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Space race continues…

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  • The space economy is estimated to be worth USD464bn
  • The US and China currently lead in launches…
  • …but India, the UK, and Europe are in the modern space race too

Enabling LEO tech

Whilst the House of Representatives in the US recently held a panel about unidentified anomalous phenomenon (UAPs), we have been focusing on more identifiable space technologies – namely low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites.

What’s an LEO? LEOs operate much closer to the Earth than traditional geostationary satellites, which means they have shorter orbital periods, taking about 90-120 minutes to go around the Earth. The downside of this approach is that any individual LEO can only communicate with a small portion of the Earth’s surface at any given time: it takes hundreds of them (a constellation) for full global coverage. But putting up a constellation is precisely what a number of companies and countries are now aiming to do.

LEOs in operation in May 2022 (Union of Concerned Scientists)
Of operating satellites are US-run (Union of Concerned Scientists)

What can LEOs do? Much like traditional satellites, LEOs have a broad range of potential use cases. Telecommunications is perhaps the most widely known example, but the European Space Agency has claimed that space infrastructure has benefited a number of other sectors including meteorology, energy, insurance, transport, maritime, aviation, and urban development.

How much is at stake? The space economy was worth at least USD464bn in 2022 and it is likely to reach USD737bn within a decade, according to estimates from Euroconsult. North America and Asia currently dominate the sector, with Europe not far behind in terms of revenue share. In terms of satellites already in orbit, the US is far and away the leader, accounting for 68.5% of the total, according to non-profit group the Union of Concerned Scientists. On this measure, the US is followed by China (10.7%) and the UK (9.7%). However, India has placed the space sector as a key pillar of its aim to become a world technology superpower. And the UK government acquired a stake in OneWeb to bolster its space sector.

Why now? LEOs are not a new concept, but one key change in recent years is that the cost of space travel has fallen significantly. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket launched in 2018 at a cost of USD1,500 per kilogram, compared with USD5,400 per kilogram for NASA’s Saturn V rocket used between 1967 and 1973. SpaceX’s Starship rocket could lead to a further significant drop in costs by lowering the cost per kilogram to below USD100 by 2030.

Hurdles remain, however. In 2021 the European Space Agency estimated there were more than 130m pieces of debris larger than 1mm in orbit and this figure is even higher when considering debris that is too small to track. Even relatively small pieces of debris can cause LEO satellites serious damage when travelling at many kilometres per second. At some point, humans must clear up their space junk.


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