Space research has been the source of numerous technology innovations, many of which we now take for granted, such as mobile devices and GPS systems that rely on satellite data. In the popular imagination, space exploration and technology seem to have lost their luster, dropping from the headlines unless the news includes rocket explosions or loss of human life. Desensitized by awe-inspiring science fiction CGI, most of us gloss over the true impact of space science.
Digital business leaders are taking notice, however. Record investment in global space ventures, along with ever-increasing revenues generated by the space industry, suggest that space continues to be a key driver of technology and business innovation. Space-based breakthroughs have birthed new technologies and even new markets, including LEDs and advanced solar technology, anti-icing systems and firefighting gear, improved food safety and water purification, and even enriched baby food and our beloved memory-foam mattresses.
The World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Space Technologies predicts a new wave of space-enabled innovation by 2030, including downstream applications of observational data that could boost climate resilience, ensure water and food security, and help us monitor or predict the impact of natural disasters. We can also anticipate speedy rocket-propelled trips around the world, affordable broadband for all, more accurate space-based navigation accelerating supply chains and delivery, and new supplies of vital natural resources.
To the Edge—and Beyond
The business of space has evolved substantially in recent years, however, as private companies have joined the public sector in advancing in the space economy, which encompasses space research and resulting products and services. According to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s Annual Compendium of Commercial Space Transportation: 2018, the global space industry represents about US$345 billion in economic activity. Worldwide, private investors poured $3.9 billion into space companies last year, according to investment firm Space Angels.
To date, the benefits of these investments have been most visible in the global satellite infrastructure. Currently, more than 8,000 satellites orbit the Earth, providing a powerful source of Big Data for businesses, governments, and nonprofits and supporting breakthroughs in areas such as climate observation and Earth resource monitoring. Within a short time, the cost to launch a satellite has dropped to $43 million to $62 million, thanks to reusable rockets, and it could decrease further as both launch vehicles and satellites become mass produced. As a recent article in the Financial Times noted, satellites that used to require bankrolling by multibillion-dollar companies can now be developed and launched by startups and universities.
These fleets of smaller, cheaper satellites are poised to transform our view of the planet even further through access to vastly greater volumes of more granular data generated by Internet of Things technologies. These edge devices—all kinds of networked products, from mobile phones and sensors to smart cars and robots—need satellites to transmit the data that they process, store, and analyze. Advances in data science, artificial intelligence, and computing power will enable us to turn volumes of real-time imaging and data into insight and innovation across industries.
Satellite data is already transforming supply chain management with greater transparency. Startup Orbital Insight applies machine learning to satellite imaging data to react to supply chain trends, such as helping a wind-turbine manufacturer forecast demand and optimize component replacement, or predicting market fluctuations in the oil and gas industry based on images of storage tanks and commodity stockpiles. British food company Barfoots uses satellites to track the position of its cargo ships and monitor the temperature and humidity of containers to reduce food and resource waste. Data-center provider Equinix has partnered with Laser Light Communications to create a high-capacity network that uses satellites to deliver high-speed connectivity anywhere in the world.
In the realm of food and freshwater supply, the U.S. Landsat Program has long provided remote sensing data to monitor global food and fiber production, crop health, and soil moisture. Now precision farmers are using it to more efficiently manage their land. Hyperspectral global mapping satellites are critical to protecting freshwater ecosystems that underpin earth’s global water and food security. The Eyes on the Seas technology platform cross-references satellite imaging with fishing vessel databases and oceanographic data to combat the $23.5 billion illegal fishing market using real-time alerts.
The newest generation of small satellites may vastly improve predictions of weather and climate change. Researchers are developing a new satellite, the Geostationary Carbon Cycle Observatory, to track 10 million daily metrics of climate change. Meanwhile, members of the International Charter on Cooperation to Achieve the Coordinated Use of Space Facilities in the Event of Natural or Technological Disasters are collaborating to share satellite data to protect people and infrastructure in the face of more frequent and severe natural disasters.
A Universe of Possibilities
Space exploration stretches our capabilities even further. By pushing the boundaries of what is technically possible, it is stimulating ingenuity and giving us new options for supporting life on earth—or elsewhere, should our planet become uninhabitable. As the Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham recently wrote: “Setting up permanent outposts on the moon or Mars would be like taking out a species-level insurance policy against such events—to say nothing of the ancillary economic benefits of space exploration.” Today’s digital leaders are banking on expanding their markets beyond earth, including Google’s $30 million Lunar XPrize competition, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s $1 billion per year investment into space transportation firm Blue Origin, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch Systems, and Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
The International Space Station has proven the value of space-based research to fields such as the production of high-performance optical fiber and the development of new vaccines. A new wave of space stations and (once they are created) galactic economic development zones will stimulate a range of developments, such as space tourism and space manufacturing. China will begin construction of a permanent manned space station in 2019, while billionaire Robert Bigelow announced the creation of Bigelow Space Operations to manage private space stations.
The cosmos may also serve as a new source of vital resources. Space-based solar power could help solve our energy and climate change challenges by providing large quantities of power with little environmental impact. The global mining industry, in decline in recent years, may begin extracting resources from asteroids or the moon. Goldman Sachs recently predicted that the space mining could eventually be worth trillions. The government of Luxembourg has launched a $227 million Space Resources initiative to support the peaceful exploration and sustainable utilization of space resources for the benefit of humankind.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government is talking about putting people back on the moon, and it’s not alone. Other countries, as well as private companies, are making plans for lunar exploration and development. SpaceX hopes to send a crewed mission to Mars in seven years. NASA has also been developing a new rocket and spacecraft that could take astronauts into deep space to build a lunar outpost and eventually travel to Mars, opening up opportunities to explore more distant destinations.
Whether Musk will meet his goal of reaching the Red Planet by 2025—or whether we will want to pull up stakes and live on Mars—are questions for the future. What’s clear is that solving everyday challenges here on Earth requires new solutions today. Breakthrough innovation often requires that we view things from unusual vantage points. Looking down on Earth from space and gazing out into the cosmos provide the ultimate shift of perspective and could give us the insights to go beyond our restricted Earthbound thinking.
Kai Goerlich is the chief futurist at SAP Innovation Center network. Dan Wellers is the Digital Futures global lead and senior analyst at SAP Insights.