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Old vs New: the next generation of the space industry

The SPARTAN re-usable space launch technology. Thomas Keith, Author provided

Old vs New: the next generation of the space industry

A massive change occurring in the space industry became apparent at the recent SPACE 2016 conference, one of the biggest annual international events related to space technology.

The conference, in California earlier this month, involved significant players in the space industry from US government (NASA), the aerospace industry and for the first time, venture capitalists and start-ups.

So what is this massive change that is occurring in the space industry?

It is the equivalent of the well-known “digital disruption” that is forcing painful change in any number of industries. It even has a name, it’s called “New Space versus Old Space”.

The Old…

Old Space is the space industry we know and love. It took us to the moon; it flew the space shuttle 135 times.

It is currently building the Space Launch System for NASA, to eventually take astronauts back to the International Space Station (ISS) and on to Mars.

It develops the systems that NASA and other government agencies ask for, and is made up of the large heritage aerospace companies.

It has significant achievements over many years, but along with NASA it has become cumbersome and risk-averse, attributes that make space hardware very, very, expensive.

… and the New

New Space comes in a multitude of forms, but its goals are to be agile, responsive, and accepting of risk, and therefore far less expensive than Old Space.

It is a combination of the very competitive business world of venture capital and Silicon Valley with out-of-the-box thinking inspired by the wild space frontier.

The poster child of New Space is of course SpaceX. SpaceX is taking on Old Space with its re-supply missions to the ISS.

These are lucrative contracts let by NASA, and until recently were the bread and butter of Old Space. SpaceX has successfully serviced the ISS seven times at costs that are well below those charged by more established companies.

In reality, however, a better example of New Space is probably Planet Lab Inc. Planet Lab has an array of 87 small satellites called “Doves” that fly in very low orbits, covering all parts of the Earth at least once every day.

The company has created a lucrative business selling imagery of the Earth. It can supply, for a cost, images of any part of the world within a 24-hour period. See the image below. Where is it? Have a close look and I will let you know at the end of this article.

The view from above, but where? Planet Lab, CC BY-SA

Planet Lab has grand plans to increase the number of satellites so it can supply hourly imagery. After being started by two space geeks in 2010, Planet Lab is now valued at US$1 billion.

The next generation

Like most labels, “New Space versus Old Space” is not necessarily an accurate description of reality. I think what’s going on is more like “kids versus parents”.

Without the Old Space knowledge gained over 50 years, New Space could not exist.

The same is true for all the infrastructure that New Space takes advantage of. For example, Spacex launches from existing launch facilities in Florida and Northern California developed by Old Space for the US government.

Old Space is like your parents who have established themselves, are quite happy with their life, and who nurture and protect their children so they have the opportunity to go boldly out into the world.

New Space are the kids who want to leave the nest and follow their own path. They don’t look back and don’t see the helping hand that Old Space provided.

Australian space effort

Here in Australia we don’t have any Old Space to lean on. But we are making our contribution as New Space “orphans” in our own way.

One example is the world-leading expertise we have in hypersonic engines called scramjets. After more than 20 years of fundamental research, The University of Queensland has proposed a small satellite launch system called SPARTAN that uses scramjets.

SPARTAN on the launch pad. Craig Oddy, Author provided

It flies into space after being boosted by a rocket, releases an upper stage containing the satellite, and flies back to the launch pad like a plane. The SPARTAN can then fly again a few days later.

This is a completely “New Space” way to launch satellites, as all current systems use rockets, and until recently, all threw their rockets away after every launch.

SpaceX is the only exception, as it has begun landing its first-stage rocket boosters on a platform in the ocean.

Being able to reuse rockets, or in the case of SPARTAN, scramjets, is the path to significantly reducing the cost of going to space.

If the Australian governments get on board to support New Space projects like SPARTAN, the Australian economy can benefit strongly from the New Space revolution.

This type of investment could foster the high-tech jobs our economy desperately needs, and that our young people deserve. Australian New Space could be the successful orphan of the New Space economy.

Whatever happens in New Space, it will happen quickly. The opportunity is there for Australia right now, but it won’t be there for long.

And by the way, the Planet Lab image is of Rio De Janiero, just before the opening of the 2016 Olympic Games.