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What Is New Space? The Changing Ecosystem of Global Space Activity

Updated: Apr 1, 2020

(courtesy of Deganit Paikowsky in New Space vol. 5 NO. 2 2017)

INTRODUCTION In the past several years, we have witnessed dramatic changes in global space activity toward greater involvement by the private sector. These changes come together under the overarching expression, ‘‘New Space’’. New Space is drawing considerable attention by many in the space sector. Nevertheless, what does it mean? This question may be answered in many different ways. Some experts focus on innovative technologies and on new models for performing R&D and project management, others emphasize entrepreneurial activity, commercialization, and new models of financing. New services, new frontiers, and explorations constitute aspects of New Space. All of these elements have combined to create a new environment for global space activity that is currently being developed.

The primary objective of this article is to provide a comprehensive overview and analysis of the various elements and aspects of ‘‘New Space’’. The primary premise of this article is that ‘‘New Space’’ should be referred to as a new ecosystem for global and local space activities. An ecosystem is a system or a network of connected and interacting parts. Observing ‘‘Old Space’’ and ‘‘New Space’’ through the prism of an ecosystem means that no one element defines the differences between old and new. Instead, it demonstrates that the changes are a result of an overall mix of elements that have changed; their connections and interactions form a new ecosystem. Understanding the complexity of this evolving ecosystem is important to better forecast its implications, opportunities, and challenges.

The article is composed of 4 sections. Geopolitics and the issue of dual-use in the changing ecosystem of space are discussed in the first section, focusing on the dominant role played by states. The rationales for involvement in space activity in ‘‘Old Space’’ and ‘‘New Space’’ ecosystems are explained in the second section. The third section provides an overview of the differences in R&D, finance, and project management between Old Space and New Space. Challenges to the space environment are discussed in the fourth section.

OLD SPACE–NEW SPACE: GEOPOLITICS AND THE ISSUE OF DUAL USE IN THE CHANGING ECOSYSTEM OF SPACE The ecosystem of ‘‘Old Space’’ is highly associated with the Cold War during which it was created and has been shaped. Nevertheless, even though the Cold War ended 25 years ago, the ecosystem of ‘‘Old Space’’ continued to exist. In fact, currently, we are in a period in which the two sets of ecosystems coexist.

‘‘Old Space’’ ecosystem refers to space activity that is being controlled by national activity and is mainly a state-only playground. The primary actors in this ecosystem are the superpowers and their close allies, who are motivated by national considerations. Space activity as a national objective developed during the Cold War, when in their quest to avoid a potential direct military conflict that could escalate to a nuclear war, the superpowers initiated national space programs. The rationale was twofold. First, the two superpowers each developed and used space-based intelligence gathering capabilities to obtain important information regarding their opponents’ capabilities and developments and to monitor arms control agreements. Second, the superpowers aimed to channel hostilities to nonviolent public competitions through a technological and scientific race to space.

Space technology is dual use. Dual-use technology supports applications that can be used for both civil peaceful purposes and defense purposes. The fact that space technology is dual use and as such has significant military implications played a significant role in space activity during the Cold War. The strong link between space development and nuclear development, particularly the technological relationship regarding the means of launching, led the superpowers to perceive space capability as complementary to nuclear capability.

Under these circumstances, the dual use of space technology was perceived as a major challenge.* For this reason, each of the two superpowers placed strict restrictions on proliferation of know-how and technology of launch vehicles as well as on other dual-use sensitive space technologies that were considered strategically valuable, such as high-resolution imagery, satellites, systems and subsystems, and components. In addition to achieving nuclear nonproliferation, the rationale was that the use of such technologies by other countries could reduce the military advantage that the superpowers had over their allies and adversaries. As a result, space activity became a strategic and prestigious practice, which powerful countries are expected to take upon themselves. State actors became dominant and commercial activity was very low. The change in the security environment in the aftermath of the Cold War allowed many of the strategic restrictions on proliferation of knowledge and technology to be removed. This process triggered a shift in favor of the dual-use aspect of space technology, which became an opportunity. The option to use the same technologies for both commercial and military/civil applications carried the potential for more efficient and low-cost projects in the context of public–private partnerships (PPPs).

