SpaceTech should be part of company discussions

Sheila Zabeu -

June 13, 2023

One more class of technology should have space on corporate desks, SpaceTech, according to a recent report by Deloitte Consulting. The research studies technologies that may seem inapplicable to the business environment today, but should merit consideration in future business strategies.

Highlighting that space is no longer the exclusive domain of government agencies and private space companies, the study identifies three types of business opportunities – here on Earth, near Earth orbits and in deep space – that should not go unnoticed by companies’ top management.

  • The opportunities here on Earth highlight how advances in the launch vehicle and spaceport sector are reducing barriers to entry and democratizing access to space.
  • Opportunities in key Earth orbits consider the thriving ecosystem of satellites, space stations and associated services.
  • Opportunities in deep space explore distant frontiers, with the potential of scientific advances, economic activities and exploitation of natural resources.
The space economy has reached an inflection point in terms of both access and opportunity.
Source: Deloitte

“The space industry is entering an era of renaissance. Space has never been more accessible, and the potential for revolutionary discoveries has never been greater. It’s important that companies from all sectors – not just those traditionally associated with space – start planning their role in what will be this emerging market,” says Mike Bechtel, chief futurist and managing director at Deloitte Consulting.

Here, there and in deep space

In the study’s view, business-as-a-service models have democratised Information Technology and should soon also transform companies’ view of business opportunities right here on Earth. Activities related to launch vehicles and spaceport development are more accessible to the business world than ever before. Frequent and significant reductions in rocket launch costs are creating a vibrant ecosystem with commercial activities encompassing space vehicles and launch port infrastructure. The report points out, for example, that governments and private companies that establish such infrastructure in the coming years will be able to establish their geographic regions as centres of expertise and exploit future space economy opportunities.

In 2020, for example, Microsoft has teamed up with SpaceX and SES to launch a new cloud computing business that will operate in space. Azure Space is a cloud platform aimed at private companies and government agencies that use data collected by satellite, but do not want to invest in the ground infrastructure to process and analyse that data. In practice, Microsoft will offer mobile cloud computing data centres – the Azure Modular Datacenter (MDC) – that can be installed and used anywhere, including “off the grid”. For the deal, the company has struck a deal with Starlink’s internet satellites (SpaceX has launched more than 800 satellites so far) and extended its agreement with the company SES to use its O3b satellites.

A shared space economy can make remotely sensed data much more accessible, faster and cheaper, as well as bringing low-cost universal broadband communication to remote areas. This requires democratising access to space and nano-satellites are part of that effort.

By comparison, nano-satellites are the size of a shoebox, weighing between 1 and 10 kg. In addition, these models can be assembled in mass production because they use common standards and ready-made parts. All this lowers the development costs of such equipment, increasing access to this technology.

“The use of software-defined components, which can be updated with new features and new techniques for faster development of custom sensors, further reduces the cost and time needed to provide new space-based services. The increasing intelligence of satellites and the communication bandwidth between them will allow them to operate as autonomous swarms, allocating monitoring or signal relay work to the most efficient satellite,” writes Carsten Stöcker, a member of the World Economic Forum’s Blockchain Global Future Council, in an article on the organisation’s website.

There are also exciting new possibilities around Earth orbits, especially the low orbit (1,200 miles away), according to the report. Satellites in these orbits can be used in situations that require precise location, accurate weather measurement or connectivity and high-quality imagery.

To get an idea of the proportion of these opportunities, more satellites were launched in 2020 than in the previous 20 years combined. According to Delloite, the market associated with low earth orbit (LEO) alone could reach an annual US$312 billion by 2035, almost eight times the 2022 figure. The business opportunities fall into three main areas:

  • Satellite communication to extend Internet access to companies and end users.
  • Satellite navigation to provide accurate location and time. It can be adopted by various industries, from autonomous vehicles to time-stamped financial transactions.
  • Remote observation and sensing to provide high quality images of the Earth in applications such as supply chain, accurate real-time tracking, traffic, climate study, pollution, disease spread, agriculture and mining.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is one of the great beneficiaries of these models. Airbus is one of the companies betting on the technology. In partnership with the startup Astrocast, the company has developed an IoT solution integrated with the startup’s constellation of five nano-satellites to promote a global connection.

In the view of the Brazilian Association of Satellite Telecommunications Companies (ABRASAT), truly global IoT connectivity can only be offered by satellites. In this case, the lower cost and energy consumption connectivity provided by nano models expands the total number of connected sensors.

Innovation can benefit agriculture by giving access to more accurate forecasts based on data collected by sensors on the property. Monitoring by images is also a benefit of this equipment for agro – in 2020, 18% of producers used data or images of the property provided by remote sensors (satellite, aircraft, vant and/or drones), according to Embrapa.

“If we consider new sensor launches planned for nano-satellites and microsatellites, by 2022 there should be a significant leap in the use of these technologies,” points out Embrapa Instrumentação researcher Lúcio André de Castro Jorge.

In the same vein, ABRASAT believes that “the space industry should be driven by demand for better connectivity for smart devices, IoT, greater use of data analytics and migration to broadband streaming.”

However, threats can also come from space, with the increasing risk of collision from debris, satellites and space junk. Tracking and predicting the movement of objects in orbit is critical. As with many activities, risks can become opportunities, meaning technology companies can develop solutions to address this open issue in the space industry, Delloite points out.

Another area of commercial exploration has to do with space stations, which could become space tourism hubs. Deloitte estimates that the space tourism market could be between $1.8 billion and $3.3 billion by 2035.

Research & Development (R&D) and manufacturing are other areas of activity that can benefit from space stations. As the report explains, the environmental conditions of space can give companies the chance to experiment and produce in new ways. Properties found exclusively in space have the potential to bring greater precision to R&D and manufacturing, ranging from semiconductors and fibre-optic cables to pharmaceuticals, human organs and stem cells.

Although still nascent and shrouded in uncertainty, deep space exploration is full of potential, says Delloite’s research. Nations that can overcome the challenges surrounding long-duration space travel and the private companies that support or even lead these missions will reap substantial rewards in terms of scientific advances, economic activity and the exploitation of valuable natural resources.

Technologies are already being tested to support deep space exploration, such as a sustained human presence at a lunar base. Mars exploration is another adventure in this same vein that awaits technological advances to overcome environmental and logistical challenges.

And what to be exploited in practice? Examples listed by Delloite include natural resource mining, which could, for example, help establish such a sustained human presence in space with resupply of resources. Unconsolidated, loose, heterogeneous surface deposits covering solid rock on the Moon could be used to fuel deep space missions, eliminating the need to carry more fuel on trips. The Moon is rich in helium-3 deposits, which could also perhaps power safe and clean nuclear fusion reactors.

According to Delloite, the real opportunity lies in asteroids in deep space, but it is still very, very far away. The potential value of materials concentrated in asteroids is so great that it would be capable of profoundly shaking up important markets here on Earth, the report highlights. Asteroids often contain large deposits of metals that are rare in our earthly reality, and such inputs are vital mainly for electronics and battery manufacturing.