Once strictly the domain of national governments, space travel has undergone a revolution over the past decade. Increasingly, private companies have been launching craft into outer space and competing against one another for market dominance.
Earlier this month another player entered the field. This time it was in the form of Rocket Lab, who put three small satellites into orbit. Rocket Lab is based out of California but they launched out of New Zealand, the home country of their founder Peter Beck. An aerospace engineer, Beck founded the company 10 years ago and now has the financial backing of aerospace giant Lockheed Martin and several other venture capital firms.
Rocket Lab launched its 17-metre long Electron Rocket from a launchpad which the company built itself on New Zealand’s North Island, rather than pay the fees associated with using existing government infrastructure. It marked the first time a rocket has been launched from a privately owned and operated facility.
Rocket Lab enters a marketplace that currently includes players from around the world.
The largest company on the market is Elon Musk’s SpaceX, who grew from five percent of the global market share in rocket launches in 2013 to 45 percent last year. Next year they expect to bump that number up as high as 60 percent.
Rocket Lab has big plans as well, with a goal of eventually carrying out 50 launches a year.
The two companies have slightly different operating models, as SpaceX specializes in putting larger satellites into orbit, while Rocket Lab aims to put out smaller satellites.
The two companies are part of a new space race, not unlike the one between the cold war powers in the 1960s, but this time it’s being fought between private corporations.
Private companies have long been funded by governments, most notably in the United States, to help in concept and design process of space exploration. However, it wasn’t until large defence contractors became involved in the creation of space launch systems that the industry began to turn towards privatization.
By the 2000s private companies and entrepreneurs had begun developing space systems for themselves, and by the 2010s they were putting them into orbit.
In 2012, SpaceX became the first company to have a spacecraft dock at the International Space Station, and other companies have delivered payloads to the moon and returned rockets vertically to earth after having gone into orbit.
Planned missions include launching personal space flights around the moon and beyond.
There has even been some talk of mining asteroids, as some have estimated that a 1 km diameter asteroid could contain as much as 30 million tonnes of nickel and 1.5 million tons of metal cobalt. The 7,500 tons of platinum it could contain alone would have a value of $150 billion back here on earth.
With so much at stake, this new space race is likely just starting to heat up.