Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Some amazing private space ventures

We are clearly living in some exciting times for the space industry.

Passionate, sometimes rich entrepreneurs and adventurers are taking their chance into some very bold space ventures. Some are "just" investing (Page, Schmidt, Bezos) whilst others are actually running them (Musk). Some are spending a fair share of their time to promoting the space adventure "spirit" (Tito, Cameron, Branson). Here is my personal list of some of those very exciting private space ventures. If you have any other to suggest, please drop me a comment.

- Virgin Galactic. Possibly the most famous one. In 2005, SpaceShipOne built by Scaled Composites, funded by Paul Allen (from Microsoft) and conceived by aviation pioneer Burt Rutan, won the Anzari X Prize by flying twice above the 100km limit, commonly accepted as the space frontier with Earth. Building on that success, Burt Rutan announced that Virgin Galactic will commercialise space flights for tourism using SpaceShipOne technology. The target price announced by Branson is 200k$ for a flight.

- Space adventures, space tourism again, but this time to the ISS. Space adventures made the headlines with the Tito flight in 2001 (their first customer). Since then they have had another 6, including the founder of the "Cirque du Soleil". Given the ticket entry price (20 million dollars reported for the Tito flight) and the tough training conditions required, it is not surprising at all...

- Bigelow Aerospace. Founded by real estate developer Robert Bigelow, Bigelow Aerospace manufactures and sells a NASA licensed concept of "inflattable" space capsules, with the idea of turning them into space hotels. One of those capsules is to be docked to the ISS. A stay in one of the space hotels (10 to 60 days) will start at 26 million dollars. One would assume it will be all inclusive for that price.

- Golden Spike Company. This private American startup, with a very impressive company team, wants to take people a bit further away from our Earth, to the Moon. Still tourism then, however the cost is climbing, a whoping half a billion dollars will be charged to the happy lunar explorers.

- Mars one. Mars one is an NGO whose main goal is to create the first human settlement on Mars. Besides an interesting call for volunteers, their financing model is rather original, ie tv licensing rights through their for profit parent company Interplanetary Media Group. Looks like the tickets are for free!!!

- Space X. This is an amazing space manufacturer managed by Elon Musk (Paypal, Tesla Motors, etc...). In addition to shifting the usual space industry business, eg with the manufacturing and operations of the Dragon capsules to refuel the ISS, Space X Elon Musk's ambition is also to send people to Mars, and not just a few. Who's talking ambitious goals now?

- SNC. In competition with Boeing and SpaceX for the supply of an ISS crew return vehicle is Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) Space Systems. Although not exactly a beginner, this company is investing in building a reusable, shuttle like, spacecraft. Their design is based on the lifting body which allows them to actually glide their way back, providing for a smoother re-entry compared to a capsule which is merely falling. Incidentally they supply a number of critical parts of the SpaceShipTwo.

- Blue Origin, backed by Jeff Bezos this time, is dedicated to "lowering the cost of spaceflight". Their approach is to build "step by step, ferociously" (their actual motto). They are currently focusing on developing rocket powered Vertical Takeoff and Vertical Landing (VTVL) vehicles for access to suborbital and orbital space. Latest news at the following link.

- Mars Society. I couldn't talk about Mars exploration and not mention the Mars society. This not for profit organisation, raise funds and lectures on Mars, with the ultimate goal of fostering the study and the exploration of our red neighbour.

- Planetary Resources. With planetary resources we move from exploration and tourism to exploitation of space resources. The ambition of this start up, funded, amongst others, by Eric Schmidt and Larry Page, is to mine asteroids for precious metals and bring them back to earth. No less. I let you think of all the technical issues that will come with it.

- Deep Space Industries. A US privately owned company, dedicated, like Planetary Resources, to asteroid mining. Check out their very nice introduction video below. Although it doesn't appear to have reknowned investor, it's management team is packed with senior space industry experts and executives.

Shimizu Corporation, proposes to solve our energy problem by installing a 250 miles long ring of solar panels around the... moon! The electricity generated will be transported to the ground by lasers or microwave transmissions to a network of dedicated ground stations.

- Copenhague Suborbitals. This one deserves a special mention. It is the first (and only) rocket venture that I know which is crowd funded! Copenhague suborbital is a Danish company, ran by space enthousiasts (and experts too), building a resuable low cost rocket for launching a man into space. Their current rocket is called the HEAT 1600. Next launch is for June 2013.

- NanoSatisfy. Staying with crowd funded initiatives, the Pater Plazer lead initiative is innovative in so many ways: cheap, open source and COTS based platforms (ardusat satellites), a very successful kisckstarter campaign for financing, a multi national entrepreneur team, a web based control centre where you buy some experiment time on the platform by writing a piece of code that gets uploaded and many more ways of disrupting the traditional Earth Observation business.

- Swiss Space Systems (S3). Plans to provide orbital launches of satellites up to 250 kilos for under 10 millions using an Airbus 300 piggy backed shuttle. The initial business is to be extended to fast commercial passenger flights worldwide.

- SkyBox Imaging. Back to earth, this private California based startup has garnished quite a bit of funding and momentum lately. They are launching a constellation of low cost optical satellites to provide frequent and cheap earth imagery, effectively potentially disrupting the existing and established market (Digital Globe, Spot Image, etc...).

- PlanetLabs. Provides permanent optical coverage of the Earth using a constellation of 100 nanosatellites, called dove, launched from the ISS.

- Urthecast. This Vancouver based startup is launching the "eye of the world", a set of two cameras on board the ISS, to enable people to view the earth in real time and as a video stream, as seen from the ISS "deck".

- B612 foundation. Led by former astronaut Ed Lu, this foundation is looking into building the tools to "defend the earth against asteroids", starting with the Sentinelle mission, a space-based infrared (IR) survey mission to discover and catalog 90 percent of the asteroids larger than 140 meters in Earth’s region of the solar system. The story of how they started is worth a read.

- Zero2Infinity. A spaniard company that will take you high enough to "feel" like you're in space with a high altitude ballon. They claim a zero emissions flight which is an important point indeed.

And a few more...
OmniEarth. Earth Observation satellites and services.
- Satellogic. High resolution sensor network around the earth.
- DauriaGeo. Provide a cloud based platform for accessing and using satellite imagery and derived data layers using free satellites, their own satellites (Perseus) and partner satellites.

I couldn't close this blog without mentioning Felix Baumgartners' amazing Stratos space jump! That's one bold and adventurous jump into the future.

Here's my first stab at today's amazing private space ventures. There are certainly a lot more out there and hopefully many other to come. If you know of one, please drop a comment in ;-)


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