2017: A look ahead to the year in commercial space
By Sarah Cruddas
2017, a year which solemnly commemorates the 50th anniversary of Apollo 1 – a tragedy which cost the lives of astronauts Grissom, White, and Chaffee – the learnings of which helped pave the way for the success in the Space Race and enabled 12 Americans to walk on the Moon and return safely to Earth.
Humanity hasn’t been back to the Moon since 1972 and, at the time of writing, only six of those Moonwalkers are still alive. Yet it is the potential of returning to the Moon through private industry that is helping to make 2017 a pivotal year in commercial space, along with the implementation of new legislation, data, and the development of new launch systems helping to grow this new commercial era of space.
2017 might not be the space future we predicted 50 years ago, but in the words of the late Moonwalker Gene Cernan, “Curiosity is the essence of human existence.” And as each year passes the commercial space sector is helping to revive some of that once lost Apollo spirit of innovation and drive to explore space. So to get an idea of what to expect in this coming year, here are some predictions from space professionals across the globe:
John Thornton, CEO Astrobotic
Astrobotic is creating a DHL-like service to the Moon. Astrobotic have nine customers toward their first mission, which includes world-class partners DHL, NASA, Airbus, Aerojet Rocketdyne and Carnegie Mellon. Astrobotic is a Space Angels Network portfolio company.
The next big market that we are seeing now, that’s going to emerge in 2017 in a big public way, we’ve known about it for a long time, is the lunar market.
2017 is going to be a good year for commercial lunar and I think we are going to see market conditions improve dramatically. One of the biggest reasons for this is NASA shifting towards lunar and we are also going to see an increase in public private partnerships taking advantage of US commercial space opportunities.
In terms of Astrobotic, our plan for this year is to fill the manifest for our first lunar mission. We anticipate additional technical and payload partnerships to fly to the Moon. We are also anticipating that this year will be a tipping point for the company. I think that the market shift will be key to enabling our next big step in growth.
In terms of the first private lunar landing, I think we are still a couple of years away. The first opportunity for that could be in 2018, potentially from SpaceIL. Other than that, I think Astrobotic will be the next opportunity for a private commercial landing. We [Astrobotic] expect to land on the Moon in 2019.
Richard Garriott, Private Astronaut and Entrepreneurial Space Investor
Data combined with the small satellites, constellations and services which are being built to bring that data to Earth. Almost every area of business will be impacted by this explosion of data and it will be one of the biggest stories to come out of 2017.
What we are seeing now is this trend line of movement away from strictly government funded space actives. There is a wave of commercial activity, that used to only happen with giant players, but you are now seeing that move down to small satellite launchers and small integrators of constellations. That trend started five years ago and is now solidly the mainstream.
If you look at organizations like NanoRacks and Planet, I think those are good leading indicators of the wave of the now. Other examples are Kepler Communications, who are developing doing cellular like communications in space, Analytical Space, who are developing laser communications in space, and Planetary Resources who are starting to bring Earth Observation back data from space, that is of a variety of bandwidths and a variety of frequencies of coverage.
As an investor I am most inspired by the data side of things. If I was literally sitting back and looking for an investment play, I think that is the low hanging fruit that is monetizable the soonest.
If you had a little longer vision, beyond 2017, then the pantheon opens up a lot broader. My family’s number one investment is SpaceX. When you get to much larger companies, doing things over a longer time horizon, I think that SpaceX is still the most interesting commercial company these days. But Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance are also worth watching.
Stuart Martin, CEO Satellite Applications Catapult, UK
Up until now, most of the excitement around commercial space – and the associated investment – has been about the infrastructure of space. The satellites, the space stations and hotels, launchers and the ground networks. My prediction is that 2017 is the year that the service providers will start to attract more attention. Those who provide value adding services using the infrastructure of others. The signs are that investors are starting to look at this now too, evidenced by the recent investments into companies like Orbital Insight. This is necessary for the infrastructure providers to ensure they can generate adequate returns for their investments, and a much needed sign of the continuing evolution of the sector.
What excites me most is the endless potential. The sector is changing so fast, and we have barely yet scratched the surface of what might be possible. The holy grail right now is a genuinely disruptive launcher technology, that will enable lower cost to orbit and offer more flexible launch operations concepts. If we can achieve that, then we will be entering yet another new realm of opportunity.
In some ways the UK and Europe is behind the US, but other ways it is not. For the vision of space tourism, and the commercial future of manned space, clearly the US is out front. But in the world of CubeSats, small satellites in general, communication satellites and providing free access to business for EO imagery and radar data (Copernicus), the UK and Europe are doing pretty well.
Chad Anderson, CEO Space Angels Network
The market segments I am most excited about in 2017 are Launchers, Satellites, and In-Space Industrials. There is incredible market demand for launch from new small satellite constellations. Even one new launch system would do a lot to relieve the pressure and backlog we have at the moment. To demonstrate the issue, SpaceX alone has a backlog of 70 launches worth $10 billion. New small launch companies Rocket Lab and Vector Space are expected to reach orbit this year.
Small satellite constellations have made a lot of promises and they’ve started delivering. I think 2017 might be the year that they live up to those promises with the combination of a number of new satellites/sensors in orbit, commercial ground solutions, software solutions and industry.
With in-space industrials, we have new legislation signed in the US (2015), now being adopted by other countries. One of which is Luxembourg who established a €200 million fund to attract asteroid mining companies to the country. NASA has just selected two asteroid missions for the Discovery Program and OSIRIS-REx will flyby Earth on its way to sample an asteroid in 2018.
I see a lot of opportunity in the commercial space sector – opportunity to have a meaningful impact on our future and opportunity for outsized financial returns by investing early in this rapidly growing market. We could passively wait for tax dollars to fund programs that will take us to the moon or asteroids or Mars in the mid-2030’s, or we can actively participate in our future, developing a robust industry of space companies that will ensure we continue to progress into the solar system. The only question left is how quickly we can get there and who the players will be.
Sarah Cruddas is a Space Journalist, Broadcaster and Author with a background in astrophysics. She is the voice of space on British TV for channels including Sky News, Channel 5 and ITV. Specializing in space exploration she has reported on the industry from across the world.