Under the guiding principle of PPP, civil and defense government agencies cooperate with commercial entities to develop and operate advanced space technologies. These provide tangible goods and benefits to the public as well as to the commercial market, while reducing costs for both sides. This change generated greater international cooperation, commercialization, and expansion of the global space market. The global economic crisis, which began in 2007, further intensified this process. Gradually, space capabilities became more accessible, new technologies were introduced, the cost of access to space declined, and the space market further expanded. At the beginning of the 1980s, the space market accounted for a few billion dollars of the world’s economy. By 2014, the space market, including ancillary services, was estimated at 330 billion U.S. dollars.

As a result of these developments, two new types of players joined global space activity: (1) small and developing countries and (2) private sector players. Together, they introduced significant changes on the interconnections and interactions in the ecosystem of space. In this context, a significant change caused by the rapidly growing private sector is that in many of the PPPs, there has been a shift of governmental actors from the driver’s seat to the adjacent seat, where they remain active and involved but no longer play a dominant role in directing activities. This shift is especially evident (but not limited to) in missions to low Earth orbit (LEO), where most space activity currently takes place.

Gradually, governmental actors switch their focus to missions into deeper space. By embarking on long-distance human space missions deeper into space, governments redesign and look to differentiate between their activities and those of the private sector. Further support for this analysis came in January 2016, when Bill Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA, announced that to focus its actions on longer distance missions, NASA would gradually decrease its activities and investments in human spaceflight activities in LEO. Gerstenmaier’s statement was aimed at drawing a line between public and private human spaceflight activities, while simultaneously encouraging the private sector to develop independent and separate platforms in LEO.

OLD–NEW: RATIONALES TO GO TO SPACE Another important change constituting the difference from the Old Space ecosystem to the New Space ecosystem is the change in the rationale for going to space. The rationale of state actors to engage in indigenous development of large-scale space programs usually falls into three main categories: national security and military considerations; economic growth, prosperity, development, and benefit to society; and/or the aspiration to sustain and upgrade international status. It should be stressed that these considerations are not necessarily of a cost–benefit nature. On the contrary, because of the high costs involved and indirect tangible benefits, it is difficult to prove that national space activity provides cost effective direct benefits.

In the post-Cold War era, as far as states are concerned, these rationales are still very relevant. Therefore to a large extent, their activities are still compatible with the ecosystem of ‘‘Old Space’’. Nevertheless, for nonstate actors, cost–benefit considerations are extremely important, if not the most important factor in their activities. For many of them, space first and foremost is a source of profit—they perceive their activity as a business.

OLD–NEW: R&D, FINANCE, AND MANAGEMENT The New Space ecosystem also features new and different models of R&D, finance, and management. In the Old Space ecosystem, because of geopolitical circumstances and technological difficulties, research and development is usually characterized by long and expensive projects involving large satellites, planned for long periods of time in orbit, and financed in a cost plus model. In addition, the fact that satellites are required to operate in the highly difficult environment of space, with the agencies operating them barely able to provide maintenance, intensifies the need to assure sustainable and successful operations in orbit. As a result, project management for such projects was, and still is, low on risk taking, making R&D relatively conservative.

Under the New Space ecosystem that is focused on space as a resource and venue for a profitable business, new companies and well-established industries are working to develop low-cost access to space and affordable space technologies and services. Most New Space undertakings are private and commercial, offering various developmental and business models for innovative initiatives. They are very different from the traditional approaches to space activities. The fact that clients and investors are private actors triggers a shift in the financial models from cost plus to fixed price. This change requires different methods of management and demands shorter durations of time devoted to research and development.

In this context, the technological miniaturization of satellites enabled a decrease in the costs of developing and launching satellites. Satellites, systems, and components can now be purchased off the shelf. Development processes are shorter, and satellites spend relatively less time in orbit. As a result, project management in these fields is more inclined to take risks. It is tuned toward a ‘‘good enough’’ R&D model and performing technological demonstrations while in service, instead of aiming for 100% success in orbit, as was the case for satellite development under the Old Space ecosystem. As a result, New Space R&D is relatively much more innovative.

It should be noted that this principle does not apply for all activities under the New Space ecosystem. For example, this is obviously not the case in commercial human spaceflight, especially space tourism. The business model of space tourism requires flight safety and cannot settle for ‘‘good enough’’.

The New Space ecosystem also features new types of applications and services that were not part of the Old Space ecosystem, reusable rockets, commercial human spaceflights, constellations of commercial small satellites, earth observation, in-orbit service, and so on.

