A revolution in rocket and satellite technology begins to enable new uses of technology in space that are proving vital in areas such as environmental regulation, sustainable agriculture, humanitarian aid
In a world where environmental and social concerns are rightly more important than ever to investors, the space industry has been engulfed in unwelcome headlines in recent months.
However, the technological advancements of the last decade allow for the creation of a new infrastructure in orbit around the Earth where space technology is becoming an essential part of the toolkit in areas such as environmental regulation, sustainable agriculture, organizations. humanitarian aid.
This has been made possible to a large extent by the revolution in the costs and capabilities of rockets and satellites, so that the cost of going into space has been increased almost tenfold, while satellites have grown from the size of ‘a tank than a shoebox, with a corresponding reduction in costs – but with the same or better functionality.
This is due in part to Moore’s Law, where the functionality of computer chips doubles every year, and in part through the deep pockets – and big government contracts – of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.
To give them some credit, Musk’s SpaceX and his development of reusable rockets have been the driving force behind falling space access costs – although it would be remiss not to mention that these private companies stand on the shoulders of the giants of NASA. and in the academic sphere of rocket science.
The combination of the two elements of cheaper access to space and cheaper, smaller satellites means that even start-ups can launch whole swathes of satellites, with powerful results, as Mark Bogget explains. , Managing Director of the specialist asset manager Seraphim Space (Manager).
“These constellations of satellites that collect large amounts of data or provide communication at low cost – what we call digital infrastructure in the sky.
“It allows them to watch our planet, to allow us to use resources more efficiently, to catch the bad guys who are dumping effluent in a river, to watch all kinds of illegal activity.”
Spire Global Inc, which was recently listed in New York, Planet Labs Inc (NYSE: DMYQ), which is set to join through a SPAC merger, and Finland-based Iceye Oy, which is in pre-IPO, are three excellent examples.
Spire uses its constellation of 110 small CubeSats to observe data and predict environmental changes and also provide marine tracking services.
Planet Labs and Iceye, meanwhile, both provide what’s called change detection, using their collection of satellites to photograph every inch of the Earth’s surface.
Planet’s technology has been used to document the existence and size of Uyghur Muslim detention camps in China, a secret missile base in Iran, and illegal deforestation in the Amazon.
Spire and Iceye, both of which are part of the Seraphim Space Investment Trust PLC (LSE: SSIT) portfolio, are working separately and together on projects.
Spire’s tracking system precisely tracks the AIS tracking system for every ocean vessel from space, 24/7.
Iceye’s high-resolution cameras are able to look at land in all weather conditions day and night and see these ships with a resolution of 20cm.
“And when one of those boats wants to do something mean, it turns off its tracker,” says Boggett. “When this happens, Spire alerts Iceye, who uses her cameras to continue monitoring the new path of these untracked ships from space.”
By comparing the size and shape of the boat’s wake, they can even calculate the weight of whatever the vessel just dumped, or if an untracked boat encountered another that was also disabled for potentially illegal activities.
Change detection is applicable to almost any industry, whether it’s seeing how many bricks have been added to a building, providing security around heavy equipment kept on-site, or monitoring the consequences of a natural disaster.
Iceye earlier this month announced two new company collaborations to provide flood risk data, following another agreement with the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to help to monitor and respond to maritime environmental risks.
SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon.com’s Project Kuiper sell their ESG credentials by providing telecommunications in remote areas, but there were also many important uses of space technology detailed by the United Nations Conference on Commerce. and development (UNCTAD) in a study earlier this year.
These included public health case studies, such as the South African Space Agency’s use of satellite data to locate informal settlements and monitor potential malaria and other pandemic hot spots; the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, which has mapped hard-to-reach areas to implement infectious disease control measures; and the German Aerospace Center’s use of geospatial analysis to help provide evidence on air quality during the Covid pandemic.
In agriculture, Canada uses Radarsat remote sensing observation satellites to provide data to help farmers better allocate resources, while in several African countries the Afri Scout satellite app is used in the best location. for their herds of cattle.
“The companies providing services today are what you might call ‘V1’ – so that’s before we even got to ‘V2’ things like solar farms in space, agriculture in space. space and that sort of thing. “
The Seraphim Space fund has so far invested in nearly 20 small and medium-sized players, while space-focused exchange-traded funds like Procure Space UCITS ETF (LSE: YODA), its former state-listed sister -Unis Procure Space ETF (NASDAQ: UFO) and its colleague SPDR S&P Kensho Final Frontiers ETF, listed in the United States, choose among the largest satellite operators and aerospace behemoths for their portfolios.
However, environmental concerns about the impact of the space industry are still likely to be a concern for some investors, which is not surprising when you watch video footage of a NASA rocket liftoff, which consumes fuel 11,000 pounds of fuel per second.
Regardless of whether Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos’ rockets drastically reduced this fuel consumption, they still emit the equivalent of a large mushroom cloud as they burn through the stratosphere, with around 200 to 300 tons. of carbon dioxide – compared to up to three tonnes per passenger for a long-haul flight.
That’s where V2 comes in, Boggett says, when instead of costing US $ 1,000 per kg to send anything into space, it’s US $ 200 per kg.
“It opens up a whole range of opportunities in the space. So things like data centers in space, things like solar farms in space.
“A solar farm in space means a lot of panels and the means to bring that energy back to earth. This means that we are going to stop burning fossil fuels. We are going to clean up our planet, but we are going to have this enormous resource which will be very inexpensive but without damaging the planet. And we all switched to electric cars at that point. So it’s really a way to save our planet.
“Think about agriculture in space, how many people are on the planet, we don’t have enough space to grow food to feed the planet. We can do in space, there is a lot of space in space.
“And so, you know, at the end of the day there are these challenges that are going to be addressed in V2… it’s going to have a huge impact on the planet.”