Is it a coincidence that Hollywood released three space-themed movies in quick succession? Arrival, Passengers and Hidden Figures explore vastly different premises, but the presence of top stars and awards buzz and their relative success at the box office indicate that the purveyors of popular culture haven’t missed reading the re-emergence in public imagination of the romance of space.
A significant portion of the credit for making space cool again goes to the disruption of the space industry over the last few years by private enterprise. The poster boy of this bright new space is, of course, Elon Musk and SpaceX. From slashing the cost of launches by landing the first stages of rockets through putting together plans to colonize Mars, he has already shown he has what it takes to define space for tomorrow. Over the years, national space agencies like Nasa, Isro, Roscosmos, CNSA, Jaxa and ESA have been at the forefront of pushing humanity into space. That is changing.
There are parallels to where space is now and where the Internet was a few decades back. For many years, the Internet remained a project inside the US government establishment. I don’t need to expand on how the opening up of the Internet to entrepreneurs changed the world. Space is at a similar juncture where private enterprise is starting to make its presence felt.
The next decade is when much of this shift will be under way. The attraction of space tourism has been central to the coverage and narrative that has followed private enterprise in the field. That is only natural, given the presence of media-friendly figures like Virgin Group’s Richard Branson working on space tourism projects. But the real innovation driven by private enterprise is going to be in other, less glamorous but equally fascinating areas.
Think small satellites, for instance. As The Economist points out, advancements in “smartphones and other consumer electronics provide a wealth of ready-made technologies that can enable a CubeSat (a type of nano satellite) to perform many of the functions of a satellite a hundred times heavier and much larger, but at substantially less cost”. That will revolutionize everything from weather prediction to remote sensing to telecommunications, and help bring the power of technology to billions around the world in a much deeper and more meaningful way.
Then there is the opportunity to develop technology that will satiate human appetite for everything from energy to precious metals. Globally, companies like Deep Space Industries have been talking up asteroid mining. An article in the technology publication New Atlas says, “Studies indicate that an asteroid 1,000 metres (3,280 ft) across could yield about 100,000 tonnes of platinum—which already has miners in South Africa worried because we only mine a measly 130 tonnes of the metal on Earth each year.”
Helium 3 is another resource which can change how mankind powers itself. The Moon has rich deposits of the isotope, which is hard to find on Earth. If technology is developed to use this isotope for nuclear fusion, the amount of Helium 3 on the Moon—according to Prof. Ouyang Ziyuan, the chief scientist of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (Clep)—can “solve humanity’s energy demand for around 10,000 years at least”. If finding ways to make that happen isn’t a challenge that entrepreneurs must rise up to, what is?
While the idea of space-based business evolves, India is in the middle of a revolution as well. A new generation of entrepreneurs is backing itself to change the way we live and do business. Our opportunity in space business does not start and end with cost arbitrage for foreign companies. Our obvious cost advantages must be leveraged as a catalyst to innovate in everything from designing, developing and launching smaller satellites to making bets that can make the difference in mankind’s quest for newer energy sources. We at TeamIndus are happy to start the conversation, and we hope many more Indian entrepreneurs will join us on this journey.
Rahul Narayan is co-founder and fleet commander of Team Indus, an aerospace research start-up, and the only Indian team competing for the $30-million Google Lunar XPRIZE
This is part of a series of articles in Mint’s 10th anniversary special issue that look at India 10 years from now. The entire list of articles can be found here