In 2022, the first images from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) James Webb Space Telescope were released, capturing the world’s attention with breathtaking vistas of thousands of stars, planets, and galaxies, including the most distant galaxies ever detected. These discoveries only scratch the surface of what will come from the telescope, thanks to decades of investment and partnership between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), and continuous advancements in science, which are the backbone of this unprecedented discovery. Beyond the Webb Telescope, further discoveries in space are rapidly accelerating, creating an exciting new paradigm for space that includes new players, trends, opportunities, and challenges, all propped up by the convergence of advanced technologies that are a part of the ongoing, broader Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).
The 4IR, characterized by the fusion of technologies that integrate the biological, physical, and technological spheres, is transforming economic, political, and social systems. Similar to previous industrial revolutions, the 4IR’s disruptive effects on these systems have the potential to improve the quality of life for populations across the globe, including fostering economic growth and structural transformation; fighting poverty and inequality; reinventing labor, skills, and production; increasing financial services and investment; modernizing agriculture and agro-industries; and improving health care and human capital. The paradigm shifts within the space industry specifically, because of the developments in 4IR technologies, have immense potential to further drive more inclusive global prosperity.
The 4IR and space have a positive, mutually reinforcing relationship: Scientific advancements and the convergence of technologies are leading to advances in space exploration, while advances in space are leading to the creation of new technologies and applications. Advances in blockchain technology, artificial intelligence (AI), 3D printing, materials science, nanotechnology, and biotechnology have led to two key trends—decreasing launch costs and increasing capabilities of smaller satellites—both of which are leading to new capabilities for the sake of exploration and with direct benefit to society on Earth.
The advancements in materials science and 3D printing have significantly decreased launch costs with sweeping impacts for the space industry. Advanced materials, such as carbon fiber and advanced composites, are also being used for rockets, significantly decreasing their overall weight and saving millions of dollars in the fuel needed for launch. 3D printing is lowering spacecraft manufacturing costs, especially for rocket engines—oxygen and kerosene engines now take only 24 hours to produce using 3D printing. Going forward, companies and governments are exploring how 3D printing in orbit can be expanded to take advantage of the microgravity in space to print fiber optic cables, tools, and construction materials in new, more effective ways. Reusable rockets are also becoming a reality, making trips to the lower Earth orbit more sustainable and accessible going forward for individuals and for companies in industries from pharmaceuticals to energy that may eventually operate there as they take advantage of the microgravity and other physical characteristics.
Decreasing launch costs are increasing the popularity of small satellites. Compared to constellations of fewer, larger satellites, these constellations of small satellites are significantly cheaper to make, faster to produce, and easier to troubleshoot due to advances in 3D printing and materials science coupled with improvements in processing power, data storage, camera technology, solar array efficiency, miniaturization, and propulsion. Countries and companies of all sizes are taking advantage of these advances already. Small satellites make up about 94 percent of all spacecraft launches, growing from a total of 53 to 1,743 from 2017 to 2021. New companies are leveraging small satellites to build large broadband constellations including SpaceX, OneWeb, Telesat Canada, Samsung, and Boeing, among others.
The increase in small satellites has led to a huge growth in sensors which is shepherding the entry of new companies that leverage remote sensors in space to be able to capture images and power technologies on Earth. These satellite constellations produce an enormous amount of data, which is leading to the huge growth in the demand for data storage and analysis, with companies using AI, especially machine learning and deep learning, to turn data into intelligence that powers a range of commercial uses including monitoring food supply, tracking greenhouse gas emissions, and monitoring energy supply chains.
Key players in the 4IR
The decreasing costs coupled with more widespread technological adoption underpinned by the 4IR has led to an unprecedented era of accessibility for new players in the space industry, from state actors to private companies. As of 2021, the global space industry was made up of over 10,000 private space technology companies, 5,000 large investors, 130 state organizations, and 20 business sectors.
