Finding new ways of commercially exploiting satellites already in orbit, while creating economic value in the process: this is the goal of the research being carried out by Alessandro Golkar, Interim Director of the Space Center and Associate Professor at the Skoltech university in Moscow. As he explains in the following interview with the Aspen Institute Italia, opening up to the market may be a challenge that is directly applicable to the Italian aerospace industry as well.
Alessandro Golkar, interim director of the Space Center and associate professor at Skoltech. Photo: Sk.ru.
What are the new frontiers of applied research in the aerospace sector?
Today, we are well past the stage of space race that sprang from and was predominantly fueled by political motivations and the rivalry between the US and the USSR. That interlude came to an end just before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Space is now a vehicle for political cooperation. An example that comes to mind is the joint Apollo Soyuz project, but especially the International Space Station. The third stage we are currently going through is the so-called “new space” era, where the focus is on privatizing certain activities, as is the case with the SpaceX launch system, which sees the US government, for example, becoming a customer of a service (that is, rocket launching) for which it buys a ‘ticket’, rather than being a developer and operator of the said system. This represents a shift in paradigm and risk allocation between the public and private space sectors. Today, however, we are witnessing the beginning of a fourth phase, namely, the ‘space economy’, which aims to increase the use of space data for earthbound applications.
So have new business applications been identified?
The most significant economic and commercial potential definitely resides in the use of space data for innovative applications (the so-called downstream sector). From the point of view of research and development of satellite platforms, that is, in the upstream sector, the most interesting advances in my view are those that enable a more efficient use of satellites already in orbit.
In fact, nowadays, satellites are in most cases isolated systems that cannot communicate with each other. Of course, there are satellite constellations such as Iridium and Globalstar, but for the most part all missions exclusively concentrate on and are structured in relation to their own objectives.
If you think about it, a very similar thing happens with cars. When the owner of a vehicle is elsewhere and is not using it, it remains parked while still perfectly functional. Satellites also remain unused for long periods of time. Some estimates indicate that American defense satellites are often unused for 90% of the time. This is a real problem given that they are worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
In the case of cars, the practice of car sharing has emerged. What we are looking into in our research group at Skoltech is a kind of satellite sharing - the idea of pooling resources. Obviously, as far as satellites already in orbit are concerned, the challenge is greater. While a mechanic can make adjustments to a car at any time, it’s difficult to modify the features of a satellite once it’s launched. The only option that leaves us is coming up with creative systems.
Will it be possible, then, to bring in satellite sharing?
Three years ago we started to evaluate whether such a proposal might make sense from a commercial standpoint. We found that the business case pointed to favorable outcomes, but presented many challenges. So we framed our research activities around two lines of inquiry: the first, a theoretical strand, is designed to flesh out the proposal at a systemic level, positing, for example, the establishment of a competitive market between satellites, while the second strand concerns the development of new enabling technologies for our idea, at least at a prototype level.
We have worked on radio-frequency communications that can be reconfigured via software. It’s a technology that has existed in military circles since the 1980s, but it has great potential when applied in our context. We have also focused on optical communications and we are finalizing our first prototype laser terminal for use between small satellites in low orbit, something that no one else has tried to do before now. Skoltech’s objective is to carry out applied research, so our laser communications technology should undergo its first test flight on a satellite by the end of 2018. Then it will be ready to face the market.
And what about Italy? What role is it playing in this new phase?
Italy, as the third largest contributor to the European Space Agency (ESA), is investing 400 million euro per year in the sector, so by no means is it a small player. In addition to ESA’s initiatives, there are also various other national programs, which represented around 60 million euro in annual investment in 2016 alone. This is in line with a longstanding tradition: we were the fourth country in the world to send a satellite into orbit, and the third to send one with self-launching capabilities. Over the years, an entire industry has developed, and today Italy is one of the very few countries in the world involved at all levels of the space sector value chain, including satellites, ground stations, launchers, and even data analysis. The real problem is that the funds available are not sufficient to make the most of all the excellent skills on hand. The country is therefore at a crossroads: either it focuses on a few areas, as the United Kingdom chose to do, though this way it risks losing expertise in other fields, or it looks for new sources of funding, by opening itself up to the market.
Many programs should be supported for reasons other than mere economic imperatives, such as on national defense or strategic industrial grounds. Personally, I am convinced that it’s necessary to make the space industry an integral part of the national economy, as are other sectors that are emblematic of the Made in Italy brand.
Born in Rome, Alessandro Golkar is an Italian aerospace engineer currently serving as an Associate Professor at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) in Moscow (a private university established in 2011 in collaboration with MIT Boston) and as Interim Director of the Institute’s Space Center. In 2015, he contributed to the formulation of the Italian space strategy as a member of working groups instituted, through a dedicated Space Coordination Unit, by the Office of the Prime Minister and the Italian Space Agency.
This interview was first published here in Italian.