Technology is solving supply chain challenges that will democratise the space economy, says Tod Cooper
The achievements in the space industry are quite incredible given that just 49 years ago NASA made history by putting a man on the moon, says Tod Cooper, general manager Australasia at MDA Corporation, which develops space robotics, satellites and surveillance equipment.
New Zealand is a new player in the space race, Cooper told the CIPS Australasia conference. It launched its space agency only two years ago “on the smell of an oily rag’”, and has already become the talk of the “international town” with January’s launch from Mahia of the Electron rocket by US firm Rocket Lab. Yet, without any infrastructure of its own, the country has yet to fully become part of the space economy, which, according to Morgan Stanley figures, is expected to grow from $350bn in 2016 to $1.1 trillion by 2040, Cooper says.
And this year the Australian government launched its own space agency – with $15m of a total $41-million investment – at a time when diminishing launch costs, new technology, and private venture capital funding are all contributing to put space access and exploration at the tipping point of disruption, he says.
Cooper points to Rocket Lab. By using the Mahia launch site, with a wider spectrum of orbital inclinations and a rate of 120 flights a year, it has created a lower-cost launch option. Its Electron rocket, made in Auckland, uses light, strong carbon composite materials, and a carbon composite fuel tank – saving further costs. It is powered by the firm’s electric Rutherford engine, which is claimed to be almost 50% more efficient than a traditional gas generated engine, and uses an electric propulsion cycle with lithium polymer batteries.
It is the first oxygen/hydrocarbon engine to use 3D printing for all the primary components, with build time cut from months to days, and the engine printed in under 24 hours. “This allows them to build and launch at an unprecedented frequency to democratise access to space,” says Cooper.
Collaboration is another disruptor, with four space organisations – MDA, SSL, DigitalGlobe and Radiant Solutions – integrating vertically as Maxar Technologies, to meet technology challenges, and think outside the box. It is addressing issues such as what to do with a satellite that runs out of fuel, something akin to abandoning your Ferrari on the side of the road when the gas runs out, says Cooper.
Maxar created a public-private partnership with Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), to build an autonomous vehicle to service satellites in space – a potential gamechanger in the industry – and by 2021, you could refuel, augment, repair or reposition your satellite, he says. This would significantly decrease the total cost of ownership of these hugely expensive assets, ultimately making the cost of services such as earth observation, satellite broadband internet, and TV communications much more affordable.