega-trends like the Internet of Things (IoT), the Amazon Effect, the service economy and remote, virtual workplaces will harness the need for advanced satellite communications. This digital transformation demands real-time data exchange and connectivity for everyone on Earth and in space. Commercial satellites could provide extended, more efficient global coverage and require infrastructure beyond Earth. Quilty Analytics shows that the satellite communications market now makes up $22.5 billion and will continue to grow. One commercial modular satellite architecture already in development includes AST Space Mobile, which will use a constellation of 168 satellites with "micron" spacecraft that link together in space to form large telecommunications satellites. Its first launch phase will be by the end of 2022 or early 2023 and reach global coverage that year or the next.

Space Tourism Soars

The chance for the average citizen to travel to space will one day be fully realized. Although only a handful of individuals have the opportunity to fly to LEO currently, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are paving the way for suborbital tourism to rapidly expand in the coming years. In the near-term, LEO can be used for short-duration flights, such as the Inspiration 4 mission or to experience space and research and development for astronauts on the International Space Station, as will be the case with the first Axion mission. In the long-term, commercial suborbital flights may replace long-distance air travel. For example, SpaceX claims its Mars ship could be used to fly 100 passengers to other Earth locations. A typical 15-hour flight between Shanghai and New York could get passengers there in 39 minutes. It would cause a revolution in our Earth-based industrial and commercial economies. Revenue for these trips could soar to $20 billion per year.

The LEO economy provides us with the future gateway into deep space exploration and better innovations in space and on Earth. It also helps us grow our supply chains and support our economies on Earth in more sustainable and fruitful ways. It's a symbiotic relationship that could allow the human spirit and our resourcefulness to soar.

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