Mr Marius-Ioan Piso (ROSA President) discusses the commercialization of outer space - Part III
We have come to the end of our three parts interview with Mr Marius-Ioan Piso, the President of the Romanian Space Agency (ROSA) and Chairman of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.
Click here to read the first part about space research and technology, or here, for the second part, about the outer space policies.
Today, we continue our conversation on the matter of space commercialisation.
APECS: What are the trends and concerns about the new era of space commercialisation and private sector involvement?
Marius-Ioan Piso: The commercialisation of space does not necessarily mean that the domain is now private because the private sector was always involved in the space sector. The commercialisation means that the public sector buys full services from the market, from private companies such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Airbus etc.
Another meaning of the word private is the creation of technology, which is also valid for the aerospace and industrial evaluation field. These systems are very complicated in general if we think of an aeroplane, a rocket, a capsule. They are made of components that do not have to be specially developed for space. The model goes this way: an integrator, usually a big company, designs the component needed itself and secure some manufacturers to create a product chain. At least two companies are necessary to ensure a production flow. These costs are much lower because an integrator has high running costs to produce these components by itself. A similar example is the automotive industry, which is a very large horizontal industry.
It is not profitable to produce small objects such as screws or to develop dedicated research, so it is more efficient to stimulate the development of start-ups, spin-offs, small companies. The ideal company that works for the space field has a third of the budget allocated to space. Orders for the space field take a long time; sometimes, there are delays. There is a large chain of spin-offs in different fields that supply 80-90% of the production of a rocket's components. At some point, the production of small parts becomes diverse enough to create an entire spatial object from the products of small companies. It leads to a drastic decrease in costs and increased efficiency.
This model cannot be applied to critical areas, those related to people, security. In their case, the security costs are so high that a small company does not have the financial possibilities to access it. One such company is Planet Labs, which sells high-resolution optical information. It owns 120 or so satellites and sells high-resolution optical band for the army, for security. The last ones buy the service to complete their data. It has nothing to do with security. It is 1,000 times more expensive to buy this data from a specialised satellite. Through these data, the army enriches its reality, so Planet Labs is a necessary company. It will be done in telecommunications as well. And then the concern is not the decline of the market, but the risk of making a "mess" in space. UN guidelines is about how outer space is used.
Elon Musk's satellites cause disturbances by the very fact that they are visible. People tell me they see UFO lights; it is just light pollution. Light spreads through the atmosphere, diffuses and decreases the quality of observation for satellite monitoring, and decreases optical systems' capacity. Musk made two promises: he will de-satellite his satellites (they will be removed from the orbit which is more expensive because of extra fuel needed). The second thing promised is a solution so that these satellites no longer reflect light to Earth (e.g. "painted" in black).
A small company can produce advertising satellites, but this cannot be done without control. It is necessary to establish some rules for their use.
Space issues are currently being addressed by the aeronautical authorities. A new authority will probably be set up to oversee the implementation of these rules. It already started in the army, where the US Space Force is already an independent entity.
Another problem with the launches is that there are about 20 start-ups able to manufacture vectors to launch small satellites of 10-15 kg. These launches can get out of control. For example, a private individual goes to an isolated area to launch and for that obtains a formal approval, perhaps from a local authority and launches something that can cause damage by colliding with an aeroplane or other satellite. That is a threat.
The third is the security threat, terrorism, technology theft. Specific components are critical and set under controlled export. (e.g. a vacuum cleaner robot used in domestic activity contains a two-dimensional laser scanner, an inertial navigation system of 6 degrees of freedom ( i.e. three rotations), has proximity sensors etc. which allow it to learn the trajectory with an accuracy of centimetres. This technology was intended for military drones in the past. Now is accessible to ordinary people. This means the evolution of technology but is also a security vulnerability, and legislation must be set in this regard.
APECS: Space missions have so far been financially supported by governmental funds. With the commercialisation of space, they will become increasingly accessible to the private sector. What is the role of public-private partnerships in building a sustainable space economy?
Marius-Ioan Piso: The first component of sustainability (i.e. long term sustainability of outer space activities), is the code of conduct regarding the use of space. Sustainability means safe activities in orbit, and to achieve that in the context of millions of debris travelling at high speed, we need a system to monitor them.
Europe has a SST (Space Surveillance and Tracking) operational centre. There are seven European states (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland, Portugal (with the Azores Islands), Romania) involved in this project. Romania participates with optical instruments, several astronomical observatories, and a radar in construction in the Prahova district.
Why is SST important? E.g. A few days ago (note: date of the interview), the Galileo 23 satellite noticed some objects were approaching it. There were some remains from a step of a rocket. The SST network was alerted, and the area was tracked. To be saved, the Galileo satellite was shut down and moved to another orbit. So this is a public-private problem to be addressed.
Other example is the Iridium low orbit communications satellite system, launched in 2000 and owned by Motorola. It had 77 satellites placed at 1000km in orbit. The phone technology did not work as expected, and the constellation was considered to be de-orbited. The US government paid Boeing $ 500 million to maintain the system. After 5-6 years, it worked. I use an Iridium phone myself. Inmarsat is another such system with mobile terminals.
The other example is the Starlink constellation by Elon Musk. Space X started from a partnership with the state and incorporated all the research & development of the public partner in its products. NASA helps the private sector by entering into contractual agreements with it ( e.g. with SpaceX); the private company will provide services and will produce component parts for NASA’s missions.
The most important aid is the political one; Starlink satellites have the role of maintaining freedom in the world in the same way the satellites were the gate to information in communism for us in the '80s. I remember that it was the last phase of the Cold War, TV access was 1-2 hours/day, and it was all about Ceausescu. People used to install a 1 m antenna in the attic hidden under the roof tiles, and the electronic engineers used to build receivers for those antennas. We were watching TV broadcasting using satellite antennas. It was the gate to information and freedom.
Note: This is a translation from the original Romanian language interview.