Tidy Space; Tidy Profit: How Orbital Debris Removal Will Enable First Trillionaires
This article draws on some the the technologies that are being developed by companies like Nobu Okada's: Astroscale; Richard Ward's: OrbitsEdge; and others. It investigates how these will be put to use further afield from Low Earth Orbit, to drive the companies who will bring the Space economy back to human populations here on Earth.
Whilst it is not unrealistic to assume that human populations will mass off-Earth in the mid-term future, it is likely that the first trillionaires will leverage business opportunities off-Earth quite long before they, or indeed any large numbers of humans are living away.
Based on this timeline, we do not need to consider fully the possibilities of Moon outposts, Mars cities or deep-space data centres. We can, and should consider the impact from companies such as OrbitsEdge, who are taking data processing into Low Earth Orbit within that period, which will disrupt and develop the the data environment for our exponentially increasing LEO constellations. These constellations will soon blossom into higher orbits, and into service provision for the Moon and Mars, increasing the market for their product too. The weak point identified by OrbitsEdge is down-link bandwidth for these constellations, and Earth ground stations are not expanding capacity at the same rate as requirement increases.
OrbitsEdge will enable operators to process data in-orbit before sending down cleaner, less bulky data-sets to Earth. As Andrzej Kawalec of 4th Horizon said at the UK Air & Space Power Conference 2020: "Easy is not the enemy of complex" and reminds us how "the banana principle" centralises ease of use in everything that we do. He clearly makes the point that usability is the key to unlocking business opportunity.
Essentially, these two businesses, 4th Horizon, and OrbitsEdge lead us to recognise that computing locally in space, to enable decisions and actions without over-reliance on Earth-bound data transfer will enable business opportunities to be rapidly and scale-ably exploited for commercial gain.
It has often been discussed that asteroid mining will precipitate the creation of the first trillionaire and usually science fiction has depicted these empires as consisting of manned vehicles finding, rendezvousing with and exploiting materials, before shipping them back to Earth, or to orbital manufacturing facilities.
In truth, there has been no major empire on Earth that was not built off the back of exploiting a numerous and cheap labour force. As time has moved on, decision and supply-chains have shortened to produce a competitive advantage. Long gone are the days of the great emperor, the court of advisers, the local leadership and the working classes so far removed as to be a different species. This means that in space, we will need to have a numerous and cheap available workforce, which has the rapid access to authority, data and decisions which will closely correlate to business success.
On Earth now, emerging future powers strongly exploit low skilled labour. China as a state exploits sub-sets of society and forces them to work. Contractors in Middle Eastern countries seeking development fly in workers from the Indian sub-continent, removing their passports, and participate in what is often cited as modern-day slavery. So too do business empires. The 'fast fashion' movement is, or at least was, based on modern-day slave labour distributed mostly throughout Asia to produce a commercial advantage to their supply-chains.
Presently, space-faring humans, known in the west as Astronauts, are well paid, highly trained and respected individuals. These highly trained but expensive individuals are great at shortening the decision chain, by enabling trusted individuals to assess and overcome problems on site, as they arise. This is likely to continue when humans try to set up new settlements off-Earth, with increasing light-time communications delays. For example, a human cannot fly a helicopter on Mars remotely from Earth - not even live conversation is possible.
How can business translate this work-around into commercial settings? It is clear that the classic business-case driven approach will require similar challenges to be overcome with less expensive and more generalist resources. It is unlikely that these businesses will use 'cheap' humans, because enabling any humans in space is so resource intensive. The rate of pay for an astronaut is a tiny fraction of the cost of putting people into space to work.
This is where Astroscale's technology becomes absolutely critical to success. This company which has developed autonomous vehicles which can track targets at mid (several tens of kilometres) to short (centimetres) range, navigate to, and rendezvous with those targets enables the possibility of remote mining platforms to be launched into the Main Asteroid Belt and beyond. There to operate autonomously detecting and classifying objects at distance before closing with them, more thoroughly analysing their suitability for mining, and if suitable, docking with the object and extracting resources.
It really is possible, at the moment Astroscales' autonomous navigation is a secret technology, but never-the-less is it now undergoing testing under the Japanese space agency JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) to rendezvous with a piece of debris. Assuming this is successful, the next test will show the vehicle docking with and de-orbiting that object, which is likely to be a spent rocket body. To achieve this, the Astroscale vehicle known as ELSA ("End of Life Service by Astroscale") needs to manouvre efficiently to target and with delta-v to spare, both key elements of a commercial asteroid mining mission.
All of this can be pilot-driven, or autonomous, and the accepted view at the moment is that the automation will be tested by recommending actions to a human who will approve them, until reliability can be demonstrated and proven to clients.
