With an expected $1.4 trillion revenue generation by 2030, modern space commerce provides abundant opportunities for new startups. Yet, there are still many challenges to overcome by private entrepreneurs seeking to participate in this flourishing market. Sending a payload to space can take years, depending on a variety of complexities (e.g., the pandemic). It entails lengthy, multi-stage processes to receive proper licensing, authorizations, and associated validations for security, quality, and safety. Here are the key factors to consider.
As more countries adopt space laws, governments form regulatory bodies that specifically deal with space activities and grant authorizations for participants. Unfortunately, this process is not streamlined in the United States (US). While there are many Space Acts and regulations in place, the complications, vague guidance, and reactive decisions make it extremely difficult to navigate the various organizations involved in the launch process. The list includes the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Department of Defense (DOD), and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) to name a few.
There is progress though, however slow. For example, the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) is working on streamlining regulations for launch and reentry activity. The goal, according to the former President’s 2020 Space Policy Directive-2, is to require a single license for all commercial space flights and increase flexibility for endpoint operators.
Launch Facility Accessibility
There has been long-standing tension between commercial customers and launch service providers; satellite operators particularly. This has spawned a recent surge in new launch companies entering the market to improve competitive pricing and service flexibility. To be launch-ready, these companies often need access to testing facilities like NASA’s Glenn Research Center or Spaceport America’s private facilities. And there are not enough of them.
Rigorous testing, experimentation, and validation go into developing space technology to establish safe and viable solutions. As an illustration, materials, and equipment require resiliency testing for extreme pressures, temperatures, and vibrations. Additionally, ideal launch locations need to be ISO accredited with large clean rooms, bakeout facilities, thermal vacuums, and more, to accelerate assembly and integration of sensitive space configurations. Many logistical challenges, inexperienced crews, and shifting timelines create costly constraints.
The FAA is responsible for granting launch licenses in the US. It states that “Launch and reentry licenses are vehicle specific and authorize you to conduct one or more launches or reentries having the same operational parameters of one type of launch or reentry vehicle operating at one launch or reentry site.” Itemized activity is authorized under the license with identifiers such as name and mission. Termination occurs upon completion of authorized launch or reentries, or when the expiration date arrives, whichever comes first. This is merely one example of launch licensing requirements and associated controls applied in the US and takes up many months of the pre-launch process.
Although the FAA rarely denies a launch license to companies that submit all the appropriate documentation, it does happen. For example, it recently denied a payload review for Momentus, citing that the DOD had raised “national security and foreign ownership concerns” about the company. The FAA will reconsider the payload once Momentus addresses those concerns and the transportation company has been diligently working on them.
Space deployment is an expensive endeavor, although affordability is gradually approaching. A typical launch into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) costs about $10,000 USD to $25,000 per kilogram ($4,500 to $11,000 per pound). If a company is sending a five-ton satellite, it can cost anywhere from $20 million to $125 million. A full Space Shuttle deployment is approximately $800 million to $1.5 billion after all expenses. Despite investment in space companies hitting a record of $7.7 billion in 2020, the industry still poses considerable risk to potential investors.
Companies can find contests and public funding through programs like NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which invested $45 million in Phase I, and another $105 million in Phase II, to support small space businesses. However, space investment often occurs at the public level, with most investors opting for stocks and funds, which reflects at the minimum assurance that these companies are maturing. The remaining space investors tend to prefer space tourism and operations to mine celestial bodies, which have more direct commercial profit opportunities.
Navigation & Location Limitations
There is no GPS in space, so navigation requires frames of reference. Additionally, no universal navigational standards exist. However, the references are commonly chosen with the simplest visualization and mathematics. Currently, over 3,300 satellites are orbiting Earth, and the distance between them is getting smaller.
NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) is one of the only networks with an international array of massive radio antennas supplying the base infrastructure for interplanetary missions. Yet this system is insufficient and unable to track all possible collisions between space objects. Space agencies now perform Collision On Launch Assessments (COLA) for launches, but that’s not enough. Companies involved in launches must account for such events and accept the risk of collisions without indication. These risks increase R&D, manufacturing, and launch costs, including Debris Avoidance Maneuvers (DAM), new sensory equipment, and similar technologies for satellites to assess the LEO environment and prevent catastrophic destruction.
Every industry has barriers to entry, but the Cosmos demands greater due diligence than others. The challenges space entrepreneurs face can delay a launch for months,if it happens at all, which is why entrepreneurs who are beginning this journey should be aware of the potential pitfalls confronting pioneering companies. Everything worthwhile comes with challenges. And Lunargistics is focused on solving these through creative strategies, intensive competencies, and innovative technologies to empower participants in the new space economy.