By Gyan Pathak
Space economy for the ‘new space’ is now face to face with mounting concerns which include the fragility of current growth and the worrying rate of increase in orbital debris.
An OECD report prepared for the G20 Space Leaders’ Meeting under India’s G20 Presidency titled “Harnessing ‘New Space’ for Sustainable Growth of the Space Economy” says that the space sector undergoing a transformation as “new space” is being provided with disruptive new offerings in space manufacturing and operations among other offerings, investment, and innovations models.
The phenomenon called “New Space” has begun about 15 years ago, but it has gained significant momentum in the last couple of years. This major shift is due to several factors: the emergence of new space technologies such as small satellites, lean manufacturing processes, billionaires from tech companies investing in space projects and paving the way for more private investment, advances in computing power and digitalisation leading to new space applications, and eventually key policy decisions to support the development of a new ecosystem of commercial space actors.
“New space” is characterised by new commercial actors who are introducing innovative industrial practices and funding strategies to the space sector. This has led to a reduction in the cost of access to space technologies and has fostered further space innovation. In just over a decade, “new space” actors have had a major impact on the global space sector.
This has led to a more intensive use of orbital resources, with higher launch activity and many more operational satellites on orbit. It has also democratised space access around the world with many governments supporting the development of national space capabilities, better distributing the benefits of space technologies and further improving conditions for innovation.
However, increasingly, there are concerns about the sustainability of this growth. Increases in launch activity are associated with a worrying increase in orbital debris, which could (in a worst-case scenario), disrupt orbits of high socio-economic value. Furthermore, the vitality of the “new space” ecosystem is fragile to economic shocks and market entrenchment.
The rising concerns about the sustainability of the growth in the “new space” ecosystem is associated with a worrying increase in space debris, and recent years’ succession of economic shocks threaten the vitality of the innovation ecosystem.
From a policy perspective, this creates multiple challenges in terms of sustainable and secure use and equitable access to technologies and orbital resources, which will require close collaboration between stakeholders at both the domestic and international level.
Launch activities have picked up from 2011 onwards, with the launch of the first nanosatellite constellations for earth observation. Commercial missions in the low-earth orbit are often deployed in multi-satellite constellations to improve geographic coverage and shorten revisit times, leading to a notable increase in the number of launched satellites or payloads.
Starting from 2019, the bulk of global launch activity is dedicated to the deployment of satellite broadband constellations in the low-earth orbit.
By the end of 2022, the constellations from two commercial operators, US’ SpaceX and UK’s OneWeb (3000 and 500 satellites respectively) represented more than half of all operational satellites on orbit. Commercial operators and their infrastructure now dominate in low-earth orbits and in geostationary orbits.
This is just the beginning. The US Kuiper constellation, backed by Amazon, is set to start deployment in 2023 and has booked up to 83 launches on various rockets in coming years to place their planned 3 000+ satellites on orbit. Other G20 economies have their own projects.
The Canadian government is supporting the commercial Telesat Lightspeed constellation, projects in the People’s Republic of China (Guo Wang) and Korea (Hanwha Systems) were announced in 2021; and in 2022, the European Union introduced its IRIS2 constellation for secure communications, expected to be fully operational in 2027. This comes in addition to multiple fully commercial projects.
Even if they do not all come to fruition, these initiatives increase the demand for space manufacturing and launch services, as well as orbital resources such as orbital occupancy and radio spectrum and fuel the creation of additional activities. There are now projects for commercial spaceports across the globe, from Norway to New Zealand.
There is also increased commercial interest for other space resources. By 2022, the United States, Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates and Japan had voted laws concerning resources extracted commercially from celestial objects.
The rapid growth of the space economy is raising concerns about the environmental sustainability of future activities. Furthermore, the current economic climate puts the continued vitality of the “new space” ecosystem at risk. Finally, there are doubts about the economic viability of several of the proposed projects for satellite broadband and other ambitious activities, such as in-space resources extraction.
Increased density on orbit increases risk for collisions and debris generation, as well as light pollution disrupting astronomic observations. There is also pollution associated with manufacturing, launch and spacecrafts’ re-entry into the atmosphere.
“New space” business model also faces multiple technological, market and regulatory risks, the report warns. However, to sustain the growth, policy action is needed to ensure that this growth is sustained, sustainable, and equitable. Finally, multi-actor collaboration and partnerships are needed to solve mutual challenges such as the long-term stability of a crowded orbital environment. (IPA Service)