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You too, may one day have your own satellite

The Space Race, launched more than 60 years ago, kickstarted an unprecedented boom in travel and communications beyond our planet. But it was a realm only available to national governments with multibillion-dollar budgets. Private industry has now taken over the sector, making personal satellite ownership a fast-approaching reality for consumers.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp and Foxconn Technology Group are working with lesser-known startups like Neumann Space and Exolaunch Gmbh to drastically reduce the cost of building, launching and operating satellites.

A virtuous cycle is now underway where technological advances and cost cuts in one part of the process drive innovation in another, making the speed of product development and price reductions similar to that seen in the consumer electronics sector. It’s highly likely that within a decade, private individuals will order and operate orbiting gadgets as easily as they purchase a car or sign up for Netflix.

Whereas consumers once couldn’t have fathomed the need for a powerful computer at their fingertips, demand for personal satellites will rise as their uses range from monitoring crops to watching over the family dog. Beyond surveillance, they can track changes in temperature, air pollution, soil quality and moisture levels.

The single biggest factor in making satellites more accessible is the advent of private launch providers led by SpaceX.

The Space Shuttle, operated by the US government’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration from 1981 to 2011, carried cargo — called payload in industry parlance — into low-earth orbit at a cost of US$64,000 (2.2 million baht) per kilogramme. SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which launched its first non-government mission in 2013, brought the cost to $2,600, while the Falcon Heavy cut it to just $1,500, according to data compiled by the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

Cheaper launch prices change the entire economic model for satellite manufacturing and deployment. Back when it cost millions of dollars to go into space, an operator was incentivised to develop expensive and sturdy devices to ensure the financial burden of orbital transport was justified. Exacerbating this barrier to entry were the long lead times — it took many years to plan a single mission — and the need to pay for a whole launch in order to get your product into the sky.

SpaceX now has RideShare, allowing anyone to book a place for an upcoming mission, and it’s coupled that service with a move toward regularly scheduled trips. The implications for the private satellite business are enormous. Builders of weather, surveillance or communications gear can plan development to ensure it is equipped with the most modern electronics without worrying about it sitting around for months awaiting deployment. And customers can book a load as small as 50kg — 10% the size of a standard mini satellite. Other companies are popping up to extend that flexibility further.

Exolaunch is like the FedEx of space travel. The Berlin-based startup offers a turnkey solution that lets customers send satellites of just a few kilogrammes. It packages devices from different clients into a single payload, booking it onto a rocket from SpaceX, India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, or Rocket Lab in New Zealand. Then, the company handles regulatory approvals and manages the deployment once the space capsule has reached its target.

Paperwork is becoming an increasingly important part of the job because authorities around the world require a licence to launch, approval to use certain communications frequencies, and a plan to collect space junk.

A rule introduced by the Federal Communications Commission in 2022 stipulates that satellites must be de-orbited within five years of a mission being complete. That’s spurred companies like Exolaunch to start offering garbage collection, managing director for US launch services Kier Fortier told me recently. In practice, this means grabbing old satellites and dragging them back toward Earth, where they burn up during re-entry, he said.

Neumann Space, based in Adelaide, South Australia, has a different approach to the same problem.

It uses solid metal as a fuel for in-orbit propulsion, which is safer and has a longer shelf life than liquid and gas fuels such as fluorine. As a result, satellites can be kept in orbit longer and easily sent through the atmosphere for re-entry burn when the mission is over.

As the launch, management and termination of a satellite gets quicker and cheaper, the cost of building them will also drop. The November deployment of Foxconn’s first crafts aboard SpaceX’s Transporter-9 RideShare mission signalled the Taiwanese company’s entry into the space industry. Best known for assembling Apple’s iPhones, the electronics manufacturer has no plans to own and operate devices in orbit. Instead, its mission is a proof-of-concept to show prospective clients that it can also make space-borne products.

Because launch prices are falling, satellites no longer need to last decades. Instead of building equipment to strict Nasa standards, Foxconn is ready to make satellites with off-the-shelf parts that survive just a few years. This speeds up development and allows owners to go through a faster cycle of building, deploying, and decommissioning. Better chips, more advanced sensors and lighter materials can be incorporated into new models at a pace more akin to the way consumers buy and replace gadgets.

The Cold War rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union gave birth to spaced-based communications and much of the electronic technology we enjoy today. The next battle, among private companies, promises to make satellites as cheap and accessible as an iPhone. ©2023 Bloomberg

Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology in Asia. Previously, he was a technology reporter for Bloomberg News.

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