Complex Made Simple

Two more players enter the space race, but the cost on earth could be huge

Recently, a major German car manufacturer, Porsche, and Japan, a major industrial country, formally announced their intentions to launch space programs and earn their place in exploring the cosmos

Spectrum is a two-stage system designed to optimize the deployment of future satellite constellations Japan is ramping up plans to settle Mars and beyond Several publicly traded companies and exchange-traded funds have shot into orbit

Recently, a major German car manufacturer, Porsche, and Japan, a major industrial country, formally announced their intentions to launch space programs and earn their place in exploring the cosmos.

The craze is on the heels of the success of billionaire celebrities like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson, pioneers in their own rights.

But this will come at a great cost to the environment.

Porsche

Porsche is investing in a German rocket start-up called Isar Aerospace, in a bid to capture early access to nascent space technologies, according to an initial report from the Financial Times.

The automaker joined a new group of investors, HV Capital and Lombard Odier, and threw $75 million into the mix, which lifts the total Series B funding round to $165 mn. The startup is aiming to compete with Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX by providing a less expensive means to launch low-Earth orbit satellites. The company started to build its Spectrum rocket, which uses 3D printing and automation to cut down costs of production.

The launch vehicle, Spectrum, is a two-stage system designed to optimize the deployment of future satellite constellations. It can lift up to a ton, and employs a multi-ignition second-stage rocket to push high-altitude payloads into their final orbital trajectory.  

In May of this year, Isar became the first European company to close a contract from the European Space Agency (ESA), nabbing $13 mn from the government of Germany to lift two satellites to low-Earth orbit. The firm also aims to design reusable rockets someday.

Spectrum launches in 2022.

Japan

Japan is ramping up plans to settle Mars and beyond, according to a computer-animated presentation at Kyoto University’s Human Spaceology Center, which portrayed a bold vision for the future of human life in space, as reported by Nikkei Asia.

The computer animation revealed an other-worldly scene of bizarrely shaped structures rising from the seemingly infinite wastelands of Mars’ red desert. But inside the buildings were fields of green, grass-filled land, along with boats sailing in tranquility across blue waters.

The Human Spaceology Center (HSC) is a possible vision for how humans will settle Mars, and was created to reinvigorate interest in space exploration.   

The video depicted a concept for one of the HRC’s five primary regions of research: building habitats that support earthlike levels of artificial gravity

Companies cashing in star fashion

Several publicly traded companies and exchange-traded funds have shot into orbit, capitalizing on a growing fascination with space.

The Procure Space ETF which debuted in 2019 and trades under the ticker symbol UFO, owns Branson’s Virgin Galactic as a top holding and has capitalized on the hype about the billionaires’ space race. The UFO ETF is up 14% so far this year and more than 40% during the past 12 months.

“There certainly has been more interest in the fund this year especially prior to the Virgin launch,” said Andrew Chanin, manager of the UFO fund and CEO Of Procure.

Chanin said that the index’s managers are looking not just for companies that aim to send wealthy tourists into space. The real money from space launches is likely to come from the increased use of satellites for communication and internet services.

Chanin noted that Bank of America has estimated that the space business could be a $2.7 trillion revenue opportunity by 2045, and that half of those sales could be from broadband communications.

“The satellite industry is one of the most misunderstood parts of the space economy,” Chanin said, noting that satellite communications currently make up about a third of the nearly $425 billion in global revenue for the space industry.

Environmental risks

Several companies, including SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic, have been focusing on developing platforms such as rocket-powered suborbital vehicles that will enable the industry to carry out suborbital transportation and space tourism.

The launch of a new private space industry that is cultivating tourism and popular use could come with vast environmental costs, says Eloise Marais, an associate professor of physical geography at University College London.  

When rockets launch into space, they require a huge amount of propellants to make it out of the Earth’s atmosphere. For SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, it is kerosene, and for NASA, it is liquid hydrogen in their new Space Launch System. Those fuels emit a variety of substances into the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide, water, chlorine, and other chemicals.

The carbon emissions from rockets are small compared with the aircraft industry, she says. But they are increasing at nearly 5.6% a year.

For one long-haul plane flight, it’s one to 3 tons of carbon dioxide per passenger, according to Marais. For one rocket launch, 200-300 tons of carbon dioxide are split between 4 or so passengers.

“So, it doesn’t need to grow that much more to compete with other sources,” she said.

In the whole of 2020, there were 114 attempted orbital launches in the world, according to NASA. That compares with the airline industry’s more than 100,000 flights each day on average.

But emissions from rockets are emitted right into the upper atmosphere, which means they stay there for a long time, or 2 to 3 years.  

A new market report estimates that the global suborbital transportation and space tourism market is estimated to reach $2.58bn in 2031, growing 17.15% each year of the next decade.