The Institute of Space Commerce anticipates a transformative year for the space sector – one that will be marked by substantial increases in launch cadence, spacecraft in orbit, connectivity, novel applications, and global reliance on space services. As precursor missions for a crewed return to the lunar surface ramp up, we take a deeper dive into the underlying trends that will shape the development of the space economy for years to come.
TRENDS TO WATCH IN 2024
GIANT LEAPS IN GLOBAL CONNECTIVITY
While more than a third of the world’s population is still without internet access, the growth of broadband LEO constellations is poised to foster an unprecedented level of digital inclusion. The success of SpaceX’s Starlink, which was recently stated to be cash-positive, is just the first major mover in a competitive landscape that includes Amazon’s Project Kuiper, OneWeb, and other forthcoming US and international mega-constellations. The broadband LEO market is likely to experience explosive growth in the coming years and is just one of many applications through which space will be increasingly recognized as an integral and seamless part of global digital infrastructure. Direct-to-cell services, while still in their infancy, are a particular area to watch as space segment providers solidify partnership agreements with terrestrial companies and strive to overcome regulatory and technological barriers.
RECOGNITION OF CYBER, SUSTAINABILITY, AND SPECTRUM CHALLENGES
The increasing accessibility of, number of objects in, and global reliance on space is a confluence of circumstances that presents several challenges for the space sector to address.
First, while large constellations distribute the risk of single-point failures of a technical origin, they make it even more crucial for operators to safeguard space assets from cyber threats that could impact an entire constellation. Malicious actors are becoming more sophisticated through a litany of new AI-aided tools at their disposal and more targets to choose from than ever before. Governments are attempting to meet the challenge by exploring new cyber norms and legal frameworks in a bid to help industry partners protect themselves.
Similarly, the number of objects in orbit is expected to grow substantially – one of several issues that have honed the global focus on sustainable space practices. As of December 2023, there were over 8,000 functional spacecraft, a figure that could easily double by the end of the decade, not to mention the resultant and pre-existing catalog of debris, which likely exceeds 100 million objects greater than 1 mm. Industry is now actively abiding by practices that limit the creation of debris and deorbiting spacecraft in a controlled manner. Additionally, international norms are taking shape to ensure the long-term sustainability of space by encouraging responsible activities that are safe and predictable.
Finally, amid growing demand for spectrum by space and terrestrial services alike, the efficient management of spectrum has never been more important to avoid harmful interference. Industry and governments are attempting to compensate for this scarcity by exploring the use of non-traditional bands and spectrum-sharing technologies. The spectrum environment is not just contested by space weather events and growing commercial interests; it is also now a frequent victim during conflict as belligerents recognize jamming as a valid tactic. The electromagnetic spectrum is an invisible force on which innumerable 21st-century technologies rely, so protecting this limited natural resource will continue to be of utmost importance.
USE OF SPACE FOR DIPLOMACY AND DEFENSE
Space will continue to be a go-to in nations’ foreign policy toolbelts. Multilateral agreements like the Artemis Accords have highlighted space’s role in broader diplomatic efforts. Between scientific cooperation, crewed and uncrewed launch agreements, disaster response and humanitarian aid, international development and capacity-building activities, space often provides a valuable platform for nations to enhance partnerships in a peaceful and mutually beneficial manner.
Additionally, commercial space services are increasingly proving their utility in crisis and conflict on the world stage. The defense of Ukraine against an invading Russian force has been significantly aided by its use of space technology, particularly satellite communications, earth imagery, and PNT. Notably, beyond the tactical level in what’s being called “the most documented invasion in history,” the accessibility of timely and high-quality earth imagery data by the rest of the world has enabled the independent validation of ground truth through the world’s defense and intelligence agencies and amateur open-source analysts alike.
COMMERCIAL SPACEFLIGHT BREAKS THE MOLD
With the International Space Station set to be decommissioned in 2030, commercially owned and operated orbital platforms are expected to fill the gap (not to mention provide services to safely deorbit the station). Axiom intends to launch multiple crewed missions, and the first module of its own station, to the ISS in 2024. Other orbital platforms, including Voyager and Airbus’ Starlab and Blue Origin’s Orbital Reef, are also under development. The next year may also see history made in the first commercial spacewalk as part of the next SpaceX-hosted Polaris Dawn mission. In suborbital spaceflight, the cadence of tourism flights has not yet hit its stride as Blue Origin’s New Shepard attempts to return to crewed flights and Virgin Galactic transitions to its new Delta Class vehicle.
Lunar ambitions of the world’s spacefaring nations will also continue to materialize with the return to the lunar surface being led through commercial partnerships. Multiple robotic lunar missions are slated for 2024 through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program to carry out technology demonstration missions that will pave the way for future exploration activities, including crewed missions to the lunar surface in the latter half of the decade.
As industry innovates, it’s inevitable that we’ll see more unique missions, both crewed and uncrewed, that test the limits of existing regulatory regimes. It’s especially important in these boundary cases that governments continue to foster efficient collaboration and engage in constructive dialogue with the private sector to limit undue burdens on the development of these invaluable applications.
AN INFLECTION POINT FOR LAUNCH
Similar to each of the last few years, 2024 will be the busiest year for launches in history at a pace of four per week on average. Blistering cadence aside, the coming year is expected to yield the first orbital flights of several heavy and super-heavy vehicles, namely ULA’s Vulcan, Blue Origin’s New Glenn, and SpaceX’s Starship – the last of which has the potential to be a Dreadnought moment for the industry.
Should its early-stage technical issues continue to be resolved, Starship’s immense capacity and anticipated reusability at low cost might unlock a host of applications previously assumed to be cost-prohibitive and technically improbable. It would offer the entire industry an opportunity to recalculate what is commercially viable or even physically possible. In the near-term, this might involve manifesting hundreds of spacecraft on a single vehicle and enabling a human return to the lunar surface. In the longer term, lower mass and volume constraints could enable terrestrial point-to-point transport, large-scale orbital infrastructure activities in earth orbit and in deep space, and eventually, crewed interplanetary missions.
RETURN OF INVESTMENT AND ECONOMIC RESILIENCY
While the space industry has experienced the macroeconomic pressures felt by every other industry globally, it has remained relatively resilient in the face of those pressures. Governments continue to finance private space activities at an unprecedented level for exploration and security, while private finance is returning to space at the start of 2024, in earlier stage rounds, off-earth investment, and defense-related space activities. Good companies will continue to close investment rounds bolstered by revenue, a rigorous understanding of their market segment, and even adaptability in space markets. Continued government, academic, and industry efforts to improve our accounting of the value of space activities will encourage continued entrepreneurship and investment.