Explosions, asteroids and a moon landing: A year in the space economy


SpaceX's Starship rocket shortly before it's "rapid unscheduled disassembly" in November.

SpaceX’s Starship rocket shortly before it’s “rapid unscheduled disassembly” in November.

AFP via Getty Images

Over the past year, many startup sectors have seen a decline in venture capital investments, and space is no exception. According to a report from venture firm Space Capital, the first three quarters of this year saw investments in space startups decline 32% compared to 2022. That said, there’s still plenty of money flowing into the sector–over $11 billion through the end of Q3, split among 289 different deals. And deals have been picking up over the course of the year–investments in Q3 2023 were 17% higher than Q3 2022, for example.

One interesting sign of life in the sector, the report notes, is that 24% of the space deals in 2023 were series A rounds compared to an average of 12% in other sectors. And the biggest area of growth in the space sector was for infrastructure investments, which comprised 73% of dollars invested. Both of these highlight an appetite among investors to keep building the tools needed for a sustainable space industry.

That’s reflected in the year as a whole, which saw a number of different milestones towards a bigger, flourishing space economy down the road. Here’s four of the year-defining moments and trends that shaped the sector in 2023–and laid the foundation for the years to come.

Rocket Companies Got Knocked Down, But They Got Up Again

“It’s not rocket science” is a cliche for a reason; the complex business of actually getting stuff from the ground and into space is riddled with difficulty, risk and failure, and 2023 was no exception. In March, Relativity Space’s 3D-printed Terran 1 rocket left the launch pad but failed to reach orbit. Rocket Lab also saw an in-flight failure in September. And SpaceX attempted to launch its next generation Starship twice–once in April and once in November–both times resulting in what the company wryly refers to as a “rapid unscheduled disassembly.” Starship’s failure to launch has sparked lawsuits and may delay NASA’s plans to return astronauts to the Moon.

But despite the issues, the companies themselves keep ticking. Relativity Space hasn’t yet announced a date for its next launch, but in October the company did secure a multi-launch agreement with satellite operator Intelsat. Rocket Lab resumed its launch schedule and in December set a company record with 10 launches in a single year. And Jeff Bezos-founded space company Blue Origin, which suffered a launch failure in the Fall of 2022, also came back this month with a successful launch.

SpaceX expects to continue test launches for Starship–launch failures are baked into the company’s history. Its first four launches of its Falcon rocket series were all failures, but that rocket now completely dominates the market and the company will end the year just shy of 100 successful launches. Even though there were two exploding Starships in 2023, “they achieved extremely important milestones and have enabled SpaceX to collect critical data it is using to succeed next year,” Space Capital CEO Chad Anderson, an investor in SpaceX, told Forbes. “We are confident that Starship will successfully reach orbit next year, and in time to take SpaceX’s first payloads to orbit.”

India Landed On The Moon

India’s space program made history in August when it became the first country to successfully land a spacecraft near the Moon’s south pole. That made it only the fourth nation to make it to the Moon, after the U.S., Russia and China. This area of the Moon is of particular interest as NASA and other countries plan to return humans there this decade, as the region is thought to contain large quantities of ice, a key resource for a permanent station on Earth’s neighbor.

The success of India’s mission here also highlights a key fact about space in the 2020’s: it’s gotten significantly less expensive. The estimated cost of the country’s successful Moon mission was only $74 million–less than half the cost of a major Hollywood movie. India’s space program has been an enthusiastic participant in the growing space industry, too, having conducted multiple rocket launches of commercial satellites from around the world with an eye to getting about 10% market share of that market by the end of the decade.

The first retrieved sample from an asteroid made it safely to the ground earlier this year.

The first retrieved sample from an asteroid made it safely to the ground earlier this year.

AFP via Getty Images

Proofs Of Concept For Mining Asteroids

Asteroid mining may be the stuff of science fiction, but it holds enormous potential to get the mineral resources the Earth needs without the environmental destruction that often accompanies it. This year saw two interesting milestones highlighting the potential for this area. The first was the successful return of NASA’s Osiris-Rex mission, which marked the first time that an uncrewed spacecraft visited an asteroid and returned samples back to Earth–a proof of concept for the private sector being able to do the same.

The second comes from space startup Astroforge, which in April launched a prototype refinery into orbit for the processing of space-based minerals. The company had some unexpected issues communicating with its spacecraft while in orbit, but has been able to successfully resolve some of them and begun the process of verifying that their refinery is operating as planned. The company also plans on launching its next spacecraft in 2024, which will flyby a nearby asteroid to check out its potential for mining.

SpaceX has put nearly 5,000 Starlink satellites into orbit with an aim of providing internet around the world, especially in areas where it’s hard to build reliable infrastructure. According to an analysis from Cloudflare, traffic from Starlink’s network tripled in 2023, especially from Brazil, where traffic saw 17x growth. According to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, the company’s internet business “achieved breakeven cash flow” this year–though recouping the billions in capital expense will likely take years, especially after the service was denied a key $900 million government subsidy yet again. The success of the service has sparked a lot of rumors about SpaceX potentially spinning out Starlink through an IPO as early as next year–something Musk denies. In November, billionaire Ron Baron, an investor in SpaceX and Tesla, suggested such an IPO might be more likely to happen in 2027.

In the meantime, SpaceX is facing increasing competition in the space internet game from EutelSat Oneweb, which has signed multiple deals to provide service in the past few weeks. Then there’s AST SpaceMobile, which aims to provide a space-based supplement for 5G networks in areas where there’s no coverage, which demonstrated its technological capabilities in December. There’s also Telesat’s Lightspeed offering, about which industry analyst Chris Quilty told Forbes, “We thought Lightspeed had flatlined until Telesat’s surprise announcement of a new manufacturing deal with MDA turned the lights back on for the constellation.”

Quilty adds that Starlink has another potential major competitor waiting in the wings: Amazon, which launched its first two satellites for its Project Kuiper internet service this year. “While all eyes are on Starlink, Amazon Kuiper made some incredible strides this year,” he said. “From introducing a whole family of affordable flat panel antennas in March to launching their first two prototypes in October to celebrating all successful testing of systems – including their optical intersatellite links –within two months of launch…we can’t help but be impressed with their progress. Plus, their AWS infrastructure advantage is yet another way the company can potentially leapfrog its competitors in 2024.”

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com

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