The space industry has experienced a remarkable transformation in recent years, ushering in what is not-so-commonly referred to as the New Space era. The rise of commercial entities alongside traditional national agencies has led to a new era of crowded space. This article explores the trends of commercialization, satellite miniaturization, and novel services in the New Space era. As always, my writing seeks to put the challenges associated with orbital debris into context for all outer space scenarios and highlight the need for international cooperation in space management.
Commercialization in New Space
The New Space era is characterized by the increasing participation of commercial entities in space activities. Previously dominated by national agencies, the industry now welcomes companies with diverse objectives. Nowadays, you could start a business in asteroid mining, telecommunications, Earth and space observation, space tourism, and or even exploration. Key players like Blue Origin, SpaceX, OneSpace, and Rocket Lab have emerged, driving significant growth and innovation in the commercial space sector. Outer space is now accessible from any corner of the globe. This poses challenges in space traffic management, orbital debris mitigation, and regulatory oversight. Nations with weak governmental space programs but strong financial hubs might find their laws unfit to handle the boom of the private space sector.
Challenges to International Cooperation
Challenges lie ahead midst the opportunities presented by the New Space era. Prominently, the disintegration of cooperation on the International Space Station (ISS) highlights the complexities of maintaining international collaboration in space exploration and research. The ISS will reach its planned retirement at the end of the decade without a replacement of the same magnitude. Major spacefaring nations are shifting toward smaller, unilateral space stations. This transition necessitates democratic decision-making on managing orbital debris, which becomes increasingly challenging as more countries participate in outer space activities. Establishing clear definitions of orbital debris and determining thresholds for threats to others require careful deliberation and international consensus.
Debris Risks and Miniature Solutions
The growing number of space actors raises concerns about collisions and the creation of orbital debris, which can jeopardize future space missions. To address this issue, satellite miniaturization has become a prevailing trend. Advancements in computer and sensory technology have made it possible to develop smaller and more efficient satellites, known as CubeSats. These miniature satellites offer greater affordability and accessibility, enabling newcomers and budget-restricted actors to have a presence in space. Despite this progress, the issue of orbital debris remains critical. Establishing a formal orbital debris mitigation and removal (ODMR) regime is crucial to prevent the creation of additional debris by rogue states or companies, necessitating ad hoc responses from the international community.
Tourism in New Space
The commercialization trend in the New Space era has also led to the development of novel services. While space tourism is still in its early stages, several companies are actively pursuing this venture to provide individuals with the chance to experience space travel. Axiom Space collaborated with SpaceX to conduct a series of commercial missions to the International Space Station. In January 2022, the first fully private crewed mission, named Axiom Mission 1 (Ax-1), successfully launched and docked with the ISS. The mission involved three private individuals who paid to experience life aboard the ISS for a duration of 10 days. It only set them back a meek $55 million USD.
A Rocky Start to Asteroid Mining
In addition, asteroid mining holds the potential for extracting valuable resources from celestial bodies, presenting new avenues for economic growth and resource utilization. However, there is little viability of mining being a commercial success anytime soon. The first asteroid mining companies, Planetary Resources and DSI (Deep Space Industries), lost their luster and funding and were acquired by other companies that basically made asteroid mining operations obsolete. To be clear, humans have never ‘mined’ an asteroid yet. Locating asteroids is hard, getting there is harder, and actually extracting resources is unthinkable with just one company’s resources. There definitely is some dissonance between the entrepreneurial spirit and the technological practicality of asteroid mining in the year 2023.
What else is new?
In other sectors, entrepreneurial ideas can be tested and refined with relative ease. Unfortunately, venturing into space demands meticulous planning and technical expertise. There is a major barrier to entry if you want to maintain and operate these missions (or customer experiences…however you want to view them). Everyone is trying to stand out from the rest, at all costs. Fortunately, we will create and bear witness to the most ridiculous entrepreneurial ideas to ever grace outer space. The allure of space and the desire to leave their mark can drive individuals and companies to explore uncharted territories.
However, it is important to strike a balance between innovation and practicality. It’s imperative that the industry ensures that ventures in space align with scientific objectives and responsible utilization of resources. Companies need to stay transparent with the sustainability of their space ventures to appease the general public. There is already enough resource waste on the planet.
The New Space era has ushered in a new chapter in the space industry, characterized by the commercialization of space exploration and the emergence of innovative services. However, the risks associated with collisions and orbital debris demand immediate attention. The establishment of a formal ODMR regime is essential to ensure the sustainable and responsible utilization of outer space. Finally, as the industry evolves, cooperation and collective decision-making will be crucial in navigating the challenges and maximizing future opportunities.