NEW SPACE ECOSYSTEM CHALLENGES—TRAFFIC SAFETY, SUSTAINABILITY, AND THE ROLE OF THE PRIVATE SECTOR One of the primary trends of the New Space ecosystem is the growth in the development and use of small satellites. In the past several years, the number of small satellites (up to 50 kg.) launched has increased dramatically; they constitute a significant portion of the satellites launched annually. This trend raises a significant challenge about the sustainability and safety of the space environment, the implications of crowded orbits, regulation issues, and their possible effects on the New Space ecosystem.**

One of the most urgent issues is the quantity of space debris, which is constantly increasing and which poses a real threat to every active satellite in orbit. The increased number of small satellites will further exacerbate the problem; because of their small size and low weight, small satellites do not have deorbiting capabilities. Therefore, once their mission is completed, they become dangerous debris. If their altitude is high, they are likely to remain in orbit for decades.

The rapidly growing commercialization of space activity enhances the demand for a secure and sustainable space environment and responsible activity by all space actors, private and governmental. In recent years, a number of international efforts have been undertaken, with the purpose of drawing up rules of operation and agreements, so as to ensure sustainability in the space environment. In the spring of 2014, progress was seen in the announcement of the fourth draft of the International Code of Conduct for Space Activities. A year later, in July 2015, a discussion was held in New York regarding the code. Unfortunately, the strategic tensions between the United States, Russia, China, and other less powerful countries have affected these processes, making an international agreement (binding or nonbinding) on this issue only a distant possibility.

Progress at the multilateral diplomatic level suffers from deceleration and even stagnation. Nevertheless, the most significant contribution of the code, and other initiatives, to the dialogue on security and sustainability in space is the setting of norms against creating space debris. In addition, increasing awareness in various countries of the necessity of taking responsibility and dealing with subjects important to the space environment can be discerned. Some countries have been acting independently to reduce the space debris that they generate or to monitor the objects floating around in space.

Space situational awareness (SSA) systems that provide data and warnings of expected collisions have been updated and improved. Several countries have signed cooperative agreements. For example, in May 2014, the United States, Australia, Great Britain, and Canada signed a memorandum of understanding to cooperate on SSA activities. Russia announced that it was working on improving its capabilities to identify objects in space.

Efforts are underway in Europe to develop European capabilities for monitoring objects in space. The ESA announced that as part of its SSA program, it is developing an automatic telescope, nicknamed the Fly-Eye, that will scan the night skies and automatically identify new near-Earth objects. In September, Japan’s space agency announced that when it launches ‘‘[I]ts new Epsilon small-satellite rocket, its upper stage will be discarded in an orbit low enough to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere..’’. Thus, it will not be left in space to disintegrate over a long period of time.

France passed a law that limits the creation of space debris from its launches and requires that launch providers ensure that the upper stages of their rockets return to the Earth’s atmosphere quickly, and come down over water. China, too, announced that it was promoting policies and regulations concerning civil space launches and registration of objects in space to prevent and reduce the creation of space debris.

Under the New Space ecosystem, greater regulation and standardization may be driven by the private sector. It is logical to assume that a bottom-up demand would be made by the commercial sector to pressure governments to coordinate space activity. They may well demand that explicit guidelines and definitions of legitimate uses of space assets in the space environment be set at either the national or international levels. Such guidelines would ensure greater responsibility by all actors in space.

This trend is already evident. For example, to meet concerns raised by various commercial actors regarding the safety and sustainability of the space environment, as well as their own concerns, OneWeb reported that it is working to prevent the proliferation of the space debris it might generate. The company even promised that its satellites will deorbit 5 years after the end of their service, and not 25 years, which current international guidelines require. In 2016, Planet Labs Inc. (now Planet), a cubesat manufacturer and operator, reported that it adopted NASA’s guidelines for limiting orbital debris as its policy.

OLD SPACE VERSUS NEW SPACE—SUMMARY The entrepreneurial and commercial undertakings of ‘‘New Space’’ introduce a new spirit to the ecosystem of space. The New Space ecosystem is more energetic, creative, and dynamic than the Old Space ecosystem. It is likely to continue to effect dramatic changes in space activities, which in turn will be very significant for governmental space activities. Governmental actors and nongovernmental actors will have to learn to work together to address the questions and challenges that will inevitably arise. Among the issues to be addressed are the current and future roles of countries in the space economy, financing and the allocation of funds, and regulation of space activity: specifically space traffic management, addressing the increasing congestion in the electromagnetic spectrum, space debris, export controls, and international cooperation.

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