There are numerous spacecraft orbiting the Earth right now and, by next week, three orbiting Mars. The Space Age has entered a new phase, writes Victor Hill, in which more audacious space missions have become economically viable – and investible.
From Arabia to Mars
There are few more potent ways to put your country on the map as a serious player than to send a probe to Mars. Thus far, this has only been achieved by a select club comprising the USA (NASA), Russia, Europe (as represented by the European Space Agency (ESA)) and India. But on Tuesday (09 February) the United Arab Emirates (UAE) whose probe, a car-sized device called Amal (Hope) and launched from Japan seven months ago, joined this elite group.
Hope is the first craft to enter orbit around the Red Planet this month. A Chinese probe, Tianwen-1, arrived on Wednesday, making the club 6-strong. And a US one, Perseverance is due on 18 February. This rush to Mars is not coincidental. The craft are taking advantage of an astronomical confluence in which the Earth and Mars have been unusually close. All three missions launched from Earth in July of last year.
We should not underestimate the UAE’s technical achievement. In order to attain Mars orbit, Hope, arriving at over 75,000 miles an hour, had to fire its thrusters for 30 minutes, slowing to just over 11,000 miles per hour. While the craft was developed with input from the Universities of Colorado, Berkeley and Arizona State, mission command is the Mohammed Bin Rashed Space Centre in Dubai.
If China is a late arrival in the Mars club it has soaring ambitions in space. The country plans to assemble a permanent space station in 2022 in Earth orbit. And Tianwen-1 will land a 500-pound rover on the surface of Mars in May.
In contrast, NASA’s Perseverance will land a vehicle on the Martian surface almost immediately, which will film its own landing and record the sound of its impact which NASA operatives will hear 11 minutes later. It will land in the boulder strewn Jezero Crater which is thought to have been a river delta three billion years ago. The landing vehicle will then drill bore holes to collect samples which NASA hopes to collect and return to Earth on a later mission in about ten years’ time.
Musk versus Bezos
On 02 February, a 160-foot high SpaceX SN9 prototype rocket crashed on landing at a space port in South Texas – a setback after two successful years. SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk back in 2002 but it is only recently that it has been stealing headlines. The company’s main vehicle today is the Falcon 9 rocket which can ferry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and then return to Earth, landing upright and intact. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, which sits atop the Falcon 9, can carry up to seven astronauts to the ISS. The Falcon 9 has been launched more than 100 times thus far at a cost of around $50 million per launch.
Mr Musk made his first fortune from the online guide company Zip2, and his second by developing PayPal which he ultimately sold to eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY). He ploughed everything he made from that into creating Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) which has, in turn, now made him the richest man in the world. (He owns 20 percent of a company which now has a market capitalisation of over $770 billion).
That gives him a firm financial base on which to continue to fund SpaceX which Morgan Stanley estimates could be worth between $100 and $200 billion if and when it comes to market. We don’t know much about SpaceX’s financials – it is almost certainly losing money in cash terms – but what we do know is that it is winning fat contracts, mostly from NASA and the US Department for Defence. It’s not known exactly how much of SpaceX Mr Musk owns but it seems that he is still the largest shareholder. When you evaluate Mr Musk, remember that he is the only contemporary tech billionaire who is also an engineer whom Isambard Kingdom Brunel would have recognised and saluted. He also understands economics.
Also on 02 February, Jeff Bezos announced that he would be stepping down as CEO of Amazon later this year in order to concentrate on other projects – including his Blue Origin space company. Blue Origin was founded as early as 2000 but the maiden flight of its reusable New Shepard rocket was not until 2015. Mr Bezos reportedly has been financing the rocket company by selling off about $1 billion of Amazon stock each year. The world’s two richest men both have their eyes turned towards the heavens.
Like SpaceX, Blue Origin has sought to cut the cost of space travel by using re-usable vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) rockets. Such rockets will be used to launch satellites and also to take astronauts aloft, both for scientific research and tourism. Amazon, a substantial part of revenues of which now come from its cloud computing operation, Amazon Web Services, aspires to put in place its own constellation of satellites. Amazon’s revenues are all derived from people, by definition, who have access to the internet. If they could provide internet connections to the many people who are not currently connected, they could increase their customer base.
