Space is the next start-up battleground

SES is soon to become the first company to use a ‘second hand’ rocket to send a payload into space. One of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 boosters, which landed safely on a drone ship after delivering a payload to the International Space Station in April, is to take the SES-10 communications satellite into orbit.

This is a hugely important step. Re-usable rocket boosters could dramatically drop the cost of getting into orbit. And in doing so, increase the accessibility of space.

As accessibility increases, so the range of applications that people start to find for space will increase. In fact, many applications that have always been science fiction might start to become reality. Like space-based solar power, asteroid mining, zero-gravity manufacturing, and longer-range human spaceflight.

Right now the space economy largely consists of placing satellites in low-earth orbit. This is what most rockets spend most of their time doing. It’s a pretty unregulated economy up there — something NASA is concerned about. But today’s space economy will look positively conservative once the new gold rush really begins.

Cost per kilo into low-earth orbit is likely to fall from around $20,000 to $2000 in the next couple of years. When it does, the opportunity becomes much more tangible.

Some start-ups are already pushing the envelope of what’s possible. LikePlanetary Resources, gearing up to mine asteroids. But there will be many thousands more, each with their own idea about how to build a business out of the available resources.

The first businesses will be entirely Earth-focused. Like Planet, providing photographic coverage of the entire Earth. Imagine carbon-free space-based solar power. Or access to rare materials mined from asteroids. We weren’t joking when we made In The Future: asteroids might really save the earth.

But where things really start to get exciting is when space has its own economy. Fuel stations, for example. Someone will extract ice from asteroids. Someone else will use solar energy to split it into hydrogen and oxygen to power rockets beyond Earth’s orbit. Space factories building space craft and space habitats will need materials mined in space: bringing them up from Earth will be too expensive, even at the lower rates.

Someone will profit from all of these things. But be warned: this economy probably doesn’t provide a huge jobs boost. Space is a dangerous place. Everything that can be automated, will be — just as SpaceX’s launchers and landing ships are now.

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Tom Cheesewright