It is well known that space governance issues are becoming increasingly complicated. One complication that will become increasingly relevant in the coming years is the rise of private space actors. Much of the space governance debates to date have revolved around state actors. Although private companies in space bring some benefits in terms of cheaper access to space, they are also likely to add to the problems space governance already faces.
Many new private players have entered the space arena in the last decade, and more are joining with new ideas in the areas of satellite launches, satellite manufacturing, propulsion technologies, and space-based services. It is predicted that the global space industry, currently valued at $350 billion, could rise to more than $1 trillion by 2040. According to Space Tech Analytics’ Space Tech 2021 report, there are more than 10,000 private space tech companies and 5,000 leading investors. The best known, of course, is SpaceX but the corporate space arena has expanded and will continue to do so in the coming years.
There are several benefits of course, including democratizing space and making it accessible to broader society. Falling launch and satellite manufacturing costs will accelerate this trend. These companies are pushing the limits of space ambitions to set up colonies on Moon and Mars. There are also several commercial players investing in technologies making space tourism a reality and trying to make it more accessible beyond the billionaires.
As mentioned, the most noteworthy among the private players is SpaceX, which is also one of the oldest of the private players. Starting with Falcon 1, which had its first successful launch in 2008, SpaceX now has built two other larger rockets. The Falcon 9 is a heavy-lift reusable rocket, which was first launched in 2010. This was followed by the Falcon Heavy in 2018, which is based on Falcon 9 with additional strap-on boosters. SpaceX has also developed the Dragon 2, a reusable spacecraft, with both crew and cargo versions. By the end of the decade, SpaceX had become one of the largest and the most innovative space players.
Another innovative space corporation is Blue Origin, which has pioneered a series of reusable rockets that have vertical take-off and landing capabilities. The first of these, the New Shepard, was successfully tested in 2015, when it returned for a vertical soft landing after a brief space flight. It has since been used to carry space tourists. Joining the space tourist bandwagon is Virgin Galactic, which took its founder Richard Branson along with three other passengers on its maiden flight in July 2021. While space tourism may not be for everyone, and its potential could be limited, it does indicate the capacity of private space players to send crewed missions to space even for brief durations.
Other private space players are focused on more utilitarian approaches to space by building small satellites and satellite launchers. This includes companies like Rocket Lab and Astra, both of which are seeking to make space more accessible to smaller entities such as small private space companies and universities and researchers. Rocket Lab, based in New Zealand, launched its suborbital sounding rockets in 2009. Subsequently, they built the much-larger Electron rocket, which was first tested in 2017 and had its first commercial launch in 2018. Rocket Lab is currently designing a larger, medium-lift rocket called the Neutron for heavier payloads.
Other space launchers are waiting in the wings, such as Astra and Firefly Aerospace, and others that are planning a number of different rockets for launching payloads into low Earth orbit. While many of these are based in the U.S., other countries including India have a fair share of ambitious space startups. For example, India’s Bellatrix is planning its own low Earth orbit rocket.
In addition to rocket launchers, there are also a large number of private corporations engaged in building small and nano satellites. Hundreds of these small and nano satellites are set to be launched in the next few years with more private corporations getting into the act. On the one hand, this heightened activity makes space more accessible not only to wealthy thrill-seekers who are seeking ultimate adventure by going to space but also to small companies and researchers by reducing the cost of access to space and new technologies for exploiting outer space.
But there is a darker side to this advance in technology and access. For one, such commercial exploitation is making an already crowded outer space arena even more troublesome. While many small satellites in low Earth orbit might eventually return to Earth and burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere, they do increase the density of objects in outer space. An additional problem is that space governance issues are becoming even more complicated because of the entrance of these new private actors. This is a further reason for state actors and major space-faring countries to come together to frame new rules so that outer space remains a common asset to all humankind.