Space Activity in LEO: What Does the Future Hold?

The space industry is in the midst of multiple disruptions with the evolutionary developments that have revolutionary impacts. Most activity, as of now, is focused on Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) missions covering multiple commercial players. With the LEO activity growing, it becomes imperative that we gain a perspective of what LEO has seen so far and how LEO activity is going to influence bigger missions beyond its realms moving forward.

Frost & Sullivan research at the end of 2019 indicates that since 2015, 1,066 small satellites have been launched, 629 of which are commercial small satellites. Non-profits and universities have collectively launched 280 small satellites. In addition, 119 civil government and 38 military small-satellites have been launched in the same. The commercial sector clearly dominates the small-satellite market and this only indicates that the demand for small satellite launches will grow as the commercial players will be responsible for recurring launch demand. Government customers are increasingly spending commercial products and services from small-satellite operators. One key example of this trend is the purchase of commercial imagery products from small-satellite operators.

The Spaceports Market

Government and commercial organizations are increasingly engaging in the evolving the spaceports market where established incumbents and new players are looking to participate to deliver dedicated launch services to satellite operators. Unused launch infrastructure captures the attention of entrepreneurial NewSpace industry participants and aspirants who wish to use existing capabilities to develop commercial business models to enable a dedicated small satellite launch services segment in the space industry. RocketLab is expected to set up one more launch facility in New Zealand in their effort to increase capacity to meet rising demand. This is apart from the other launch facility RocketLab recently inaugurated in the U.S. Access to launch infrastructure continues to be the key parameter that determines the timely success of new launch capabilities.

New Space Capabilities

New small satellite operators will start launching their satellites which will deliver new capabilities in the downstream services segment. For example, HawkEye 360 has FCC approval to launch their first batch of 15 satellites. The company specializes in SIGINT capabilities conducting radio-frequency mapping of the earth.

Their downstream services will enable commercial and military stakeholders to gain enhanced situational awareness from a radio frequency (RF) perspective. More Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellites will be launched in 2020 and beyond, adding to the fast growing Earth Observation (EO) market.

LEO Support Services

With the rapidly growing number of small satellites in orbit, the space industry’s concern about orbital debris and interference grows. This is heightening the need for comprehensive space traffic management capabilities. While governments will evolve solutions, commercial efforts will remain key as they will involve collaborative efforts to engage diverse stakeholder groups to integrate as much voluntary and involuntary data to provide a reliable space traffic management service which can help operators assess their risks with respect to orbital debris and interference. The rising number of LEO satellites are also indicative of the rising need for de-orbiting services, as sustainable space operations will remain a key priority shared by government and commercial space players. The commercial efforts focusing on delivering such capabilities will see a rise in demand for their services, and this can help them convince new investors.

Long Term Goals

The military domain is actively observing the demand for hypersonic flight capabilities that can upgrade existing missile systems. The commercial domain is also observing a revival in supersonic air travel interest. Both these developments will influence the realization of enhanced propulsion systems and platforms that can enable multiple capabilities such as missile systems with hypersonic speeds; future single-stage-to-orbit spaceplanes; and high-speed air travel upgrading commercial aircraft for supersonic inter-continental flights. These efforts will largely focus on the development and production of suitable propulsion systems while the platforms will simultaneously be developed for future scheduled operations in the long term.

The single-stage-to-orbit will remain significant from a LEO launch service perspective. Government and commercial players will increasingly participate in deep space missions with initial lunar missions before progressing to asteroid mining missions in search of mineral resources.

The space logistics efforts to travel into deep space, retrieve surface/sub-surface material and come back safely to earth will remain the first checkpoint of the overall objective. The demand for products and services to aid such deep space missions will rise where existing and new players will gain significant revenue opportunities in the mid and long terms. However, their success will depend on their early participation in experimental efforts.

Small-satellites for LEO and spacecraft (rovers) for lunar missions will remain key capabilities in enabling such forward looking asteroid mining missions. VS

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