Sky busters
© SpaceX
April 2021

Sky busters

By Lars Krone
Space exploration has been a technological trailblazer from the outset. Now it’s receiving an extra boost by powerful private-sector competitors and innovative start-ups.

Flying to the stars has always fascinated humans. Even as far back as in the second century AD, Lucian of Samosata, the most renowned Syrian satirist in Antiquity, in a “True Story 1” wrote about a trip to the Moon. Jules Verne’s novels “From the Earth to the Moon” (1865) and “Around the Moon” (1870) were worldwide bestsellers. The stories that were seen as purely utopian at the time would become a reality due to rapid technological progress less than 100 years later.

But rather than romantic notions of space and adventurism the contest between the United States and the Soviet Union was the dominant driver. The “space race” between the two Cold War superpowers was mainly about prestige and clout, culminating in the American Apollo missions that actually took humans to the Moon in the years between 1969 and 1972. The effort and costs invested in these projects were so huge that only nations could shoulder them. As many as 400,000 people, for instance, were involved in the Apollo program the costs of which amounted to far more than 100 billion U.S. dollars.

The private sector is conquering space

However, when the Cold War ended, if not earlier, space exploration changed course. The importance of costly, crewed projects was decreasing while the demand for launch and satellite systems was steadily increasing. NASA and company have long ceased to be able to cover this demand and private-sector companies have established themselves on the market. Even as far back as in 1997, the launch sites in Florida saw more commercial than government-contracted rocket launches for the first time.

The number of satellites illustrates the magnitude of the demand for launch systems. Whereas in 2018 around 1,900 satellites were orbiting the Earth, at the end of 2020 there were 3,372 – an increase by 77 percent. A look at the sales figures illustrates the economic importance of the space sector as well: in 2019, the space industry generated 366 billion U.S. dollars in sales revenue, according to statistics of the German Economic Institute (IW), and the Morgan Stanley investment bank estimates it to increase to more than one trillion U.S. dollars by 2040.

Sky busters
From an IT driver to a beneficiary

The strides made in information and communications technology (ICT) are the key factor accounting for the rapid rise of private-sector space activities. “Fifty years ago, it was space that paved the way for the ICT industry. It is now the ICT industry which is setting the pace in the space industry. The dynamism of the ICT sector is far higher than in the traditional space industry, driven by a short generation cycle of 2 to 3 years, highly competitive and innovative pressure in mass markets, and the increasingly broader digitalization of the global economy and the private world,” says a study commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi). In the digital age, space exploration is the key to forward-thinking technologies such as autonomous driving, communications, Industry 4.0 and Big Data applications. For the power of judgment and the capacity to act in the context of foreign and defense policy and for climate protection, it’s indispensable.

11 years

after its so far last recruiting campaign, the European Space Agency (ESA) is looking for astronauts again, hoping that the proportion of female applicants will be clearly above the previous rate of just 16 percent. For the first time, the search also explicitly includes applicants with physical impairments. Applications can still be submitted until May 28.

By now, private-sector companies have become fixtures in space exploration and revolutionized it to some extent. Their advantages include greater agility and innovation than the former, sluggish government space agencies. “Many founders of the American NewSpace companies come from the IT industry and use the experience and financial means generated from their previous start-ups. Their business philosophy is characterized by the focus on developing products and services in line with demand, challenging the status quo, promoting innovative ideas out of the box, strictly adhering to costs,” the BMWi study continues.

SpaceX is regarded as a flagship company. Founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, the Americans are pursuing ambitious goals such as the Starlink project with which the billionaire and electric car pioneer is planning to establish satellite-based world-spanning broadband internet access. By the middle of March 2021, SpaceX has launched as many as 21 rockets with nearly 1,600 satellites into orbit. The pace at which the company has been proceeding is impressive, with the network being enlarged by 120 satellites per month. Plans are for placing into low Earth orbit a total of 12,000 satellites with laser links between them for inter-satellite communication of data received from ground stations within the next few years.

Sky busters
Many private-sector companies are pursuing activities in space tourism. The first hotel in space, called the Voyager Station, is planned to be opened as early as in 2025© Orbital Assembly Corporation
Rockets from 3D printers

With its Falcon and Falcon Heavy models, SpaceX has become the world leader in terms of rocket launches by now, having displaced the previously established Arianespace consortium. The benefit of the Falcons is that their components – including 3D-printed ones – are mass-produced and reusable, which clearly cuts costs. Now, even national space agencies are relying on the rockets. Since 2012, SpaceX spacecraft have been delivering cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) and in May 2020, a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft docked to the ISS with astronauts on board for the first time. However, reaching for the stars continues to be Elon Musk’s big aim: SpaceX is in the process of developing reusable rockets and spacecraft intended to enable crewed flights to the Moon and later to Mars. Musk’s dream is to conduct not only scientific research and exploration for raw materials but to permanently colonize the Red Planet.

Other billionaires besides Musk who are willing to take risks have developed a fascination for space. However, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic are still lagging behind in terms of technology. Bezos is planning a satellite network enabling broadband internet access in remote regions as well, while Branson’s Virgin Galactic space company is seeing its opportunities primarily in space tourism, also with reusable spacecraft. However, they’re planned to be air-launched by carrier aircraft to an altitude of nearly 14 kilometers (8.7 miles), where they’d be released for subsequent space travel powered by their own rocket engines and return to Earth. Online, around 8,000 people have already indicated their interest in the two-hour space flights costing 250,000 U.S. dollars and some 600 tickets have been sold to date. The candidates for the space flight include Leonardo DiCaprio and Justin Bieber, but the date on which the flights will start has not been determined yet. Going forward, Branson is already planning tourist flights around the Moon.

