Carlos Robles
Vice President, Central Region
Mexican Federation of Aerospace Industries (FEMIA)
Expert Contributor

Two Fairy Tales of New Space

By Carlos Robles | Wed, 04/14/2021 - 12:58

Once upon a time, mankind dreamed about living and commercially exploiting both the Moon and later, Mars. Technology advancements, new materials and science were ready for a trip that started with the first space missions. The trip then evolved through international collaboration to the consortium that placed the International Space Station (ISS) in orbit and constellations of satellites for diverse usages, including communication enablement and management, defense, telemetrics for F1 cars and races, orbital surveillance of other satellites and constellations, and Earth observation useful to analyze migration patterns of many species, de-icing of the polar caps, changes in the temperature of the seas or global warming and its collateral damage. All that was in place but there was no money to implement technology or knowledge to start making dreams come true.

The era of space shuttles lasted 30 years, from 1981 to 2011, and since the last flight the space adventure of humankind took a pause for almost a decade. The US depended on Russia to send astronauts to the ISS and the focus and attention was on missions to the Station to experiment and learn. The original plan of many companies working on designing and constructing the new generation of shuttles to send astronauts into space in new spaceships targeted 2017, but due to delays and challenges it did not happen until 2020. New companies with different targets are aiming to participate in the conquest of New Space. These companies range from transport, mining, housing design and construction in space, to tourism and art. Put the phrase “private space exploration” into a search engine and a wealth of links emerges. NASA created Artemis, a program with the objective of placing humankind on the Moon and Mars in a sustainable way, exploiting them with commercial aims. Then, some people capable of looking beyond the obvious, with the economic muscle to invest in this kind of adventure, started funding projects and gained access to technology and knowledge in exchange. The result: the first fairy tale is slowly but certainly becoming reality.

The second fairy tale has our country being part of the conquest of New Space. Yes, you are totally right if you tell me there is not going to be a shuttle designed and built in Mexico to explore space. But there are smaller things we can design and build due to our already existent capabilities: satellites. There is a big difference between building and launching satellites into low Earth orbit for telecommunications and sending crew and cargo to the International Space Station and beyond. Private companies in several nations have been engaged in the satellite market for many years. Their contributions to the development of nongovernmental space exploration had helped to lay the trail for entrepreneurs with the vision and resources to develop their own pathways to space. But why are satellites a great starting point to put our signature in the New Space? Near term, space as an investment theme is also likely to impact a number of industries beyond aerospace and defense, such as the IT hardware and telecom sectors. Morgan Stanley estimates that the global space industry could generate revenue of more than $1 trillion or more in 2040, up from $350 billion currently. Yet, the most significant short- and medium-term opportunities may come from satellite broadband internet access. Morgan Stanley also estimates that satellite broadband will represent 50 percent of the projected growth of the global space economy by 2040 — and as much as 70 percent in the most bullish scenario. Launching satellites that offer broadband internet service will help to drive down the cost of data, just as demand for that data explodes.

The cost of access to space and data is falling big time. And “normal” applications require more and more data; just think about bandwidth for autonomous cars, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and video. In the near future, the per-megabyte cost of wireless data will be less than 1 percent of today's levels. Technology has evolved and now it is possible to have the power of processing, cameras and computer interaction in the palm of our hands. The same technology is being used in satellites. While reusable rockets will help drive those costs down, so too will the mass-production of satellites and the maturation of satellite technology. Currently, the cost to launch a satellite has declined to about $60 million, from $200 million, via reusable rockets, with a potential drop to as low as $5 million. And satellite mass production could decrease that cost from $500 million per satellite to $500,000.

And the fairy tale? What role can Mexico play in the satellite industry? AEM (Agencia Espacial Mexicana) has the infrastructure to build small to medium-sized satellites. That is a US$3 billion market in which we can be playing an important role. The knowledge, willingness and the market are there. There is even an agreement signed with the Atlantic International Research Center (AIR Centre). The AIR Centre is an international collaborative organization that promotes an integrative approach to space, climate, ocean and energy in the Atlantic. The AIR Centre is driven by and at the same time supports emerging technological innovations and advances in data science. The satellites are already designed for Earth observation, some are already in orbital position and Mexico has access to the engineering, with already-agreed knowledge transfer, and the infrastructure to do it. A Mexican company, Thrusters Unlimited, is already betting on the potential of Earth observation. They can design specific applications to meet your requirements, dedicating special teams to analyze and process your images. They can produce a swath of 12km to 600km with different resolution. The application is as big as our imagination can make it.

If you enjoyed reading this fairy tale, I am sorry to end by saying it is not a tale. It is real, and it is happening while you read this. There is still a long way to go, and certainly it will not be easy, but as long as it is possible, and companies like AEM, NASA, AIR Centre, academic institutions and entrepreneurs are capable of collaborating, we will be playing in the big leagues, manufacturing satellites, creating constellations, designing apps for them and selling all kinds of services. The market is huge, and we are aiming for a portion of it.

May we all be able to collaborate with it, so we can finish the tale like all classics: … and they lived happily ever after

Photo by:   Carlos Robles