The $10 billion Project Kuiper involves a projected 3,200 mini satellites which will operate up to 370 miles into space. This will put the project in direct competitions with SpaceX’s Starlink project which will provide broadband internet connections in remote locations through a network of up to 12,000 satellites. In a Tweet in late January, Mr Musk opined:
It does not serve the public to hamstring Starklink today for an Amazon satellite system that is at best several years away from operation.
The issue is that some of Starlink’s satellites will orbit on the same lower Earth orbit as Kuiper’s, risking space collisions. Space scientists worry that collisions in space could create chain reactions of debris known as Kessler Syndrome which could have a catastrophic impact on our communications infrastructure. The density of material in orbit around the planet is a cause for concern. Hence SpaceX requested the Federal Communications Commission last year to allow it to move 2,824 of its future satellites to a lower orbit from 1,000-1,300 kilometres above the Earth to just 540-570 kilometres.
Blue Origin wants to put astronauts on the surface of the Moon by 2024 for which purpose it has developed a lander called Blue Moon. Thereafter, Blue origin will advance plans for permanent settlements on Earth’s only moon. Meanwhile, Mr Musk has published plans for a giant star-ship that will ferry astronauts to the Red Planet. His ultimate goal is to establish self-sustaining cities on Mars – preferably before World War III takes place on Earth. He founded SpaceX to make mankind multi-planetary. And clearly, the Earth is too small for him.
Virgin Orbit and Virgin Galactic
On 18 January, Virgin Orbit succeeded in launching 10 micro-satellites. But its launch system is different from that of SpaceX and Blue Origin. Instead of reusable rockets it deploys an adapted Virgin Atlantic Boeing-747 airliner called Cosmic Girl. A special rocket called Launcher One safely detaches and ignites for the next stage of the journey.
The launch concept is not new. Stratolaunch, backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC) subsidiary Orbital Sciences’ Pegasus rocket also use craft launched from an airliner. Reportedly Sir Richard Branson has had to pour £1 billion of his own fortune into the project to get thus far. Virgin Orbit and Virgin Galactic (NYSE:SPCE) have also raised $1.3 billion from the Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund. When Virgin Galactic was launched on the New York market in October 2019 it was debt-free.
Virgin Galactic – catering for space tourists – also uses the hybrid system. Sir Richard Branson thinks it will prove more economical. Virgin Galactic’s specialised carrier, WhiteKnightTwo will carry passengers just above the atmosphere into near space at about 330,000 feet where they will enjoy a few minutes of weightlessness before beginning the descent. Sir Richard will be amongst the first passengers, hopefully within the next few months. Virgin Galactic has already sold more than 600 tickets at reportedly between $200,000 and $250,000 each. According to a report by UBS, about 35 percent of high-net-worth individuals would consider flying on Virgin Galactic once it proved safe.
But what about all those carbon emissions? Expect a furore. At least Virgin Hyperloop One might be favoured by environmentalists, as its latest video implies. These pods can travel at 760 MPH with zero friction. What’s not to like? That’s another reason why growth in traditional aviation may be constrained. More on that soon.
The European Space Agency
The ESA is advertising again for astronauts and is particularly keen for women to apply. The UK remains a member of the ESA, despite Brexit. Tim Peake, the British ESA astronaut who spent six months living on the ISS, will launch the recruitment campaign.
The ESA is going to Mars sometime in 2022-23 and hopefully will bring back core samples of Martian rock.
What is the UK doing?
