Space Exploration and the Private Space Sector
Exponential Future #2
In this episode of the Exponential Future series, I cover recent developments in the space industry as well as interesting upcoming plans. From new rocket announcements leading to CEOs literally eating their hats through the increasing involvement of private space companies in space exploration to space hotels. It’s all in there.
You can also listen to the audio version of this post using the controls below or by visiting my Podcast page.
The month of February and the beginning of March 2021 were quite eventful for the space industry.
Most recently, Rocket Lab announced they are building their largest reusable rocket so far called Neutron which aims at competing with SpaceX and Blue Origin. Rocket Lab is following in SpaceX shoes by holding second place in launch frequency among the private players with Neutron’s predecessor, Electron, having made 16 successful launches in the past 4 years. The new Neutron rocket will be 40 meters high and able to carry 20 times heavier cargo than Electron but most importantly able to carry humans into space.
Rocket Lab recently went public via a merger with Vector Acquisition Corporation, bringing the company’s valuation to $4.1 billion. There is still a long way to cover of course until it reaches SpaceX which is valued at $74 billion but I believe it’s on the right track!
As great as this is, the competitiveness of Neutron was of course exaggerated by the media. The downside which most media chose to overlook is that Neutron will not have its own crew capsules and it is not intended to be an interplanetary spaceship like Starship.
Anyway, Rocket Lab’s CEO Peter Beck made the announcement in a funny and inspiring video which also included a part of him eating his own hat. The reason being that in the past he said he’ll eat his own hat if Rocket Lab ever made the move towards reusable rockets. Well, he did fulfill his promise!
Talking about the private space industry, Jeff Bezos stepped down as CEO of Amazon. This comes after in 2018 he said that Blue Origin was the most important work he is doing and yet in the past few years the company has been falling behind SpaceX. So it’s no surprise to see Bezos step down from Amazon at this precise time and free up some availability for Blue Origin. Later this year, we should see the start of the test flights of New Shephard which primary purpose will be to take tourists to space. There is also the launch of New Glenn which is geared as a competitor of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy.
Exploring The Moon and Mars
Alright, moving back to recent events, on the 18th of February we watched the Perseverance rover landing on Mars, accompanied by the Ingenuity helicopter. While the rover already sent us some stunning pictures of Mars, the helicopter is right now slowly charging its batteries and keeping its systems operational for its first attempted flight in the upcoming months. The goal of Ingenuity is to basically prove the possibility to fly in Mars’ atmosphere. If it manages to survive the harsh conditions by the time it’s ready and then takes off and hovers during the first attempt, the mission will be already at 90% success. If everything goes well until that point, Ingenuity can do up to four more flights. The overall goal is to test the possibility of exploration via drones which can scout ahead of the rovers and help with mapping the planet’s surface.
Going forward, NASA plans to put the first humans on Mars by 2033 although with the latest cuts in the budget the whole Artemis program will most probably suffer heavy delays. And before going to Mars, there’s of course the Moon Artemis missions. The next American astronauts to set foot on the Moon were planned for 2024 but so far it seems this won’t be the case.
Back to the topic of Mars, Perseverance wasn’t the only spacecraft to reach the red planet in February. United Arab Emirates’ Hope mission reached Mars making the country the fifth one in history to reach Mars. Hope will be studying the planet’s weather and climate conditions.
Furthermore, the Chinese Tianwen-1 orbiter also reached Mars on a mission to look for signs of water, research different types of rocks and other geological characteristics. Tianwen-1 carries a rover which will be dispatched in Q2 2021 and is planned to explore the red planet for 90 days. Once the rover is deployed the orbiter will serve as a communications relay. Tianwen-1 is one of the heaviest probes launched to Mars with 13 scientific instruments on board.
Talking about China’s space exploration efforts, in an interview earlier this year NASA’s Administrator Steve Jurczyk said they are watching closely what the Chinese are planning and doing in space especially their lunar missions. China is actively working on its own crewed Moon mission as well as a Research space station in collaboration with Russia. Neither of the two countries is part of the Artemis Accords signed last year by 9 nations.
China’s lunar exploration missions are named after the Chinese moon goddess Chang’e. Most recently, the fifth mission successfully returned Moon samples to Earth at the end of 2020 while the sixth and seventh missions are planned to explore the lunar south pole in 2023 and 2024. Changé 8th is the most interesting one which will be designed for in-situ resource utilization and 3D-printing technology tests, as well as life science research related to potential long-term stays on the Moon.
Commercial Lunar Payload Services
Back across the pacific, Nasa is building more partnerships with private space companies for Commercial Lunar Payload Services.
In a recent announcement by the space agency, it was reported that for the future Europa Clipper mission only commercial launch vehicles will be considered. As the name suggests the mission’s objective will be exploring Jupiter’s Moon Europa.
Other examples include those of Astrobotics and Intuitive Machines who later this year are planned to deliver a total number of 17 payloads to the Lunar surface. Astrobotics will launch with United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket while Intuitive Machines will launch on SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Furthermore, in 2023 as part of the Artemis Program Nasa is planning to deliver 10 instruments to the lunar surface using the Texas-based Firefly Aerospace lander Blue Ghost.
There are even more examples of NASA partnering with private organizations in the following years including flying the PRIME-1 payload to the Moon by Intuitive Machines in 2022 which is a precursor to the VIPER rover due to land on the Moon in the following year on board the Griffin lander by Astrobotics. The Viper rover will explore the permanently shadowed areas at the Lunar south pole looking for water ice.
All of these are great examples of how the space industry has progressed in the past decade allowing so many private organizations to take a central place in space exploration efforts while governmental space agencies are slowly moving towards a supporting role.
Also in relatively recent news Axiom Space completed a series B funding of $130 million towards building the first commercial space station. It will start by adding the first commercial space modules to ISS in 2024. Moreover, it seems Axiom Space will launch the first-ever private astronaut crew to ISS next January. This comes at a time when NASA raised quite a bit the prices for commercial users of the station due to the increasing demand.
We are witnessing the emergence of a whole new market right here.
The commercial space station by Axiom Space might be the first but it’s not the only one in the planning. Orbital Assembly Corporation is currently raising investment for their Voyager space station which will be the world’s first ‘space hotel’ in low Earth orbit. It’s currently planned to be operational by 2027 which I don’t think is feasible and it’s just marketing for their funding campaign but let’s see what they can pull off. The Voyager station will accommodate 400 people and it will offer restaurant, cinema and spa services.
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