New space technologies developed by private companies will bring about transformational change that will influence business and our personal lives. A massive drop in the cost of space launches will not only make space more accessible for regular people, but also lead to a tremendous increase in space technology applications on Earth, says Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides.
Remote sensing satellites, for instance, will be able to monitor everything that is visible on earth on a daily and even hourly basis, he told delegates at the Cayman Alternative Investment Summit last week.
One of the key trends enabling this development is miniaturization. Satellites, sensors and other payloads sent into space are becoming ever smaller. “What used to require a bus can now be done by a satellite the size of a small refrigerator,” he said.
Other satellites are no larger than a shoe box.
Last week San Francisco-based Earth imaging company Planet Labs launched the largest constellation of satellites in history. The 88 Dove nanosatellites enable the startup to “image all of Earth’s landmass every day.” Since the launch and the acquisition of Google’s Terra Bella satellite business earlier this month, Planet operates 144 satellites. The image data can be used to measure agricultural yields, monitor natural resources or aid first responders after natural disasters.
High precision navigation, environmental monitoring and high-bandwidth satellite communication networks are other immediate applications of smaller satellite networks.
“Combining this with big data is going to drive amazing things, something we can only begin to get our heads around,” Mr. Whitesides said.
In addition, space companies are building the fundamentals that will allow faster jet travel, an industry that has been stuck at a top speed of Mach 0.8 for the last 40 years.
Going from continent to continent in one hour rather than 10 to 18 hours is going to have a big impact, Mr. Whitesides said. “It will knit our planet together more closely.”
The reduction in the cost of launching a vehicle into space will be the main driver of this development.
NASA’s Space Shuttle was tremendously expensive, hard to service and required several hundred people to launch. When a private company sent the first non-astronaut into space in 2004, no more than a few dozen people were involved in the launch. It was the first time that space travel was taken out of the realm of government actors and opened up the industry to smaller teams and companies.
Working on the reusability of spacecraft will drive down costs even more, the Virgin Galactic CEO said.
“The big space launch vehicle and a Boeing 747 are about the same size, about the same mass, and roughly the same cost. But it costs about $100 million to go into space with one of them and it costs $1,000 to go across the Atlantic. Why is that? It’s because you can reuse the Boeing 747 10,000 times.”
Today, Virgin Galactic, SpaceX and Blue Origin are three private companies that have integrated reusability into their operating model. Once the price of space launches fall, the number of applications will increase dramatically, sparking “a renaissance of usage of space” reminiscent of the early days of biotechnology, he forecast.
The most obvious application will be the accessibility of space travel to a much larger group of people.
Currently, only 558 people have been to space since Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made his first trip in 1961.
Mr. Whitesides, who before becoming chief executive was a customer of Virgin Galactic, said: “It is a journey we aspire to do regularly and it will be an affordable trip.
“I am a big believer in this as a large market and something that will change the world.”
Virgin Galactic 2, the company’s latest space vehicle, has room for six passengers in addition to the two pilots.
“People will be able to get out of their seats and move around in the cabin. We are excited about this. Not only is it opening up space to real people and giving them the opportunity to experience the wonder and joy of weightlessness and looking down on their home planet but also for science and research, which will be a huge part of our future business.”
Mr. Whitesides believes helping many more people to see earth from space will create a new point of view. “That planetary perspective is going to be really crucial in taking care of our home spaceship.”