The Tech That Falls from Space

When NASA announced that it was awarding close to US$1 billion in new contracts as part of a project to return astronauts to the moon by 2024, it felt like a headline from the 1960s.

In fact, the American agency’s Artemis project, which tapped space industry players established by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Tesla’s Elon Musk for its next phase, is part of a technology-inspired continuum that dates to the start of the space race.

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Indeed, the results of space research have been the source of numerous technology innovations, many of which we now take for granted. Desensitized by awe-inspiring science fiction CGI, most of us gloss over the true impact of space science that has led to mobile devices and GPS systems that rely on satellite data.

Digital business leaders have taken notice, however. Record investment in global space ventures, along with ever-increasing revenues generated by the space industry, suggests that space continues to be a key driver of technology and business innovation. Space-based breakthroughs have birthed new technologies and even new markets, including LEDs and advanced solar technology, anti-icing systems and firefighting gear, improved food safety and water purification, and even enriched baby food and our beloved memory-foam mattresses.

More than 9,000 satellites orbit the Earth, providing a powerful source of Big Data for businesses, governments, and nonprofits and supporting breakthroughs in areas such as climate observation and Earth resource monitoring.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Space Technologies predicts a new wave of space-enabled innovation by 2030, including downstream applications of observational data that could boost climate resilience, ensure water and food security, and help us monitor or predict the impact of natural disasters. We can also anticipate speedy rocket-propelled trips around the world, affordable broadband for all, more accurate and accelerated supply chains and delivery, and new supplies of vital natural resources.

To the edge – and beyond, with many partners

The business of space has evolved substantially in recent years, as private companies have joined the public sector in advancing in the space economy, which encompasses space research and resulting products and services. According to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s Annual Compendium of Commercial Space Transportation: 2018, the global space industry represents about $345 billion in economic activity. Worldwide, private investors poured $5.8 billion into it in 2019, according to investment company Space Angels.

To date, the benefits of these investments have been most visible in the global satellite infrastructure.

Currently, more than 9,000 satellites orbit the Earth, providing a powerful source of Big Data for businesses, governments, and nonprofits and supporting breakthroughs in areas such as climate observation and Earth resource monitoring. Within a short time, the cost to launch a satellite has dropped thanks to reusable rockets, and it could decrease further as both launch vehicles and satellites become mass produced. As a recent article in the Financial Times noted, satellites that used to require bankrolling by multi-billion dollar companies can now be developed and launched by startups and universities.

These fleets of smaller, cheaper satellites are poised to transform our view of the planet even further through access to vastly greater volumes of more granular data generated by Internet of Things (IoT) technologies. These edge devices – all kinds of networked products, from mobile phones and sensors to smart cars and robots – need satellites to transmit the data that they process, store, and analyze. Advances in data science, artificial intelligence, and computing power will enable us to turn volumes of real-time imaging and data into insight and innovation across industries.

The pervasive value of satellite data

Satellite data is already transforming supply chain management with greater transparency. Startup Orbital Insight applies machine learning to satellite imaging data to react to supply chain trends, such as helping a wind turbine manufacturer forecast demand and optimize component replacement, or predicting market fluctuations in the oil and gas industry based on images of storage tanks and commodity stockpiles. British food company Barfoots uses satellites to track the position of its cargo ships and monitor the temperature and humidity of containers to reduce food and resource waste. Network builders are looking to low-earth orbit satellites to deliver high-speed broadband connectivity.

In the realm of food and freshwater supply, the U.S. Landsat Program has long provided remote sensing data to monitor global food and fiber production, crop health, and soil moisture. Now precision farmers are using it to more efficiently manage their land. Satellites are critical to protecting freshwater ecosystems that underpin Earth’s global water and food security. The OceanMind technology platform cross-references satellite imaging with fishing vessel databases and oceanographic data to combat the $23.5 billion illegal fishing market using real-time alerts.

The newest generation of small satellites may vastly improve predictions of weather and climate change. Researchers are developing a new satellite, the Geostationary Carbon Cycle Observatory, to track 10 million daily metrics of climate change. Meanwhile, members of a group called the The International Charter Space and Major Disasters are collaborating to share satellite data to protect people and infrastructure in the face of more frequent and severe natural disasters.

A universe of possibilities

Space-based breakthroughs have birthed new technologies and even new markets.

Space exploration stretches our capabilities even further. By pushing the boundaries of what is technically possible, it stimulates ingenuity and gives us new options for supporting life on Earth – or elsewhere, should our planet become uninhabitable. Today’s digital leaders are banking on expanding their markets beyond Earth, including Google’s $30 million Lunar XPrize competition, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s billions invested into space transportation firm Blue Origin, and Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

The International Space Station has proven the value of space-based research to fields such as the production of high-performance optical fiber and the development of new vaccines. A new wave of space stations and (once they are created) galactic economic development zones will stimulate a range of developments, such as space tourism and space manufacturing. For example, China has plans to test a new space ship in 2020 that, if successful, would support construction of a new space station.

Planetary minerals

The cosmos may also serve as a new source of vital resources. Space-based solar power could help solve our energy and climate change challenges by providing large quantities of power with little environmental impact. The global mining industry, in decline in recent years, may begin extracting resources from asteroids or the moon. Space watchers see a lucrative future, including astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, declaring that the first trillionaires will be those who mine asteroids. The government of Luxembourg has launched a Space Resources Initiative to support the peaceful exploration and sustainable utilization of space resources for the benefit of humankind.

Meanwhile, governments, as well as private companies, are making plans for lunar exploration and development. In 2019, China landed a lunar rover on the moon’s dark side. India has plans to land its own moon vehicle after its 2019 effort failed. SpaceX hopes to send a crewed mission to Mars by 2028. And NASA has been developing a new rocket and spacecraft that could take astronauts into deep space to build a lunar outpost and eventually travel to Mars, opening up opportunities to explore more distant destinations.

Whether Musk will meet his goal of reaching the Red Planet by 2025 – or whether we will want to pull up stakes and live on Mars – are questions for the future. What’s clear is that solving everyday challenges here on Earth requires new solutions today. Breakthrough innovation often requires that we view things from unusual vantage points. Looking down on Earth from space and gazing out into the cosmos provide the ultimate shift of perspective and could give us the insights to go beyond our restricted earthbound thinking.