The Final Frontier: Unlocking the Potential of the Commercial Spaceflight Industry

Anthony Schiavo, Senior Analyst

Today, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launches its first commercial flight, bearing a satellite into low earth orbit. With the launch of the Falcon Heavy – the most powerful American rocket since the Saturn V - we have fully entered an era of commercial spaceflight.  It’s not just companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX that have created opportunities and interest in space, but space is also getting renewed support from governments. Today, total space activity is worth about $330 Billion USD. But organizations like Bank of America and Merril Lynch think the potential space market could grow to around $3 trillion USD in the next 20 years. With growth of this size, there is a huge opportunity for new materials and technologies. 

Spaceflight has long been a source of innovation for the materials and chemicals industry. Many NASA inventions like memory foam, radiant barrier, and dry lubricants have translated into terrestrial business opportunities. Despite that, the space sector has not been a major market for materials and chemicals. The government and defense-driven nature of the space industry lent itself to niche materials that offer extremes in performance, but there was little concern for cost or scalability. The advent of commercial spaceflight will create a need for new technologies – but these solutions must be cost-effective, scalable, and have strong value propositions, just like industry on earth. This new alignment between terrestrial industry and commercial spaceflight will not only accelerate tech transfer between these two sectors but enable more types of businesses to enter the spaceflight sector.

Meeting the needs of commercial spaceflight can create terrestrial business opportunities. But what are commercial spaceflights needs?

  • The biggest challenge is still cost reduction – both in terms of manufacturing and operations. Although startups like Blue Origin and SpaceX have brought the cost down, going into space is still a very expensive proposition. Low cost, high-quality manufacturing techniques are needed.

  • Communication is the backbone of many business opportunities when it comes to space. Likewise, strengthening communication is a major need for commercial spaceflight. As we get further and further away from Earth, communication becomes more and more of a challenge.

  • Sustainability is another major opportunity and challenge when it comes to commercial spaceflight. The ability to sustain life, away from Earth, for a long period of time is critical if we plan to set up long term habitation on the moon or Mars. 

 

So, how can you use the potential of commercial spaceflight to enable your materials innovation efforts? Although there are many potential opportunities for innovation here, we will outline three materials technologies that can address each one of the commercial spaceflight opportunities we outlined previously.

  • 3D printing – the additive manufacturing of objects layer by layer, from a digital design – creates substantial opportunity for cost reduction. 3D printing can both reduce waste – critical when using expensive materials like titanium – and enable new designs. What’s more, it can dramatically simplify supply chains, but putting manufacturing capability in the hands of the designer. In spaceflight we see an opportunity for metal 3D printing of engines. SpaceX has begun deploying 3D printed parts on their engines. This type of innovation also creates opportunities for terrestrial power and mobility. GE Aviation uses high-temperature metals to 3D print large sections of their new engines. This allows them to consolidate parts and manufacture much more quickly. 
  • Metamaterials - materials with patterned structures that enable novel electrical, acoustic, optical, or physical properties – are poised to have a substantial impact on space communications. What's exceptional about this technology is that you can create structures with properties that are otherwise physically impossible. One key application for metamaterials is antennas, where they can create flat, compact, solid-state antennas that fit more easily on a spacecraft. What’s more, metamaterial antennas from companies like Kymeta can mimic the action of directionally aimed antenna – without the need for moving parts. Metamaterial antennas can help meet the needs of space communication as it comes to satellites but also terrestrial 5G and IOT applications. 

  • CO2 capture and conversion, is the use of carbon dioxide either from a point source, like an exhaust, or captured from the ambient atmosphere as a feedstock to create carbon compounds. This is technology critical because it creates a new, sustainable feedstock stream for carbon compounds. On Earth, CO2 is at about 0.041% concentration in the atmosphere, but on Mars, CO2 is about 95% of the atmosphere. Even with the thinner atmosphere, CO2 is ten times more available for capture. NASA has recognized this and already has a CO2 Conversion Challenge looking first at making CO2 into glucose to feed astronauts and in the longer term, turning CO2 into fuel. To have a long-term sustainable colony on Mars, you will need a source of carbon compounds and CO2 is probably the best bet. CO2 capture and conversion is not just for production on Mars, however. Covestro now has a CO2 to polyols plant which produces polyurethane foams that are not only sustainable but also offer higher performance than competing alternatives. 

 

In our on-demand webinar, The Final Frontier: Unlocking the Potential of the Commercial Space Flight Industry, we highlight these innovation opportunities in more detail, explore the key material technologies needed for the future of spaceflight, and identify how you can build a strategy to leverage the growth of commercial space transport into industrial businesses on earth.