International Norms Space Space Security Technology & Innovation
Event Recap October 9, 2020

Topic overview | Space: The next frontier for innovation, economics, accessibility, and infrastructure

By Borja Prado

Space is quickly becoming the new frontier to be explored by national governments and private sector actors. In the process, the different parties are preparing themselves for an environment with the same competition and collaboration that are typical on Earth, which will require new regulations and international norms and will create novel opportunities for industry and innovation, from transportation and satellite communications to data sharing, artificial intelligence, and national security.

As one of key foci of the GeoTech Center’s mission in the Atlantic Council, the Future of Space requires developing initiatives that benefit people, prosperity, and peace while working to deter actions and policies that do not promote these values for all nations. Since its launch on March 11, 2020, the GeoTech Center has already hosted several conversations exploring this topic.

The future of data and AI in space

One of the main subjects of debate for both private and public stakeholders focuses on the impact of developments in data and AI capabilities on commercial space efforts. On April 29, 2020, the GeoTech Center hosted a live video discussion on this subject. The panel included Fredrik Bruhn, CEO of Unibap, Amy Webb, founder and CEO of the Future Today Institute, Paul Jurasin, Director of New Programs and the Digital Transformation Hub at Cal Poly State University, and Anthony Scriffignano, SVP and Chief Data Scientist at Dun & Bradstreet.

In their conversation, the experts highlighted how historical computational capabilities and limited electrical power available to satellites prevented edge computing in space. All data had to be transmitted back to Earth for processing. With advances in both processing and performance relative to onboard power capabilities, it is now possible to process petaflops of data in space. The experts gave examples of how these advances change what is possible by commercial space endeavors and of what services can be provided to individuals and organizations around the world. One of the key challenges, they say, would be building a common international regulatory framework that would allow these technologies to excel and help different countries and private corporations to operate in space.

Making space available for everyone

In the past, access to space has been limited exclusively to the wealthiest governments in the world, and in particular to the few military branches capable of the billion-dollar spending projects needed to launch satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO) and beyond. The greatest space achievements of the 20th century were all accomplished by either state-run space agencies or collaborating governments. The 21st century, however, has seen the rapid commercialization of space.

On Wednesday, July 8, 2020, the GeoTech Center and Amazon Web Services (AWS) jointly hosted a public live event that was co-moderated by David Bray, Director of the Geotech Center, and Shayn Hawthorne, Senior Manager at AWS, and where specialists from across the space industry discussed approaches to making tools and data in space accessible to players of all sizes. This panel included Joseph Bonivel, Jr., Subject Matter Expert at the United States Department of Defense and GeoTech Center Nonresident Senior Fellow, Paul Jurasin, Jody Medich, Principal Design Researcher at Microsoft’s Office of the CTO and Cofounder of Superhuman-X, Michael Nicolls, CTO and cofounder of LeoLabs, Inc., and Simon Reid, COO of D-Orbit.

The panelists discussed new methods for automated collision avoidance at scale, which would rely on more transparent data sharing among governments, companies, and other satellite operators. The experts hope to see more information sharing so that the global community can benefit from the wealth of knowledge found in orbit and emphasized the myriad opportunities that broadening humanity’s presence in space will create.

Space is one of the best places from which to gather planetary data, with satellites providing critical information to farmers in Africa and climate scientists in Antarctica alike. When space becomes a safer and, importantly, cheaper environment to operate in, and as more private entities access space, the panel pointed out that more people stand to benefit similarly. However, the experts also highlighted that enforcing a new set of norms, especially regarding reasonable data sharing, is key to securing an accessible future in space for all.

Space, jobs, and public-private collaboration

On Wednesday, July 29, 2020 the Atlantic Council’s GeoTech Center hosted a fireside chat between GeoTech Commission co-chair Teresa Carlson, Vice President of AWS’s Worldwide Public Sector and United States Representative Will Hurd of the 23rd District of Texas.

Representative Hurd spoke about his mission to make space relevant to his constituents as the commercial space industry plays an increasingly important role in his district and the nation. With thousands of jobs created in Texas and nationwide by companies such as Blue Origin and SpaceX, Representative Hurd emphasized that it’s time for governments to step out of the way to ensure that outer space can become a secure and accessible arena for visionaries and pioneers.

Ms. Carlson commented on the productive potential of private-public partnerships in space commercialization, as well as on the many innovative enterprises in the market and the need to invigorate the pipeline of talent feeding the scientific community.

Building sustainable space infraestructure

Where before the only players in space were large government entities and their contractors, now private companies regularly launch and maintain infrastructure intended to last years or even decades. The new market dynamics and politics introduced by the private sector’s emergence will reshape a realm where policy, geopolitics, cooperation, and science have always been deeply intertwined. This raises several crucial questions. Who will be allowed to operate in orbit and beyond? Who will be held responsible for the actions of private companies, and what bodies will enforce such accountability? What policy decisions can be made now to shape the economy of space exploration down the road?

On September 30, 2020, the Atlantic Council’s GeoTech Center hosted an expert panel to discuss space economics and the policy implications of the rapid commercialization of space exploration. The discussion included Reggie Brothers, Chief Executive Officer at NuWave Solutions; Peter Cannito, Chairman & CEO at Redwire Space, Joanne Lo, CEO and Founder of Elysian Labs, Inc., and Peter Marquez, Head of Space Policy at AWS.

Will the COVID-19 pandemic impact space innovation?

The global uncertainty caused by COVID-19 has inspired much speculation about the future of geopolitics, technological progress, economics, and culture. While the arguments behind these forecasts are important and compelling, surveying expert opinions for consensus is also critical. Accordingly, in April 2020 the Atlantic Council’s GeoTech Center submitted a questionnaire to more than 100 technology experts to record their expectations about the impact of COVID-19 on innovation in key fields, including space commercialization.

Interestingly, the majority of respondents believed that the pandemic will have little impact on space tech innovation, unlike the other fields (the future of work, data and AI, trust and supply chains, and health and medicine), which they believed would see innovation accelerate significantly. At the same time, however, only a tiny fraction of respondents believed that space commercialization technologies will see meaningful innovation in the near future. In many ways, these results are unsurprising. As the virus imposes heavy demands on healthcare systems, strains international supply chains, and changes the way we work, it will spur innovation in those areas–with changing priorities, innovation in space is believed likely to stagnate or at least remain unchanged.

Acknowledging the limitations of this survey is also important: there is significant overlap between the technological fields identified here. For example, innovations in data and AI will inevitably affect other fields, including space. For that reason, the most exciting technological developments driven by COVID-19 will probably come at the seams of the survey’s categories.

The way ahead

The future is uncertain, and the next decade is yet unwritten. We must be willing to fail and learn as we approach the future ahead. One can only hope that leaders will recognize the importance of investments in innovation and community resilience as they plan their countries’ recoveries. After all, a successful national recovery requires a prosperous global one.