How can startups make the space industry more sustainable?

By Early Metrics Team - 23 December 2022

The space industry is an ever-evolving sector, with 9% growth in 2021 compared to 2020, and $469 billion in global spending. However, the industry has been reshaped by the initial frugality of government investment. Indeed, the initial reluctance of governments to develop their own innovative space technologies, such as reusable launchers, has allowed startups to make their mark in this sector. As such, players like SpaceX have led the way, notably by introducing the first partially reusable Falcon 1 launcher in 2008.

Since then, governments have recognised the benefits and success of developments such as those of SpaceX and have begun supporting these new companies. This support has come in the form of data sharing, patents and investments. In addition, investment funds have also started to focus on the growing space industry. Examples include Space Capital in the US and Karista in France. Overall, $15 billion were invested by VCs in 2021 (Bryce Tech Report 2022: Start Up space).

Today, these investments are mainly focused on technologies that reduce the environmental footprint of space launches, or leverage data to improve risk analysis and resource consumption on land.

In this article, we explore 3 trends to make the space industry greener.

1) Solutions to improve safety, reduce collisions and therefore reduce space debris

Source: ClearSpace

As the space economy accelerates, more and more satellites are coming into orbit, with 4,852 satellites in January 2022 and another 17,000 satellites expected in the next ten years. This concentration of satellites represents a risk of collision. As of today, space agencies already report a dozen accidental fragmentations per year, despite global regulations already encouraging satellites to be put out of range by deorbiting them or sending them into graveyard orbits.

To reduce these risks, startups such as Sharemyspace have developed a mapping of space vehicles and debris to help satellite operators reduce the risk of collision. Sharemyspace uses an observation station composed of four telescopes to detect and track various objects floating in space.

Meanwhile, other companies are focusing on capturing debris to reduce the 7,600 metric tonnes of space junk in orbit around the Earth. One example is RemoveDebris, created by the European Space Agency (ESA), which has developed a minisatellite with a harpoon to capture debris, tested for the first time in 2018. However, the ESA also seeks to rely on startups for these missions and has thus signed an 86-million-euro contract with ClearSpace. This company develops a space robot with claws to grab space debris and throw them lower so that they self-destruct. The technology’s launch is planned for 2025-26.

These various initiatives are important to reduce the risks of collusion, space pollution, as well as atmospheric pollution. Reducing the number of accidents also allows for the reduction of replacement of satellites and thus of the number of launches.

2) Eco-friendly means of propulsion to support space discovery

Source: OrbitFab

Aside from locating and reduce space debris, pollution from satellite propulsion and other space vehicles is also one of the main challenges the space industry faces.

Indeed, it is estimated that the launch of a rocket emits between 50 and 75 tonnes of CO2 per passenger per launch. This figure can be compared to that of a long-haul flight, which emits between one and three tonnes of CO2 per passenger. In addition, a satellite’s lifespan is limited by the quality of its components, as well as its fuel tank, which is essential to maintain its trajectory. Today, their lifespan is from 5 years in low earth orbit to 15 years in geostationary orbit.

Startups such as Hypr Space develop micro launchers that use hybrid propulsion combining solid fuel (polyethlene) and liquefied fuel (oxygen) for 30 to 70% in savings and thus a significant reduction in environmental impact, especially since these launchers are reusable.

Other companies are dealing with post-orbit environmental aspects. For example, OrbitFab develops a hydrazine gas station in geostationary orbit. This station should allow to provide up to 100 kg of fuel to extend satellites’ lifespan and thus reduce the number of launches and of satellites built.

3) Data collection solutions for Earth observation


A completely different aspect of sustainable space concerns the use of data acquired by these various satellites. Indeed, while some satellites are used for defense or science, 75% of satellites are used for Earth observation and communication services. Once this data has been collected, it is made available to other entities by space agencies. This is particularly the case of the European Copernicus satellite, but also of NASA with its “Creating startups with NASA technology” programme, aimed at transferring various NASA technologies to startups.

This transmission of technology and data allows companies like VanderSat (acquired by Planet in 2021) to provide precise data on the soil moisture and temperature of each surface, to then help farmers set an action plan for their culture. This helps reduce water consumption, but also improve their performance. In addition, companies such as are specialised in flood detection. The startup has developed a mini station made up of miniaturised space altimeters to monitor the speed and height of water and thus anticipate floods and droughts.

The acceleration of space conquest and space tourism highlights the need to develop more sustainable means of propulsion to reduce emissions from this fast-growing sector, as well as space traffic regulation solutions to reduce the risks of accidents and space pollution. In parallel, methods developed for analysing spatial data can be used for developments for our own planet, particularly for natural disasters prevention or resource management.

These various issues are taken into account by the startup ecosystem, which works in close collaboration with space agencies. However, there is also a risk associated with the privatisation of space exploration and related solutions. While governments have an obligation to respect the environment for their citizens, this may not be the case for some private companies. It is therefore important that space agencies specifically support sustainable space solutions and technologies.

Article written by Sacha Cherif, VC Analyst at Early Metrics and translated by Mahaut Chappot de la Chanonie

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