The UK space programme has revved into gear of late with plans to open space ports. The Whitehall government’s stated ambition is to attain a 10 percent market share of the global space economy by 2030. That would be worth about £40 billion to the UK economy. The mandate of the UK Space Agency (UKSA) over space policy is expected to be given over to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). The UKSA, which has an annual budget of £577 million and a staff of 200, will be required to fulfil an agenda ultimately determined by the new Business Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng MP. Launch approvals have been transferred from the UKSA to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
Since Britain’s departure from the EU, the UK has ceased to be involved with the Galileo Programme, the EU’s £5 billion satellite GPS network nor the EU’s Copernicus project. That was one reason why the government rescued the British satellite launch company OneWeb at a cost of £364 million. In December, OneWeb launched 36 new microsatellites on a Soyuz rocket from Russia’s Vostochny Cosmodrome in eastern Siberia.
Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) recently announced that it had selected the RS1 rocket developed by ABL Space Systems for launches from the island of Unst in the Shetland Islands. These could begin as soon as next year. The Shetland Space Centre has already received grants of £23 million from the UK government.
Skyrora is developing light rockets that might be launched horizontally – form the underside of specially adapted commercial aircraft. Spaceport Cornwall outside Newquay has been identified for a horizontal launch programme with Virgin Orbit. That also may be operational by next year.
The UK space sector already employs 42,000 people across the country and attracts private investment of £15 billion a year. But the UK has been asleep at the wheel in this sector. Even some middle-income countries are ahead of us. On Wednesday (10 February) President Erdoğan of Turkey announced his country’s intention to send a mission to the Moon by 2023 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Turkey. The country has launched its own satellites of late with US launch capability.
Investing in space
There are an increasing number of private equity houses investing in space, though the sector is not readily available to retail investors. Northern Sky Research, a space consultancy, believes that the market for sub-orbital flights will be worth $2.8 billion by 2028 while the market for orbital flights will be worth $610 million.
Morgan Stanley describes Musk’s space business as mission control for the emerging space economy. With its capabilities in launch (carrying satellites, humans or instruments into space), Starlink (developing internet from satellites) and hypersonic point to point travel, Morgan Stanley says the pieces are coming together for SpaceX to create an economic and technology flywheel. Its floatation will be sensational – and I predict it could happen as soon as next year.
Not forgetting flying taxis…
Back down on Earth, the world’s first fully operational hub for flying taxis is due to open in Coventry this year and will hopefully become operational in 2023 during Coventry’s festival as UK City of Culture. Urban Air Port, backed by Hyundai (KRX: 005380), has received government funding to build a hub for electric air taxis (about which I wrote last November), autonomous delivery drones and other VTOL aircraft. Coventry has been chosen due to its central location within the UK.
And Vertical Aerospace, a British flying taxi start-up, announced last month that it had received a grant to launch an air taxi service in the South West. Things are happening in this space even faster than I anticipated three months ago.
Thanks to several readers (led by RG) who, further to last week’s piece, put me right about how to get access to one’s medical records in the UK – using a government portal called Patient Access. You will need your original registration letter from your GP practice (which I have naturally mislaid). I also got savaged for my suggestion that NHS vaccination staff couldn’t be bothered to read the labels on the vaccine vials…
There is something rotten in the state of the BBC. Consider at The Archers. It used to epitomise the state of the nation – or at least or of England. It unfolded, unlike Shakespeare, in the classical unities of time, action and space. (That’s why Voltaire called Shakespeare, whose work anticipated the dynamism of cinema, un barbare). Everything connected; and Ambridge reflected the mood and condition of England. If there was foot-and-mouth abroad in the countryside, townsfolk learnt its meaning from the nightly drama. No longer.
The curtailed Archers occupies just four weeknight slots per week (as opposed to the pre-Covid six), making plotlines more ponderous. And, while the real multitude hide in their homes and venture out furtively to ALDI in their muzzles, Ambridge still cavorts in The Bull and has boisterous parish council meetings. It’s not the England we are really living in anymore.
That said, I detect a faint bat-squeak of optimism in the air this late-winter. (Not that the Remainer-Rejoiner zealots would admit it). In January, there was a prevailing cloud of gloom over the landscape during the morning dog walk (partly fuelled by post-Covid recovery). But walking my beloved geriatric bitch through the snowscape early morning the other day, the sun broke through, shining gloriously on the bright field (as in RS Thomas’s wonderful poem), as if in portent…