The private border: corporate space explorers await a takeoff of $ 1 trillion | Science


President Donald Trump has fought some of his signed political promises, but now he's got his eye on it: a return to the moon, five decades after humans had trodden down there.

The White House talked about the first woman landing on the moon within five years and Trump's vice president Mike Pence made it clear that the private sector – largely backed by a handful of billionaires – could play a key role in the plans .

Trump's extraterrestrial ambitions are likely to be fueled by more practical concerns: his desire for attention-grabbing headlines and an ambition to stay ahead of geopolitical rivals. China, Trump's main trade rival, landed a rover on the other side of the moon in January, while the United States had to rely on Russia to take its astronauts into space.

But a new feature from the US government would be a major boost for the already growing private space industry, which is set to triple in scale over the next 20 years.

Analysts at UBS investment bank expect the space business to be worth about $ 1 trillion a year – equivalent to Indonesia's GDP, the world's 16th largest economy – over the next two decades, up from $ 340 billion today.

Felix Tran, Bank of America analyst Merrill Lynch, estimates that "Space Race 2.0" will make the industry worth $ 2.7 trillion by 2045. And the US government's commitment, he says, will provide a significant boost to sentiment of private investors.

The private sector has already taken up a much larger portion of space work, including rocket launches traditionally confined to state agencies such as NASA. And they have a great focus on reducing costs.

Earlier this month, SpaceX, a company founded by serial technology entrepreneur and Tesla founder Elon Musk, completed the first full commercial launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket. In addition to being the world's most powerful operational rocket (with 27 engines and a Saudi satellite communications satellite in orbit, after taking a Tesla car to space in its debut last year), the main attraction of Falcon Heavy is the cost advantage reusable rockets, which can land back on Earth in a single piece.

The Stratolaunch aircraft on its first flight last weekend

The Stratolaunch aircraft on its first flight last weekend. Photo: Gene Blevins / Reuters

That, at least, is the theory, though the Falcon's central core, which landed successfully on a drone ship off the coast of Florida, then fell over in rough seas.

NASA, however, seems willing to outsource operations to SpaceX. Last week, he hired the company for a venture that has more than a passing resemblance to the Bruce Willis movie. Armageddon – shoot a rocket at an asteroid to see if it is possible to divert one of them to Earth.

Other rocket companies are seeking a similar approach to cutting expensive waste. Blue Origin, owned by Amazon's billionaire founder Jeff Bezos, aims to produce a rocket that doubles the capacity of any existing launch vehicle.

Stratolaunch, founded by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, successfully flew the world's largest aircraft last weekend with the ultimate goal of using it to transport rockets into the atmosphere. And US companies Boeing and Lockheed have a joint venture with the US government to produce a vehicle that can carry heavy loads and is targeting its first rocket launch in 2021.

The UK is involved in the "new space race," says Mark Thomas, executive director of Reaction Engines, based in Oxfordshire. His company, backed by BAE, Boeing and Rolls-Royce, is developing its Saber engine, which hopes to be able to push a space plane to Mach 5.4 into the atmosphere and then to Mach 25 in rocket mode using an on-board oxidizer for flight space. (These speeds could also revolutionize air travel: the Concorde's top speed was about Mach 2.)

Richard Branson with one of the Virgin Galactic spacecraft.

Richard Branson with one of the Virgin Galactic spacecraft. Photo: Barry J. Holmes / The Observer

Reaction has tested its main cooling technology at Mach 3 temperatures this month and plans to test its main system next year. If all is planned. Thomas says his test system could be operational by 2025. Reaction predictions could reduce the cost of launches from $ 60 million to just $ 6 million, allowing for much greater human activity in space.

"If you're going to take people off the planet – and that's a" – you'll need a serious infrastructure in space, "says Thomas. "Everything says you need more routine, reliable access to space."

With falling costs come other opportunities. Satellites and related services still make up the bulk of the space industry – 77 percent, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch – but space tourism has captured the imagination of many.

A separate UBS poll predicts space tourism will generate $ 3 billion by 2030. In January, Sir Richard Branson said he hoped to make his first space trip "in the middle of this year" on a Virgin Galactic flight. Bezos and Musk are planning manned flights within a year.

The British billionaire has made several similar promises in the past: he initially promised space flights 12 years ago, with the aim of bringing passengers into space by 2010. However, that time may be different. In February, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, with two pilots on board, reached 55.87 miles above sea level – above the 50-mile mark used by NASA to mark where space begins. Eventually, Virgin Galactic expects to take six passengers at a time to space-edge rides, and has received deposits from 700 people – some of whom have been waiting for years – for tickets priced up to $ 250,000.

Other companies are aiming for a little less: Spanish-based Zero 2 Infinity and Arizona-based World View aim to bring passengers in balloons to the edge of the Earth's atmosphere, four times more than passenger planes.

As launches become cheaper, another group of entrepreneurs is already planning the next step: space hotels. Robert Bigelow, founder of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, has attached an inflatable life module to the International Space Station in 2016, and the company now has ambitions for a full commercial space station, accommodating early scientists and then paying customers.

However, despite all these recent developments, which seem to herald a new, cheaper space age, UBS warns that anything approaching mass-market travel into space is still far off. As he reminded his clients, "This is still rocket science."


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