Some believe space exploration is a thing of the past, but 2023 holds exciting prospects for proving them wrong. New technologies and players are creating innovative ways for the space industry to forge collaborations between private enterprise and governments and foster new industries.
The space industry is expected to grow to a $1 trillion enterprise, up 10% each year, and to employ 20,000 people by 2030.
This week, space industry leaders from NASA and the German, Italian and Greek space agencies, as well as from Portugal, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, met in Tel Aviv for the two-day Ilan Ramon Space Conference. The theme, Earth and Space Becoming One, was highlighted by technologies exhibited at the conference.
Israeli Space Week is organized each year and led by the Israel Space Agency of the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Technology. One of the event’s major objectives is to enhance Israelis’ access to science and technology—with special emphasis on the country’s periphery—raise public awareness of the “New Space” revolution and prepare the next generation of space innovators.
“We live in a revolutionary era of space exploration,” said Israeli President Isaac Herzog in his opening remarks at the conference. “The possibilities seem to stretch beyond all we can imagine.”
Herzog recalled the legacy of Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, and said that he hopes space exploration will transcend borders and bring peace to the world.
178 orbital launches
Tal Inbar, an independent research fellow in aerospace and missile defense, and one of the organizers of the conference, described some of the accomplishments in the field over the past year. They include 178 successful orbital launches led by the U.S., China, Russia, Europe and India. Of the 87 U.S. launches, 61 were undertaken by the Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX).
Inbar also pointed to the James Webb Space Telescope, now in a solar orbit, as a major accomplishment that has led to new discoveries in the field of astrophysics. He added that we can expect to hear new information about black holes this week.
Israel signed the Artemis Accords in January 2022, partnering with the U.S. and 21 other countries on Moon to Mars exploration.
According to James Free, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration system development, one of the goals of the Artemis project is to create a sustainable presence on the Moon in preparation for a long-term effort to reach Mars. The project includes exploring new Moon landing sites, melting ice from its polar ice caps and using the water for sustenance and fuel, and planning a two-year stay on the Moon and eventually on Mars.
The Artemis-I mission, launched on Nov. 16 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, carried an international experiment onboard in which the Israel Space Agency, Tel Aviv-based startup StemRad, the German Aerospace Center and NASA were all involved. The experiment examined radiation exposure throughout the flight and tested StemRad’s radiation protection vest.
While exploration was a major theme at the conference, another prominent issue was the privatization of space exploration, which may offer new opportunities for research and product development.
“It was a record year for worldwide space launches,” Inbar pointed out. “Most of the launches of satellites were conducted by SpaceX. We even watched one billionaire private citizen from the U.S. [Elon Musk] conducting a war with Russia with private satellite images. That’s unprecedented.”
SpaceX’s Axiom Mission 1 to the International Space Station last April was crewed by non-professional astronauts from the U.S., Canada and Israel involved in research projects spanning the fields of health, biology, educational outreach and technology. They included augmented reality holograms for communication, which is expected to influence telemedicine.
Inbar said that the space economy is booming and, as more private companies join the field, global technology innovators are jumping in as well. For example, the Luna Rover, which is the size of a shoebox, is designed and built in Dubai.
Inventors and investors are also beginning to consider how to make money in space.
The ‘New Space Revolution’
Renana Ashkenazi of Grove Ventures, a panelist among a group of operations and venture capitalists discussing the investment landscape of the “New Space Revolution,” is a general partner providing pre-seed, seed and seed-plus funding for startups in Edge computing, cloud, AI, digital health and space. Grove currently has one direct space investment—Ramon Space, a company developing space-proof computer systems for satellites based on a multi-core processor.
“Radiation and extreme temperatures make it hard to maintain and service computers in space,” Ashkenazi explained. “Space computers require a different computer architecture with more power.”
According to Ashkenazi, there has been a steady increase in space technology and investments in it. She predicts they will continue to grow.
“The space sector was historically only government, but now it’s shifted to civilian,” she said. “The confluence of reusable and low-cost rockets, small cube sats and increased fuel efficiency all dramatically reduced launch costs. The barrier of access is lower. This opened the window for commercial applications in space. Reaching space is cheaper, so now businesses can figure out what to do once they get there.”
She pointed out that there are new money-making opportunities in space. Uses for earth observation, for example, are endless. Military, navigation, climate and weather analysis satellites can take continuous images of every place on Earth. This is not just used for espionage. As technology develops, these images can be used to better understand the effects of natural disasters and carbon emissions can be tracked. Satellite communication activities provide communication to areas where there is no fiber-optic infrastructure installed, even in the densest jungle. Manufacturers are also finding new uses for space travel. Launch costs are determined by weight, but now parts can be shipped into outer space to be put together on a space station or the Moon.
Ashkenazi estimated that there are around 60 Israeli companies in the space industry. Some of them are developing dual-use applications, such as Helios Space, with startup-developed technology that can manufacture oxygen from Moon sand for breathing and fuel. This innovative technology can also be used to manufacture steel in an environmentally-friendly way. She said that while Moon oxygen may be profitable in 10 years, it will take a lot less time to make money on steel manufacturing, so investors can begin to see quick returns.
“In times of crisis [such as the current economic slowdown] we look for things that we need,” she said. “Not for things that would be nice to have.”
For example, a company that focuses on Earth observation should do more than just collect images. Investors can ask what the business implications of the intelligence produced might be. When investing, Ashkenazi suggested, one should look for companies that develop solutions to today’s problems.
Oren Milstein, the CEO of StemRad, has been developing products that offer radiation protection in space, but his startup addresses other needs as well.
The AstroRad vest and technology developed by StemRad offer protection for physicians who work in catheterization labs and will have other key uses here on Earth.
“Privatization is not about space tourism,” explained one of the SpaceX mission specialists. “It’s serious research with serious outcomes that takes professional training for worthwhile outcomes.”
Israeli businesses and investors are taking notice. Some of the companies that gave presentations at the conference included Fink Orbital, Real Estate Developers in Space, which plans to work with companies to create manufacturing plants in space; Axium Space, which intends to build the world’s first commercial space station; and Sierra Space—formerly Sierra/Nevada Corporation—which raised $1.4 billion in its Series A round to develop Orbital Reef, a plan for commercially developed, owned and operated space stations.