Linda W. Perkins

Space Commerce: Where Business is Literally Out of This World

Percento Technologies - February 12, 2016

Move over e-commerce. There’s an even bigger boy in town.

Yes, folks, it’s true. Space commerce is ready for lift off.

While still in its early stages of development, space commerce is something businesses should definitely keep an eye on. Beyond commercial space travel, a luxury opportunity for the few who can afford it, space commerce may eventually be far reaching, with significant implications for the information technology, telecom and energy industries.

In November 2015, President Obama signed into law a bill that allows people to mine, sell and own any space material. And just last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — a division of the US Department of Commerce — released its first commercial space policy, which will govern NOAA’s interaction with the commercial sector in the areas of data buys, hosted payloads, rideshares and launch services.

According to NOAA, “Rapid change in the commercial space services arena over the past several years is now yielding new technical and business approaches not only to building, launching, and operating satellites but also to selling private satellite capabilities as services.”

Part of NOAA’s initiative is to cut government spending by enabling it to leverage data collected by the private sector for government use in meteorological and environmental analysis. However, with greater opportunities for the commercial sector to sell satellite data and other space-based services to the government, that should provide more incentive for companies to make investments into space, broadening the availability of satellite and space-based data services for the private sector as well.

Hannah Kerner, executive director of the Space Frontier Foundation, said the new space mining law extends the American free-market values into space, “which is absolutely essential if we are going to succeed at creating an environment where commercial space businesses thrive.”

The estimated market value of minerals on asteroids — which geologists believe are packed with high concentrations of iron ore, nickel and precious metals — is in the trillions of dollars.

Space commerce is not without controversy, though. According to the Outer Space Treaty, signed by the U.S., Russia, and a number of other countries, nations can’t own territory in space. The new law on asteroid mining specifies that it does not grant “sovereignty or sovereign or exclusive rights or jurisdiction over, or the ownership of, any celestial body,” so it is yet to be seen how exactly private mineral rights in space will be negotiated.

Another issue is safety. In October 2014, two separate crashes within one week had the private space industry reeling. Fortunately, those were just test flights and only resulted in one casualty, but there is no doubt that individuals and companies venturing into space know there is significant risk involved.

Despite the risks and controversies that may still exist, the private space industry is receiving a huge influx of investment and attention. And it should come as no great surprise that some of the same people who led the way in e-commerce are now trailblazers in space commerce: Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, with their company Planetary Resources; PayPal’s Elon Musk with SpaceX; and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos with Blue Origin.

In a generation that grew up on the Jetsons and science fiction, it’s time to realize that space commerce isn’t fiction anymore. It isn’t quite mainstream, but it’s getting there fast. Hold on to your horses … er, rocket!

Space Commerce: Where Business is Literally Out of This World