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A Growth Industry in Space
by Launchspace Staff Writers
Bethesda MD (SPX) Jun 03, 2014

Most entrepreneurial adventurers must seek profit to remain in business. Growth is a big factor in creating and expanding profits. Of the many attempted commercial space ventures that have been started over the past half-century almost all have failed because the marketplace did not support the ventures. One outstanding commercial exception is the operation of geostationary communications satellites (GEOs).

Over the past 50+ years the space industry has matured and many space-based applications have been developed. Uses of space can be categorized into three types: civil, national security and commercial. Civilian government agencies are interested in scientific exploration, technology demonstrations and certain services to the general public that would not otherwise be available.

Defense and intelligence agencies are interested in protecting the nation. Commercial space operators are interested in pushing frontiers and advancing new technologies in order to compete and remain viable.

Government-sponsored space activities are paid for through taxation and remain viable at the will of Congress. Commercial users of space have to use private sector funds, sometimes with the help of the government.

However, most entrepreneurial adventurers must seek profit to remain in business. Growth is a big factor in creating and expanding profits. Of the many attempted commercial space ventures that have been started over the past half-century almost all have failed because the marketplace did not support the ventures. One outstanding commercial exception is the operation of geostationary communications satellites (GEOs).

Space-based applications and markets that use GEOs have grown steadily since their inception in the early 1960s. Revenues and profits have increased along with this growth. Other commercial operations are about to be introduced. For example, Virgin Galactic may soon be flying paying passengers on scheduled suborbital flights. It appears that other entrants may well follow suite in the space tourism arena.

Another growth area of space activity is the proliferation of space debris. Spacefaring nations have successfully introduced man-made objects into near-Earth space that could number in the hundreds of thousands, ranging in size from a few millimeters to several meters. In fact, every time a satellite ceases to operate, it adds to the debris population, unless actively removed.

Every time an upper stage is left in orbit, it adds to the debris population. In fact, every time one of these objects explodes, breaks up or is impacted by another space object more debris is added to the list. Since these phenomena have passed the "point-of-no-return," continued growth is assured through the natural processes of collision and break up. Almost every launch event leads to increased debris. This is indeed a "growth industry."

Various government agencies and private sector organizations are tracking and studying over 23,000 individual debris objects of at least 10 cm in size. Any one of these objects could represent a threat to active satellites.

Thus, the possibility of collisions is of primary concern to both government and commercial satellite operators. There are, however, many more debris objects in orbit that cannot be tracked due to limitations of available technologies and equipment. It is estimated that objects smaller than 10 cm may number in the tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands.

Clearly, from an entrepreneurial point of view, space debris should be of interest. So, why has the subject been studied, but otherwise ignored? The answer, so far, has been a lack of a marketplace for space debris.

In other words, there are no buyers. Even if there were buyers, the cost of retrieving debris objects would be prohibitive. As a commodity space debris is perceived as having little or no value. Therefore, it seems there is little point in trying to find a market in which to sell debris.

But, there is value here. That value is based on the potential negative impact on space operations and indeed, the potential of losing access to and use of space. Many think this eventuality is far-fetched. Surely, there is no immediate threat to losing the use of space.

However, there is evidence that the threat is growing. The Iridium-Cosmos collision in 2009 resulted in the loss of an operating satellite. Statistically, this type of event could repeat itself at any time, and experts warn that the frequency of such events will increase exponentially. At some point, the collision frequency will become intolerable and placing satellites in certain orbits will no longer be economically viable. This is not a matter of "if" but of "when."

If spacefaring nations wait too long to take action, the negative impact to exploration, national security and the global economy could be devastating. Fortunately, at least one organization is taking a proactive position and has initiated a center for education and research to address near-term and future space debris issues. This is the Center for Orbital Debris Education and Research (CODER) at the University of Maryland.

For those involved in dealing with space debris issues, Launchspace is offering a special one-day seminar on the subject of "Space Debris and the Future of Space Flight," on September 22, 2014 in the Dulles Virginia Area. Please check this out by clicking (Course 9200 Catalog).


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