Space exploration has made a big leap in the past year. Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and SpaceX launched their first tourist space flights. NASA has successfully landed its rover on Mars and the James Webb Space Telescope – the world’s most powerful of its kind – was launched into orbit just days before the turn of the year. More money is being pumped into space technology than ever before, and Morgan Stanley projects the industry will surpass $1 trillion by 2030.
Private investment in space companies surpassed $10 billion last year – an all-time high. 2021 also saw a record 132 successful launches into orbit, with China and Elon Musk’s SpaceX conducting private and government-funded missions. And there are also new projects for flights to the moon and other missions to the red planet.
to test limits
One company that is at the forefront of space exploration is the Virgin Group. Its subsidiary Virgin Orbit was founded in 2017 but has been involved in a space program since the mid-1990s.
As Virgin Orbit aims to stay ahead of the competition in the space race, President and CEO Dan Hart explains:
“We introduced new technologies. In 2021, a liquid rocket was launched from an airplane for the first time and put satellites into orbit. This has been an issue for decades and has also been tried several times. Our rocket has two engines, one for each rocket stage. Our competitors have five or 11 engines, which creates cost and reliability disadvantages, and then there’s the flexibility aspect, which gives us access to markets that others can’t, we can do an airport anywhere in the world turn into a spaceport within a few weeks.”
Virgin Orbit started the year with a bang with a listing on the NASDAQ and a rocket launch. Hart confirmed that the company has more launches planned in the UK and Japan later this year:
“We’re working on several issues. Number one is that we will increase our launch rate. You will see that we are making progress on launches, on space services and on working with our customers in the best possible way. The company will move more and more into an operational space mode .”
Using space sustainably
As the number of space launches skyrockets over the next few years, how will the missions of the past be managed? Thousands of rockets have been launched into space since the 1950s, leaving debris and many disabled satellites in their wake. According to NASA, around 23,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball are orbiting the earth. It may sound harmless, but at speeds of up to 17,000 miles per hour (about 27,359 kilometers per hour), this space junk can hit and damage a satellite or spacecraft.
One company that wants to clean up in space is D-Orbit. Based in the Italian town of Fino Mornasco, north of Milan, the company describes itself as a space logistics company.
With each rocket launch, items are transported in tubes that can be rented to launch something into orbit. Once that’s done, the company goes in search of decommissioned satellites and recovers their valuable materials to recycle to repair or refuel other satellites. The company has raised millions of dollars in investments. The aim is to make launching objects into space commonplace – while ensuring that this practice is sustainable from the start.
Back to earth
Not only space tourism attracts investments. Space infrastructure, which includes GPS, geospatial intelligence and communications, is an important segment in this sector.
Chad Anderson is CEO of Space Capital, a venture capital firm that backs more than 1,500 space technology companies with $200 billion in global equity. For him, the space race isn’t just a fancy trip to push boundaries, it’s helping fight some of the planet’s biggest problems.
“What I think gets lost in the hype is the fact that without space, we wouldn’t even know about climate change. To tackle challenges of this magnitude, we need global solutions, and satellites are the only way to do that.”
The space race is picking up speed and the focus of the economy goes far beyond space tourism. Record investments promise to take the space industry to new heights in the years to come. And as investment in space technology shifts to areas like sustainability, perhaps we will learn lessons to protect our climate and save our way of life on Earth.