Space launches have gotten a lot cheaper and satellites have gotten a lot smaller. These two things combined mean we’re entering an age where space can factor in to service delivery for government.
“We’re launching our own damn satellite,” said former California Gov. Jerry Brown, in September 2018, expressing frustration with what he felt was slow work on climate change research. Brown saw value in space for state government early in his political career, even earning himself the nickname ‘Gov. Moonbeam’ in 1976 from a Chicago Tribune columnist. Brown’s views on space may have seemed far-fetched 40 years ago, but a host of new technologies and companies are opening up possibilities and introducing use cases that may make space the next tech frontier for state and local agencies.
Space is more attainable than ever, driven by two connected developments:
1. Reduced launch cost
It previously cost more than $15,000 per kilogram to launch a payload into low Earth orbit — defined as an orbit with an altitude of less than 1,200 miles. This price has been significantly reduced by new launch models and innovations, such as the reusable rocket model pioneered by SpaceX. Currently the company’s average Falcon 9 launch cost is about $2,500 per kilogram, and this price will continue to fall.
2. Rise of small satellites
Traditional satellites can cost tens of millions of dollars to build and be as large as a school bus. Enter the CubeSat and smallsat class of satellite. These smaller satellites cost much less to develop (ranging from $5,000 to $100,000, depending on complexity) and launch. Like all new technologies, small satellites initially had limited functionality but are becoming more sophisticated. They can now be used for a variety of Earth-sensing, imaging and communication applications.
This combination of dramatically decreasing launch costs and smaller, cheaper satellites are democratizing access to space and ushering in a low Earth orbit space race. And it’s only just beginning.
Based on FCC approvals for low-Earth orbit launches as reported by The Economist, as of 2010, there were more than 6,000 cumulative global satellite launches to date, but projections for 2027 estimate that number will jump to more than 22,000. Several companies are racing to enable new applications for satellites in low Earth orbit. Currently, the two use cases driving the market are Earth sensing and Internet connectivity.
Earth sensing involves using satellites to measure, image or record changes happening on Earth. Companies such as Planet and Swarm have CubeSat arrays that provide imaging and sensing capabilities that can be used for infrastructure planning and analysis, environmental monitoring, emergency management, transportation coordination, and many other things needed by state and local government agencies. There are also a growing number of emerging firms capturing satellite imagery and data for specific applications. For example, Israel-based Utilis helps governments and utilities identify and monitor water leakage from space.
Probably one of the most interesting use cases for low Earth orbit satellites is providing Internet connectivity. Currently, almost 44 percent of the world still lacks access to the Internet — this represents more than 3.5 billion people. There is currently a race between two giants — Amazon and SpaceX — to provide connectivity to the rest of the world, including rural areas in the United States. SpaceX was the first major company to receive regulatory approval for a CubeSat constellation which they call Starlink, essentially an array of thousands of satellites that could be used to make reliable high-speed Internet anywhere on Earth. SpaceX has already launched a series of test satellites as part of the Starlink project, and as many as 12,000 CubeSats will be in orbit by the 2020s.
Following closely behind is Amazon, who recently announced an initiative, called Project Kuiper, to put 3,236 satellites into space to connect up to 4 billion people to the Internet. Smaller companies like Swarm are also working on similar deployments of low Earth orbit satellite arrays that can be used for broadband and Internet of Things (IoT) devices in the future. In fact, Swarm is part of an initiative where remote sensors will up-link data to their satellites to monitor groundwater levels in the California Central Valley.
The emerging use cases for gov tech in space are becoming more real for state and local agencies. Every year, state and local governments spend hundreds of millions of dollars licensing high-resolution imagery used in a variety of applications — from floodplain reclamation to understanding transportation patterns — imagery that is vital to decision-making in the public sector. For example, using award data from GovTech Navigator, the Maryland Department of Information Technology contracted over $3.5 million in a multi-year procurement for Digital High Resolution Aerial Photography and Services in October 2018. Previously, the only alternative to licensing high-resolution satellite imagery involved hiring a plane with the right equipment to image it for you. New companies and technologies are reinventing the remote imagery market, drastically lowering costs and creating new types of imagery/data from space.
In addition to imagery, the rise of Internet satellite arrays will also help strengthen connectivity infrastructure and support rising Internet of Things (IoT) applications that will continue to emerge in the next few years. In addition, this same infrastructure that connects the rest of the world can also be used as a powerful tool to bring rural America online and bypass the costly installation of fiber in the ground that so many areas of the country are struggling to fund using current methods.
There is a growing ecosystem forming around space tech — driven by new launch technology innovations and satellite form factors — ushering in a new era where space is a platform. As private-sector companies continue to leverage the democratized nature of space for deploying new satellites with new sensors, we will see a services layer emerge that builds on Earth sensing and Internet connectivity to provide new levels of understanding of the world. This emerging platform will provide state and local agencies a new lens to design, manage and protect our communities in ways that were the stuff of science fiction just a decade ago, but it demands new policies for data privacy and usage that are currently not in place. Space is no longer something we just look up at. It’s now a platform that will provide better insight for solving problems in the world around us.