Companies around the world - in transportation, exploration, energy, construction or hospitality - are all looking upwards for the next growth opportunity. Space is quickly becoming a place where the industries that power our global economy will conduct business.
What do we call an economic area like this, that is not limited to a single planet, and no longer has physical boundaries? We can't call it an industry, when private industrial groups can generate revenue and profit not only from the Earth but from near-Earth asteroids (NEAs), the Moon and Mars and beyond. It is simply a medium in which humanity conducts commerce.
Let’s take a look at the industry sectors that will be the first to take advantage of our expanded economic sphere, and some of the specific opportunities for growth.
Valued at over $8.4 trillion and growing at a 4.1% compound annual growth rate, energy is the largest industry on Earth.
Humans are prolific energy consumers, and soon there will be more humans in space.
Jeff Bezos, Founder and CEO of Amazon, anticipates “millions of people living and working in space” in the coming decades. Bezos is so confident of this outcome that he is investing more than $1 billion per year into his space transportation firm, Blue Origin. An in-space population of this magnitude will require enormous amounts of energy to live, work, and transit. This energy will come from solar power, which is more effective when gathered in space due to the lack of a filtering atmosphere; and chemical rockets, which will be the primary transportation mechanism for the foreseeable future.
The most efficient chemical rocket propellants are composed of cryogenic liquid oxygen combined with liquid hydrogen or methane. Initially, the propellant needed to fuel the space economy will be launched from Earth, as both the United Launch Alliance (a joint-venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing) and SpaceX have proposed to do in the near future. However, there is a much more attractive way to source the propellants needed to support a sustained human presence in space: mining it.
The global mining industry has tumbled in recent years from a market value of more than $1.6 trillion in 2010, to $714 billion in 2016, but this may change quickly once the “global” definition of mining is transformed by the emerging space resource industry.
Space resources can be extracted from celestial bodies, most notably asteroids and the Moon. Goldman Sachs released a report earlier this year that declared asteroid mining is more realistic than perceived, with costs “comparable to traditional mines”. The Goldman report also noted that “while the psychological barrier to mining asteroids is high, the actual financial and technological barriers are far lower.”
The Government of Luxembourg believes so strongly in this emerging industry it recently created the $227 million Space Resoruces initiative to establish Luxembourg as a European hub for space resources. Its aim is to contribute to the peaceful exploration and sustainable utilization of space resources for the benefit of humankind. Space mining activities will initially focus on water and water-derived propellants to enable in-space infrastructure. Once this propellant is readily available, companies will begin sourcing structural metals for construction projects and eventually precious metals needed for in-space manufacturing or possibly for return to Earth.
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The most important resource that will be mined in space is water.
Water is critical for all life-support functions in space: sustenance, hygiene, and food production. Water can serve as an effective shield from the dangerous radiation present in space. Water is also the single most important feedstock for in-space refineries, which will produce rocket propellants for sale to transportation providers.
Making propellants available beyond Earth’s gravitational influence will lead to the creation of the first in-space superhighway – a series of fuel depots placed in strategic locations throughout the solar system.
Imagine the growth potential of the energy, mining, and refining industries once they are freed from the constraints of an economy that is limited only to Earth. The in-space transportation and logistics firms who will consume these products are already well established and are headed by titans of industry: Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin), Elon Musk (SpaceX), Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic), and Tory Bruno (United Launch Alliance). The door is now open to in-space mining firms like Planetary Resources (backed by industrial giant Bechtel and the Government of Luxembourg) to capture this increasingly important market by providing water and water-based propellants to the space transportation industry.
Today, the global construction industry competes with the energy industry for the title of the world’s largest industry, and this rivalry will continue in space. The first orbital construction systems will be deployed before the end of the decade. These robotic spacecraft will be capable of assembling large structures in orbit and repairing or refueling existing satellites. When combined with zero-gravity additive manufacturing techniques, this enables construction systems which can “print” and assemble massive structures in the medium of space. The future of construction in space will look nothing like it does on Earth, but it will be equally valuable because the techniques and service offerings will apply across the entire in-space value chain. A propellant refinery can be assembled on orbit. Asteroid mines can be repaired autonomously. Solar power plants can be massively scaled and upgraded to meet the requirements of almost any project.
Hospitality and real estate
Humans can only live, work and play in space if they have shelter from the harsh environment of space. Today, the International Space Station (ISS) has had a sustained human presence for over 10 years, but this too will soon change.
Numerous commercial space station companies, including one created by billionaire hotel-chain-founder Robert Bigelow, are competing for lucrative contracts that range from supporting sovereign astronauts and high-net-worth tourists, to leasing space-in-space for orbital manufacturing and research and development programmes. This new industry is anticipated to generate $37 billion in the next decade alone.
Space habitats will be launched from Earth initially, but as the resource supply chain expands and metals from asteroids and the Moon become available, this sector will also come to rely on resources sourced from space. Construction firms will combine high-quality metallic feedstocks with robotic orbital assembly fleets as we gain the ability to create orbital megastructures: hotels, factories, and permanent settlements that are no longer limited by size. The first cities in space will become possible as markets for real-estate on orbit emerge. Space will become affordable and profitable for developers.
Our global economy is limited by its very name. When we realize that Earth’s economy is only the beginning, our concept of growth changes exponentially. For industrial firms who have the foresight to view space not as a stand-alone industry but as the next medium to conduct their business, the sky is not the limit. The only limitations are the ones we put on ourselves.
The authors are members of the Global Future Council on Space Technologies.