One small step for private companies: how the future of space travel is being redefined

There is a widening divide between “old space” – the domain of government agencies – and “new space”, which includes glamorous projects like rockets to Mars.

At 0100 GMT on Monday morning, Zuma, a satellite with a “secretive payload” was launched into orbit. The rocket launching it, Falcon 9, was created by SpaceX, the brainchild of irreverent tech billionare Elon Musk. The classified nature of its contents meant that the usual live feed that accompanies rocket launches was cut off after five minutes. The mission’s press release offered very little other detail.

All that is known about Zuma is that it contains a satellite manufactured by company Northrop Gumman for the US government, and was in low-earth orbit, as most commercial spacecraft tends to be. However, it remains unclear which government agency will be controlling the satellite, and what purposes the information it collects will serve.

SpaceX’s launch of Zuma is yet another sign that private companies are set to control the future of space exploration. In late January, SpaceX will be launching Falcon Heavy, the world’s most powerful operational rocket.

Historically, space exploration has been the domain of the state. It was a way to assert national identity through exploring a new frontier, and the Soviet-American space race of the 1960s was as much about political dominance as it was about technical innovation.

Once hurdles such as the limitations of computing power were surpassed, world powers began to invest significant amounts of money into exploring space. A recently released report from the US Academy of Natural Sciences emphasised the value of innovation in space exploration for its applications to problems on earth, such as farmers facing drought, a dynamic which will only become more pronounced in coming years.

But rates of technological advancement and decreasing costs of production have enabled private companies to move from manufacturing low-orbit satellites to rather improbably advertising commercial flight to Mars (on the Virgin Galactic aircraft VSS Unity). These kinds of changes are fairly unprecedented, but the last few years have demonstrated the ability of commercial entities to come up with completely novel ways to explore space.

A Financial Times article pointed out that pundits are increasingly seeing a split between “old space” – the domain of governments and well established contractors – and “new space”, which is where glamorous projects like SpaceX’s rockets to Mars reside.

David Baker, from the British Interplanetary Society, the oldest space advocacy organisation globally, said: “Space is about applications – such as communications, weather forecasting, TV, data relay, navigation, monitoring Earth’s resources – which are being increasingly handled by private companies, and exploration, which is the job of the big space agencies.

“The total global space industry is worth around $400bn a year, of which only 22 per cent is run by governments, and the public and private are not necessarily in competition with each other. The amount of tax paid by the private space-related applications industries more than pays for the government programmes.”

The government and the military have always …read more

Source:: New Statesman


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