The space sector as we know it is undergoing an unprecedented transformation. With players like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, talks of commercial space travel in the not-too-distant future and streamed launches back on the radar, it’s no surprise that space has once again taken its place on the global stage.
Traditionally, space was driven by direct state investments, national programs, or scientific explorations to move humanity forward. Much of this was because the space industry was hampered by its complex technical challenges, enormous costs, and the risks involved. This simply created too big a barrier for private players to get involved. Furthermore, the lack of ease to iterate on and realize advanced concepts hindered anyone other than state programs to push the existing performance of the space industry. Certainly, from an economic and technical standpoint, space just wasn’t a viable investment from a commercial perspective.
While the prohibitive practicalities of entering the space industry kept private organizations from getting involved, the downstream applications utilizing the space infrastructure kept on growing immensely. Satellite communication, earth observation, GPS and even social media all rely on the space infrastructure and its technology to operate. More and more of our technology rapidly became reliant on space, but the industry and its infrastructure weren’t growing at the same rate. The space industry was yearning for a transformation.
With big corporations making their way into the space industry, what started as a “trend” turned into a full-fledged transformation of the industry — generally referred to as the New Space industry.
According to a paper released by the European Space Agency, New Space defines the “emergence of the private space industry, particularly companies that — when compared to ‘traditional’ space companies — tend to be less reliant on government support and focused on less well-established lines of business.”
Ergo, New Space thrives on private organizations headed by visionaries with exceptionally deep pockets and bold ambitions. And it’s been given a huge jolt of energy thanks to technical and business model innovations that means the space industry now has a sustainable commercial nature.
Many of the New Space private players are businesses that have already made a significant impact in technological advancement in other fields but have chosen to branch out into the space industry because of relative crossovers. Mircosoft Azure is a great example of this transition and the monetization of space infrastructure. In 2020, Microsoft announced that its Azure cloud network will be powered by SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet, there by competing with Amazon’s AWS Ground Station and also Amazon's own AWS Space based on it's Kuiper network.
There are many technical breakthroughs in other fields that have opened up possibilities for New Space — from software and automation to new synthesized materials and manufacturing methods — and while the developers of these technologies are pushing the advancement of New Space, they’re also keen to capitalize on it.
The minimization of traditional constraints has meant more of the technology being adopted and incorporated into the space industry is coming from private innovators and manufacturers. These advancements have contributed to the improvement of many technologies, such as artificial intelligence, the miniaturization of satellites and its components, reusable launch systems, laser-based communication devices and ignition. As manufacturing has developed in the public and consumer space, it’s offered significant benefits to the space industry, which in turn presented companies with huge commercial opportunities.
One of the most impactful developments in production for the space industry has been additive manufacturing (AM). For many applications, it has drastically reduced the design-to-part-in-hand cycle, even from 10 months to one. The simplification of fabricating parts has significantly reduced lead times and increased precision and quality, allowing the New Space industry to flourish. This has directly impacted the entire engineering process of everything from specific parts to the complete launch vehicle, resulting in the ability to reach and exceed performance targets.
The foundational advantage AM offers New Space is the very high “bang for buck” factor that it taps into – this is directly linked to complexity cost reduction. In any industry, it’s well known that costs almost always rise exponentially with greater levels of complexity. AM has directly addressed that for New Space by optimizing the production of the heaviest, longest lead time, highest cost and most complex parts. Furthermore, the adoption of AM has allowed for greater innovation in the design evolution and pace of part production, directly resulting in the ability and willingness to try out new and radical concepts. Because progress in the space industry relies on the designing, testing, failing, learning and re-designing of new concepts, the faster and cheaper production of parts has accelerated the whole development process.
From the first flagship (traditional) space companies right through to the New Space companies, AM was key for these pioneers as they joined the industry. It allowed these innovators to realize their concepts without huge manufacturing constraints typical in the traditional space industry. We have partnered with big space companies and small start-ups globally, as their proof of concept (POC) enablement partner and as well as provider of reliable serial AM solutions, including customizing the AM solution to the industry’s specific needs.
Author: Vinu Vijayan