Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a remarkable decline in space activity. Since its beginning, space exploration was driven largely by the twin engines of defence applications and national prestige.
For most companies and industries, space has simply been beyond their reach, leaving numerous commercial possibilities unrealised. Instead, space exploration was led by national space agencies such as NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), with some contributions from large aerospace giants including Lockheed Martin or Boeing.
Applications, too, were limited, with satellites being the main commercial use of space. This, of course, has brought about vital economic benefits, not least the use of GPS. However, in the last few decades, smaller private companies have entered the scene, such as Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and most notably SpaceX.
Scotland too is home to some of these companies, such as Clyde Space (AAC Clyde), Skyrora, Spire, Astrosat, Alba Orbital, along with projects like the Sutherland spaceport. The arrival of the so-called New Space companies into the aerospace ecosystem is helping drive innovation and develop space as a commercially viable sphere.
DIGIT spoke with two aerospace engineers – former ESA-based Space Operations Engineer and Founder of Rocket Women Vinita Marwaha Madill, who is currently working as Project Manager at Mission Control Space Services in Canada, and Senior Engineer of Flight Systems at BAE, Sophie Harker.
They spoke as part of This Is Engineering Day on November 4th, which is a day led by the Royal Academy of Engineering that celebrates the often-unseen engineering that is all around us and shines a light on the diverse group of engineers that are making a difference to our everyday lives and our futures.
The two discussed some of the challenges facing commercialising space and how ‘New Space’ companies are finding solutions.
While space exploration comes with many ambitious long-term goals, reaching Mars being one of the least of them, there are commercial opportunities a lot closer to home. Low-Earth orbit is where many of the private companies have been working, particularly around two areas – satellite constellations and the International Space Station.
“The International Space Station programme has created a launch market for new companies,” Madill said.
“We’re using the space station as an innovation accelerator that’s really critical to private sector development in low-Earth orbit while space agencies can work towards exploring the rest of the solar system,” she added.
Meanwhile, private companies have been particularly active in launching new satellites. At present, there are around 6,000 satellites orbiting Earth, though around 3,500 of these are defunct. SpaceX’s Starlink mega constellation alone aims to increase this by adding thousands of small satellites into orbit.
Beyond low-Earth orbit, the space industry has set returning to the Moon as a major goal over the next few years. NASA’s Artemis project aims to put people, including the first woman, on the lunar surface by 2024.
Recent news of the discovery of water on the Moon has even renewed hope of a permanent human presence on the Moon.
All of this requires a slew of new innovations, including designing rovers, new spacesuits, power sources and data uplinks to ensure all the new information about the lunar surface is captured.
“We’re going to see a ramping up of interest both in orbit and on the lunar surface from space agencies, governments, and also the private sector and commercial entities. And that’s driven by science and engineering, technology development and preparing for future exploration,” Madill said.
But before reaching these goals, the space industry will need to overcome many technical challenges. This in turn will require innovation to create new equipment.
For example, physically reaching space is a major challenge – breaking Earth’s gravity is a highly energy-intensive process. To date, rockets have been the main way to send people and equipment into orbit. However, rockets are ultimately an inefficient technology.
“Rather than using the same methods that we’ve used since the 40s, there’s a lot of ongoing work into alternative ways for us to get into space – not just burning fuel and oxygen to make your way up there with brute force,” Harker said.
While NASA’s Space Shuttle was retired when it failed to reduce launch costs, SpaceX has had success recently with its Falcon 9 rockets, which have a reusable first stage, not withstanding its most recent setback. Reusable rockets will help reduce costs as part of the expensive equipment is not sacrificed for every launch, increasing the scalability of space operations.
“But one of the limitations that SpaceX will have is the actual rockets – although they’re doing some fantastic things to make rockets more reusable and more efficient, they are still rockets,” Harker added.
“They still burn a lot of fuel to get through the atmosphere with the majority burned in the first third of the flight just to get through the atmosphere.”
She pointed to alternatives like the Skylon concept, a single-stage space plane being developed by British company Reaction Engines, as a potential alternative. This functions much like a conventional plane, taking off from a runway and landing again after the mission, using the atmosphere to get to space rather than forcing a way through it.
This would help to significantly reduce the cost of sending items into space, along with speeding up and scaling up operations, as the plane is estimated to have a turnaround time of only two days.
With so many ambitious goals and challenges to overcome, one group, no matter how big, can achieve them all alone. Cooperation is key to unlocking space’s economic potential.
“Traditionally, only governments held the keys to space – the funds, liability effect, the tech and the permission to go to space and explore. But with SpaceX, a commercial space company has proven that it can take it can take an astronaut into space in a really innovative way,” Madill said.
The new space ecosystem is based around three groups of key players – large national space agencies, established aerospace companies and private commercial space companies.
While it is the commercial space companies that have defined this new ecosystem and garnered the most attention, it is the space agencies that are still driving the agenda and providing essential support.
NASA, for example, has increased its expenditures to private firms since 2010. This is partly to save on a variety of routine services, such as maintaining the International Space Station.
“The goal for space agencies right now is to commercialise low-Earth orbit and have these industries involved to keep humans commercially present in low-Earth orbit,” Madill said.
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The agencies started by outsourcing some of the smaller, more routine operations while they focused on the larger issues around space exploration.
“What’s different now is the agencies are outsourcing some of the bigger projects,” Harker said. “SpaceX, for example, was the first commercial company to launch astronauts into space using their own rocket technology.”
And Madill said: “In the past, national space agencies built and launched the spacecraft that carried astronauts into space, and now it’s changing. That’s really ushering in a new era of space travel.”
As a sector, operating in space comes with numerous risks and the danger of major technical failures. This is a massive liability for small companies, which could be wiped out by one bad mission or test.
Large companies play into this ecosystem by providing support and experience to smaller companies.
“Companies like BAE Systems have a lot of expertise in areas such as design and safety analysis,” Harker said. “They know how to put processes in place and make sure things are safe and suitable for purpose. They can also invest in smaller companies and utilise that technology in bigger projects.”
As such, it is this level of cooperation that defines the New Space ecosystem. While none of the technical goals the space industry is pursuing can be achieved quickly and easily, the introduction of private enterprise is defining how space will be used in the coming decades.
“We’re on the precipice of making space accessible to everybody,” Madill noted.