Startups Operating in Outer Space
Companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic aim to launch humanity into a new era of space travel by facilitating space tourism with future ambitions for a Mars colonization. The dream that these companies sell has been bought by space enthusiasts and early-stage investors alike. According to PitchBook, in 2020 venture capitalists made 69 investments in the space technology vertical totaling $4.3 billion. While SpaceX and Virgin Galactic have received large investment checks and command high valuations ($92 billion and $4.05 billion respectively), they are by no means the only tech startups with operations in space.
May Marom is an Israeli startup that is developing technology used to extract humidity from vacuum, low gravity, and harsh environments. The company’s system uses microwave-based technology to extract water and other resources from rock, regolith, and permafrost planetary soil. The company aims to democratize space travel by creating a system that can obtain water in space. They believe such a system would make space travel cheaper, easier, and possible over longer distances. Indeed, water can be used as fuel and radiation shielding, as well as to create food sources and life support systems. Should May Marom succeed in developing a way to provide water in space, space travel would be revolutionized.
Rogue Space Systems, based out of Laconia, New Hampshire, manufactures and operates orbital space robots called Orbots. These robots are designed to support human expansion into space, and as the space industry evolves, Rogue Space Systems plans to evolve their Orbots with it. One successful application of Orbots has been clearing up space debris. Even a piece of debris the size of a pebble, hurtling across Earth’s orbit at a speed ten times that of a rifle round, can cause immense damage should it strike a satellite. So, clearing up space debris is critical to avoiding the high expenses associated with repairing satellite damage. Rogue Space Systems is committed to solving the “space debris problem” and servicing satellites in a number of other ways. In doing so, Rogue is capitalizing on a huge market opportunity as the satellite industry accounts for nearly 75% of the world’s space business at a $271 billion market size.
Helios is another Israeli company that aims to develop in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) technology to make space colonization possible in the long-term. Helios is developing what is called a Molten Regolith Electrolysis Reactor — a device designed to separate and collect oxygen and metals available in Lunar and Martian surface soil (Figure 1 shows lunar soil’s composition of obtainable resources). This device could be used to gather the oxygen necessary for sustaining life on extraterrestrial locations and to cast metal alloys necessary for building infrastructure. Due to weight and space limitations on spacecraft, it is far cheaper and more efficient to use a device such as this to establish humanity on another celestial body than to simply transport materials and oxygen from Earth. As companies like SpaceX lead humanity’s expansion into space, Helios’ technology may serve as an invaluable tool to make the expansion cheaper and more sustainable.
Many believe that the charge to colonize space is backed by doubts about the future of our planet’s well-being, or furthermore that once humanity has discovered an alternative to living on Earth, we will disregard our impact on our home planet. As evidence contrary to these beliefs, NewRocket is making space travel green by producing environmentally friendly rocket engines that run on gel propellant technology. Conventional rocket engines utilizing propellant in either solid or liquid form present a number of risks, including high toxicity, transportation challenges, and difficulty in controlling or extinguishing the rocket. NewRocket’s proprietary gel technology, when applied, has the benefits of both liquid and solid propellants without the pitfalls, with its benefits including stability, non-toxicity, safety in use and transportation, and improved performance with a powerful thrust that can be controlled and extinguished when necessary. Companies like NewRocket serve a critical role by bringing sustainability into the Space Age.
Blue Origin, founded by Jeff Bezos in 2000 (led by CEO Bob Smith), aims to make access to space cheaper and more reliable through their reusable launch vehicles. This little-known competitor to SpaceX prides itself on not cutting corners and skipping steps to become a leader in the industry. As such, unlike SpaceX, this company has not yet completed a manned mission into outer space. However, Blue Origin’s rocket, New Glenn, is designed to be able to complete a minimum of 25 (manned or payload delivery) trips into Earth’s orbit and has applications for civil, commercial, and national security customers alike. While there is a noticeable lag between Blue Origin’s achievements in space travel and SpaceX’s, Blue Origin is still poised to become a major competitor.