What "New Space" Means to LG
This piece was originally written and translated into Korean as a part of LG Technology Ventures' Monthly Newsletter to business units and strategic partners. It is republished here with permission. Sensitive information has been removed.
The commercialization of space has long been in the realm of science fiction, with commercialization opportunities being shown on TV and in Movies before we even landed on the moon. Today, however, we are beginning to see the early signs that the commercialization of space is accelerating towards reality, and VCs have taken notice. Starburst, Balerion Space, Seraphim, Space Angels, invest exclusively in space tech, and most deep-tech VCs have started investing in space, including DFJ, Future Ventures, TechStars, Khosla, Lux, In-Q-Tel, DCVC, Bessemer, and Founders Fund. The space industry is already a $430Bn annual industry, largely supported by governments, but that is rapidly shifting to commercial enterprises.
The most obvious area in which space commercialization has taken places is in “launch”, what the layman would refer to as rockets. SpaceX has lead the way in rapidly reusable first stage rockets, and is in active development of fully reusable rockets. This has not only dramatically reduced the cost of launching into orbit, but also increased the cadence of launch and the number of annual launches. SpaceX is not the only player in launch, with other entrants like RocketLab, Relativity Space, Firefly, Blue Origin, and Vector (amongst others) creating what is colloquially called “new space”.
Competition in launch paired with new technologies to reduce the size and weight of satellites has lead to dramatically lower costs to launch a satellite, and enabled a new generation of space-borne businesses. These lower costs and increased capabilities have created an exponential growth in the number of satellites in earth orbit, the vast majority of the growth coming from commercial sectors.
The proliferation of low cost satellites has also opened new markets and new buyers of space tech. Traditionally, space was a domain only for science, espionage, and communications. Today new industries are looking to space as a unique asset to sell. Space tourism is the most well reported of these industries, but in-orbit manufacturing, although less sexy, is a much larger opportunity. The unique conditions of low earth orbit can enable the manufacture of new drugs and materials impossible to make on earth. For example, materials can crystalize in unique crystal structures that cannot form under the influence of gravity. Furthermore, manufacturing in the vacuum of space enables a level of purity impossible in even the most extreme clean rooms on earth.
Varda launched its first space factory in July, testing new manufacturing techniques for complex drugs in microgravity, and is awaiting FAA clearance to return the results of this mission. Axiom Space, which has already launched space tourists on Falcon 9 rockets, is designing and building its first space station for in-orbit manufacturing, with a focus on novel alloys, fiber optics, and 3D bioprinting. Space Forge is similarly developing a satellite for production of high-purity silicon wafers, novel drugs, and new alloys.
As more companies look to build in space, opportunities arise to monetize those satellites using the “picks and shovels” or “Levis jeans” approach discussed in previous months articles. Launch, as discussed previously, is one area where companies can provide a necessary service horizontally across space segments in order to get payloads into space. Innovations in satellite design, however, have come more recently. Cubesats, small inexpensive satellites, have been a major source of growth in the satellite industry, and have benefitted from open source designs that anyone can use, such as PyCubed and OreSat. For larger satellites and interplanetary missions, RocketLab has created the Photon satellite bus, that takes care of power, propulsion, and avionics.
So why should LG care about space? Although spacetech may seem like a niche industry today, it is rapidly growing, with some analysts estimating it reaching trillion dollar revenues by the end of the decade. But LG doesn’t need to jump heads first into building its own satellites to benefit from this growth.
Collaborating with open source small sat projects and bus designers could help LG design and test a suite of space-rated components, from cameras to batteries to circuit boards, all rated for the radiation, vacuum, and temperature swings of space, and become a de-facto supplier of these components.
Partnering with orbital broadband providers like Lynk Global can grant stranded cellular subscribers access to internet anywhere, anytime, (including in the middle of the ocean or in war zones) with no additional hardware or modifications. Stationary dish-based providers like Starlink can provide redundant backhaul for cell towers
In-orbit manufacturing startups may be great early partners for testing novel manufacturing techniques for high-cost compounds with extreme purity requirements, or in designing novel catalysts for earth-based chemical applications.
And of course, any talk of space commercialization for LG would be remiss without mention of Danuri (also known as Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter or KPLO), which launched on a Falcon 9 earlier this year to identify promising sites for mining water, Helium-3, Uranium, and other valuable minerals.