What is in this article?:
Investing time, money and resources in space carries an incredibly high risk. It also carries potential for a ridiculously high yield. Prepare for launch with a breakdown of the whats and hows for a growing segment (more than a quarter of a trillion dollars annually) of the supply chain.
This image from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows dark, narrow streaks on the slopes of Hale Crater, inferred to be formed by seasonal flow of water on the surface of the fourth planet from the Sun. We might be there before much longer ... and building up the space economy.
We may argue here on Earth about how quickly energy resources, precious metals and water are dwindling. But few will debate the potential benefit of tapping the limitless supply of these resources awaiting us on the Moon, the asteroids and planets in our Solar System. In this case, the sky is literally the limit. The so-called space economy represents the ultimate in a high-yield investment. But, as always, for investors there is a proportionately high risk.
Defining that risk is as difficult as defining the boundaries of the space economy. Today, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Space Forum describes the global space economy largely in terms of the core activities required to build and launch vehicles and payloads into orbit. In 2013, commercial revenues for these activities generated some $256 billion globally. However, as we establish the orbital infrastructure necessary to reach further, the space economy’s definition will eventually encompass all public and private factors involved in developing, providing and using space-related outputs, space-derived products and services, and the scientific knowledge arising from research.
Between us and the incredible opportunities waiting in space are several supremely difficult technological challenges, beginning with the need for a basic communications infrastructure in orbit that will help us navigate to the next stages of a successful space economy. Beyond that is the task of leveraging entirely new manufacturing modalities in zero gravity. Beyond even that, the almost inconceivable difficulties and potential of settling on and mining a virtually infinite range of celestial bodies for their precious resources.
Fortunately, the rudimentary tools that will help us solve these future challenges are apparent in the established and emerging manufacturing methods of today, such as mass production, robotics, 3-D printing (additive manufacturing) and others. These technologies are on track to form the foundation for the early stages of the emerging space economy, starting with the first: Launch and early orbit.
First Stage: Launch and Early Orbit
The orbital space economy has been slow to get off the ground due to the seemingly prohibitive cost barriers of moving infrastructure off the planet surface. This assumption, however, is being challenged today by entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk, whose SpaceX aims to reduce launch costs to less than one-tenth of competing rocket systems. The strategy underlying this ambitious goal has several elements, and lowering manufacturing cost is among them — as demonstrated by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which incorporates three nearly identical rocket stages rather than two solids and a core stage. By producing identical units, SpaceX simplifies production and thus reduces unit cost. This approach also allows constant improvement of product manufacturing processes, allowing SpaceX to accelerate production rates of its Falcon 9 first stage or Falcon Heavy side booster every week or an upper stage every two weeks.
As launch costs become more affordable, space becomes a more attractive environment for once earth-borne sectors, such as data server farms. As the backbone of today’s fast-growing digital economy, the computers on these farms draw massive amounts of electricity from the grid; and the cooling systems required to keep them from overheating use nearly as much power as the servers.
Jabil and its customers are already exploring the potential benefits of placing data farms in orbit, lending a very literal twist to cloud computing. As an operating environment, Earth’s orbit offers virtually unlimited real estate for data farms, as well as an endless source of unmetered electrical power from solar energy. The vacuum of space also provides the perfect heat sink to ease the task of cooling servers and even enabling supercomputing systems to operate faster.
Further, the long, unobstructed sight lines above Earth simplify wireless networking. This introduces the option of designing orbital data farms as small computing nodes linked together to form a constellation. Smaller nodes are not only easier to power and cool, they are less costly to launch. ConnectX — no relation to SpaceX — is one company proposing such an idea to offer big data processing capabilities that cost an order of magnitude less for its customers.
As the pace and sophistication of satellite and launch technology accelerates, it will provide the foundations for the space economy’s second stage, in which manufacturing and other activities will shift into orbit as well.