Even a very expensive mining drone, or swarm of drones is likely to be much cheaper than human labour. I do not expect that these drones would remain extremely expensive for long. Here we can take the SpaceX rapid iteration model that shows a marked decrease in production costs per vehicle, which is likely to be reflected in the initial development of drones, before moving to a more "mega-factory" approach such as that used by sister company Tesla. I leave it to you to decide if such a mega-factory would exist on Earth, on the Moon or in orbit around one of the two. What is certain is that AI, and in-situ data processing will allow for less in-suti human supervision, and thus even less cost and less risk for our mining operation.
It becomes viable to mine smaller objects than when creating a small human settlement in support of a human-led mining initiative at each location is required. It may be worth remembering, that the Main Asteroid Belt is a very empty place, and it is a common mis-conception to assume that a vehicle travelling through the region is likely to come across many asteroid objects. The truth is, that sending many humans to a large and promising object, is a huge gamble. If the object is deemed not to be suitable for mining, the operation to leave and head to new pastures is significant, very costly and delivers a large programme impact to achieving outputs. There is potential for Space Power to really come into play at this point. There are only 4 really massive bodies in the asteroid belt that might truly warrant a human presence long-term, and it is entirely possible that other mining or indeed military interests might render the planned settlement and mining operation untenable for any new arrivals. The global, (and soon global neighbourhood) manufacturing community relies on just in time logistics, for which certainty is closely equated to value. The first trillionaire has their work cut out then, because to deliver materials into the economy with certainty, reliably and at distance requires a command and control structure the likes of which humanity has never yet produced.
If OrbitsEdge remote processing, and Astroscale remote spacecraft operations can be matched with MDA's AI enabled manipulator arms destined for Lunar Gateway, then we can begin the to understand with what humanity will reach into the Asteroid belt to mine successfully. Turning that hardware into a business that is controlled and commands the respect of client manufacturers and commercial financing partners will be the crux of their success.
Space has brought many businesses to life, and billions of pounds of investment have been poured into opportunities in the arena. To date, most of those investments have been speculative, but the first trillionaire will need to turn a profit in a sustainable, defensible and responsible way, they will have to help to develop the recipient market, so that it is ready to absorb the shock of large-scale influx of presently rare minerals as a key business output of the organisation.
Here we can look to SpaceX, Virgin Orbit and Skyrora among many others, who seek to reduce the cost of placing payload into space, creating market availability over the present demand. The assumption is that increased availability will precipitate increased demand - a concept which underpins the NASA commercial crew programme among others.
If this new mining industry gets it wrong, we could find ourselves without the advertised trillionaires and their global reach on economic change, but instead with another OPEC, or global diamond industry which limits the supply to meet the demand in order to control pricing.
So, in summary. Whilst the technology is marching rapidly towards enabling asteroid mining in the solar system, and these technologies will be key enablers, our wanna-be trillionaires also have to contend with becoming the most advanced interface between these emerging technologies, whilst managing an extremely difficult line of communication in maintaining command and control over their business assets. As though that wasn't difficult enough, they will also have to overcome the potential of creating a huge market shock with their product by closely managing their approach between flooding the market (and sinking their prices, killing the margin and the company) and increasing demand (such that competition is encouraged for other firms to get in on the act, which reduced available resource and overall business model sustainability).
Fortunately, there is a lot of material in the Main Asteroid Belt, an appreciable 5th of the mass of the Moon, at least, and there are already useful business, government and military ventures which are interfacing each of the required technologies at a frightening rate.
All eyes should turn to Jeff Bezos' Amazon at this point, who's research and development budget already extends into the dozens of billions of dollars annually, who are already in the space game, and who understand both AI, machine learning and consumer market forces better than any other business in the world. Yes, the blue dot in the image is the NASA Research & Development budget, it really is that small.
Let us consider how Amazon; who owns AWS (Amazon Web Services), who have recently created a business segment (in July 2020): "Aerospace and Satellite Solutions" but are also the world's largest cloud services provider; could mobilise the technologies under development by OrbitsEdge?
We could and should consider how Jeff Bezos' rocket company BlueOrigin is already gaining experience in autonomous spacecraft that can make navigation decisions (self-landing) in difficult conditions, how Amazon understands and manipulates direct-to-consumer market forces and how Amazon Basics and Direct by Amazon have changed the business model to include direct sourcing. Amazon has tested autonomous delivery drones, and uses AI to manage warehouses and delivery routes, i.e. AI harnessed to improve logistics and to extend the reach of command and control through a massively diverse business in near real time.
Today's Amazon already then has many of the hallmarks of the first mining trillionaire's company. Could Amazon prove that one's man's trash really can turn into another's treasure? It could be just a decade away from becoming a reality.