International space business shows enormous growth potential that can only be fully realised if the sector pushes technological boundaries even further and becomes profitable for private investors. Highlighted by keynote speaker Karim Michel Sabbagh, President and CEO of world-leading satellite operator SES, this was a central topic in Luxembourg on November 16-17, 2017 at NewSpace Europe, the first conference in Europe fully devoted to commercial space activities and related economic opportunities.

The opportunities are indeed enormous: for example, Mr Sabbagh pointed out that global Internet Protocol (IP) traffic is steadily increasing with around 20% per year and is expected to reach an incredible five zettabytes per month by 2040. “There is no land-based infrastructure that can support this,” he said. “We need to figure out how we can use space to serve the Earth.”

Technological progress

The space industry needs to respond to some major challenges however. Activities in space – satellite launches, the transportation of astronauts and supplies and so on – are extremely costly, and every venture is a one-off without possibilities for scaling the expenditure. At the moment, it costs around $10,000 to transport a bottle of water from Earth to the international space station. According to Mr Sabbagh, “We need to be able to launch satellites in an economically sustainable way”.

The need for further technological progress, for example in the field of digitalisation, is obvious. Currently, “we largely use analogue technologies for satellites but we want to go to fully digitalised payloads,” Mr Sabbagh said, thereby gaining in efficiency and reducing costs. The ability to harness energy from the sun is another key issue. Using electrical rather than chemical propulsion for satellites and thus exploiting the energy of the sun would decrease costs and make space travel more sustainable.

Promoting reusability

In his talk, Mr Sabbagh made it clear that the heart of the matter is economic sustainability. While government funding has always been the main source of support for the space industry and was crucial for the early years of SES, he said that, “we will have to carry our own weight in the long term”. He emphasised the need to challenge both current technologies for building satellites and existing business models in order to determine better how space can become a lucrative business for private financiers.

Reusability of rockets and satellites is critical and not only for economic reasons. There is a limit to how many geostationary satellites can be in orbit at the same time, and for this reason, SES has the ambition to be able to service its platforms in space without having to go back and forth to Earth to prolong their lives. The company is working with main players and taking some very bold risks to raise the bar of the industry and, as the CEO pointed out: “We as SES are trying to do our share of channelling the collective wisdom and facilitating access to space.”

The NewSpace Europe conference brings together thought leaders from the commercial space sector to explore the opportunities and challenges of opening the space frontier to human settlement. Organised in the United States since 2006, this first European edition was hosted by Luxembourg’s Ministry of the Economy against the backdrop of its Space Resources initiative, which, according to Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Economy Étienne Schneider, is pushing Luxembourg forward as a European hub for the exploration and use of space resources.

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