Among state actors, the United States is the leader in both public space investment (at $54.6 billion in 2021—almost 60 percent of global government investment in space) and private space investment in terms of the number of companies in the industry (the United States has almost ten times as many space companies as the next country—the United Kingdom). Despite the United States maintaining its leadership in financial investment, China’s commitment to space investment as a driver for economic competitiveness has quickly catapulted the country to global leadership in space. Second to the U.S. in space investment and innovation, China spent $10.3 billion on space programs in 2021, increasing satellite launches, applications, and imagery while investing in an even more advanced telescope than the Hubble that will photograph 40% of the Earth’s sky.
Beyond the U.S. and China, advanced technologies are making it easier and more enticing for new countries to enter the market. Now, 20 countries across four continents have civil space budgets of more than $100 million, while 70 countries have active space programs including more recent additions like the Philippines in 2019 and Rwanda and Costa Rica in 2021. Countries including India, South Korea, Israel, and EU members are increasingly investing in space missions, while Pakistan, Laos, Belarus, and Venezuela are purchasing satellites in collaboration with China. African countries have also invested in their space industry, now having launched the first satellite to be entirely developed in Africa. Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates was applauded for being the first country of its scale to launch a scientific mission to Mars. Regional organizations are investing in space as well, with the recent addition of the Latin American and Caribbean Space Agency (ALCE) joining the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO).
In addition to the range of new state actors involved in space investment, the sheer number of private space companies and their capabilities showcase how much the space landscape has opened up in terms of the types of players involved—the private sector, including private companies and individual entrepreneurs, now leads the public sector in space discovery and technological application. Commercial space activity is at the center of the “modern space race,” having tripled from $110 billion to almost $357 billion from 2005 to 2020. Major players including SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin have been competing to become leaders in space tourism and communications. While these major companies are leading the charge in terms of size and investment, advances in technology have made it possible for other countries to join the commercial space industry. For example, even though more traditional players such as the U.S., China, and Russia have experienced the most growth in the commercial satellite industry, now an Argentine company, Satellogic, and a Finnish company, ICEYE, are among the top five leading commercial space satellite companies.
The key trends in the space industry, due to rapid technological development, are unlocking new opportunities for more inclusive prosperity. Countries and regions that were previously left out of the space industry now have the potential to seize three main types of opportunities. First, the trends in space technology are leading to groundbreaking capabilities from space-to-Earth activities to space-to-space activities that could be of direct benefit to more players. Second, as more players are able to invest in space, they will have potential to engage in meaningful diplomacy on a global stage. This leads to the third opportunity, which is the potential for space to become an area where countries and regions can come together to advance common goals despite ongoing economic, geopolitical, or social conflicts on Earth.
Because of falling launch costs, ongoing technological innovation, and growing commercialization in the space industry, opportunities abound in both the downstream segment (activities that use technology in space for services on Earth, or space-to-Earth activities) and the upstream segment (activities that send things into space, or space-to-space activities) of the space economy as changes in both segments are leading to a new, more integrated space economy.
Space-to-Earth activities make up most of the space economy, with exciting societal benefits as technology advances. Already, falling launch costs have expanded potential space-to-Earth uses including optimized broadband infrastructure, enhanced earth observation capabilities, and national security satellites. Companies are also exploring how moving their operations to the lower orbit could unlock new production models. For example, in the pharmaceutical industry, medical companies in orbit could grow organs for transplant patients on Earth and manufacture new drugs in orbit that target cancer cells. New launch capabilities could even enable the use of solar factories in orbit or on the Moon that can beam solar energy back to Earth, a long-awaited goal hindered by high costs. These advances in broadband access and energy sources could be critical for countries who were left behind by previous industrial revolutions who may be able to forge a new development path by capitalizing on these space-to-earth opportunities.
The space-to-space economy, primarily dominated by space-for-space transportation and manufacturing, has historically been underdeveloped due to a lack of demand to meet the high costs. Now, with more companies either looking to move their operations to space or to bring more people to space, the demand for manufacturing in space is increasing as a way to limit the time and cost it takes to transport materials from Earth. Space mining of precious metals and rare elements could become the next competitive sphere as a way to meet the demand for in-space manufacturing, which needs raw materials, metals, and water. Both the space-to-Earth and space-to-space economies will only continue to grow as new technological breakthroughs are made with the chance for developing countries to benefit.
The second opportunity for more inclusive prosperity lies in the reality that, since more countries can engage and invest in the space industry at varying levels, these countries could have a stronger diplomatic voice in how the space economy is developed and regulated. As of 2022, only 11 countries have their own launch capabilities, but other countries are able to participate in other ways, such as countries like Peru and Angola who are developing their own satellites. The old “Iron Curtain” no longer exists in space as more countries are able to launch satellites into orbit, which is good news for other countries who will have more of a voice as things develop. The commercial space industry is now more accessible to new players as well. More and more countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin American are actively investing in their own private sector space industries, signaling their recognition that space has multifaceted benefits for them both economically and diplomatically. The emergence of the private space sector in other countries could mean that collaboration will be key even if there are existing tensions or vulnerabilities within governments or geopolitical relationships.
This leads to the third major opportunity for inclusive development from the space industry, which is its potential for re-establishing legitimacy in multilateralism and for finding areas of common goals even amidst growing complexity between players. As countries become more reliant on one another, especially in regard to satellite communications, space diplomacy will only grow in importance. The range of possible, innovative applications of space technologies have incredible potential to help the world meet its global goals. There are so many growing opportunities for international cooperation and innovation within the space industry, especially given the strengths and advantages of certain regions whether its natural resources, capital, or enabling environments, among others, making it ripe for new types of global partnerships.
Key Challenges Ahead
While competition can lead to breakthroughs at unprecedented speeds, it can also lead to development and application of technologies under differing motivations that might not serve the widest range of stakeholders and society. Geopolitical tensions also thwart attempts at partnerships leading to the duplication of efforts and the rise of security concerns as major powers such as the United States, China, and Russia become more polarized. For example, in response to tensions over the war in Ukraine, Russia announced that it intends to quit the International Space Station after 2024 and will be building its own outpost. If Russia follows through, its collaboration with the United States and will likely continue in other ways, but these types of decisions, when fueled by geopolitical tensions on Earth, can threaten the stability of space operations for the detriment of everyone involved.
The likelihood is low for global agreement and coordination on every aspect of the emerging space economy. It would be naive to assume that economic, geopolitical, and social problems on Earth would disappear in the context of space. Yet, though these conflicts persist and may become even more complex, there are still opportunities for global coordination, albeit potentially requiring a different approach in response to this reality. For example, there are still areas of common interest among different partners that space technology can help with, such as developing of vaccines, tracking natural disasters, and assessing water quality. Some experts have suggested that anticipatory diplomacy, which has been used in the context of climate change and pandemic preparedness, could be a way forward that focuses on anticipating and mitigating worst-case scenarios. This could help reveal areas with a higher likelihood of collaboration and which thus could be more strategic to focus on going forward rather than attempting to find broad consensus which could ultimately stifle progress. This will be especially true now that there are more countries with competing interests involved.
The rise of private companies in space, while presenting major opportunities, also presents major risks. Right now, there is a lot of first-mover advantages as some space exploration and space technology applications are at the initial stages of development. There is thus a risk that private entities could establish monopolies on certain areas—for example broadband—whose incentives may not align with those of governments or society. This would make cooperation even more complex, especially as national borders on Earth may become arbitrary in the context of space. As ethical and regulatory frameworks continue to be developed, it will be critical that the private sector is included as a main voice among many stakeholders.
The effects of the 4IR are being felt all over the globe, as advanced technologies challenge the systems we operate within today. The 4IR’s influence in space has already been transformational, as emerging technologies have lowered launch costs and satellite costs, opening up the opportunity to invest in space to more countries and more companies. More players in space means more risks if geopolitical tensions thwart efforts for partnership or coordination. However, this also creates more opportunities for global, societal benefits as technologies develop and discoveries abound. Smaller countries could capitalize on opportunities for new development paths and new dynamics as they play a bigger role in diplomacy and global partnerships. Once again, these developments in the space industry showcase the disruptive nature of the 4IR, which brings both complex risks and unprecedented opportunities. Inclusive and sustainable prosperity could become more of a reality should the world overcome the challenges and seize the opportunities accelerated by advanced space technologies.
 3D printing is also being used to produce rocket thrust chambers, reducing the number of parts by 70 percent and the production time by 50 percent. (Back to top)