Sky busters
Impressively small: the ion thrusters for satellites from Morpheus Space© Morpheus Space
Small’s big potential

Small, ambitious start-ups are seeing major opportunities of getting a foothold in space as well. While satellites used to be as large as buses and weigh several tons, today, compact mini, micro and nano satellites, some of which tip the scales at less than 10 kilograms (22 lbs.), are predominantly used. That’s a crucial criterion for price-conscious space travel considering the fact that any additional weight incurs extra costs. Currently, 30,000 to 60,000 euros per kilogram (2.2 lbs.) are charged for any rocket launch. The rapidly changing requirements and framework conditions create ideal prerequisites for small, efficient companies that are able to respond to the demands of the market quickly. The Bavarian Isar Aerospace company that, with just 150 employees, is creating the first launch vehicle made in Germany is an example of such start-ups. The launch vehicle’s maiden flight is scheduled for the end of 2021. A zest for innovation is a hallmark of Morpheus Space as well. The company based in Saxony produces the world’s smallest and most efficient satellite propulsion systems weighing merely a few hundred grams. One of the objectives pursued by Morpheus Space that was founded by students at TU Dresden is to mitigate the generation of space debris and to enable more sustainable space travel. “For the first time, we provide even the smallest satellites with the means of being actively controlled and the ability to dodge collisions with other satellites,” says CEO and co-founder Daniel Bock. “As a result, they no longer pose a hazard to other satellites – these small satellites used to orbit in a totally uncontrolled manner.” Forbes magazine ranks Morpheus among the most important “Spin-offs to watch 2021.”

257 men and 51 women

have been sent into space by the United States so far, equating to a rate of 63.5 percent of all persons who have looked at the Earth from outer space ever since the beginning of crewed space travel in 1961. Russia, with 118 male and female cosmonauts, ranks in second place. With twelve astronauts (10 men and two women), Japan trails Russia in third place, ahead of China and Germany. Germany is the only country so far to have only deployed men on space missions.

Floating launch pads

Due to the requirements of the NewSpace movement, there’s a growing demand for mobile launch pads. Offshore platforms are ideally suited for avoiding conurbations, so Germany, for instance, is planning to establish a spaceport in the North Sea, a project that’s enabled by clearly smaller carrier systems with light-weight satellites. Locations close to the equator are no longer necessary due to lower system weight. “Times in the history of space travel have seldom been as exciting as these,” says Marco R. Fuchs, CEO of OHB SE, Germany’s first publicly traded technology and space corporation. “Start-ups pursuing serious plans of commercially conquering space are virtually mushrooming. As a ‘start-up with life experience’ we’re able to serve the established market and respond to new challenges in fast and agile ways.”

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The reusable rockets from SpaceX land on offshore platforms – an idea that is becoming a trend© SpaceX

However, not only private-sector companies are developing new space projects. New nations are edging into the market, too. While China by now has launched several projects of its own and is planning a lunar station together with Russia, other nations have ambitious plans as well. Israeli and Indian space capsules have already reached the Moon but were unable to complete their missions. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are planning to develop a high-tech industry of their own to prepare for a future without fossil resources. Clearly, even after centuries of dreaming about forays into the universe, the subject still has plenty of potential for imagination – or to quote Jules Verne: “Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real.”

Flying high

With Schaeffler Aerospace GmbH, the Schaeffler Group has been an important partner for aerospace companies with a worldwide customer base for more than half a century. In 1969, the year of the first crewed Moon landing, the “aircraft bearings product division” was established at then FAG Kugelfischer with dedicated sales and development functions. The products from the new business segment soon convinced customers of their viability. In 1972, the Airbus A300 with FAG ball bearings took off for its maiden flight and in the following years the company expanded its cooperation with nearly all renowned aircraft engine manufacturers. Today, almost all aircraft use bearings from Schaeffler’s aerospace division based in Schweinfurt.

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The Orion spacecraft of Schaeffler’s partner NASA is planned to fly to the Moon in a few years’ time© NASA

In the mid-1990s, the move into space followed, in which Cronidur 30 played a key role. The material was developed in 1991 together with VSG Energie- und Schmiedetechnik Essen and the University of Bochum. Compared to conventional bearing steel, this specially hardened high-performance steel has a variety of benefits: it has ten times longer life and surpasses conventional bearing steel in terms of corrosion resistance and elevated- temperature hardness as well, which makes it ideally suited for space applications. Since 1995, Cronidur 30 has been used in specialty rolling bearings for turbo pumps in rocket engines, including those of the launch vehicles for NASA’s Artemis project. The injectors generate pressures of up to 450 bar (6,500 psi) while the turbines in the pumps rotate at speeds of up to 35,000 rpm – without being lubricated with grease or oil because the liquid hydrogen fuel is cooled down to a temperature of –200 degrees centigrade (–328 °F), which is too cold for fluid lubrication. On the other hand, these cold temperatures at least prevent overheating.

But Schaeffler is one of NASA’s important partners not only in the field of propulsion systems. For the current Mars mission that landed on the Red Planet on February 18, the company supplies parts of the Skycrane descent module that set down the Perseverance rover on the planet’s surface. In the Artemis project that’s planned to take men (and the first woman) back to the Moon for the first time since 1972, Schaeffler is active in other areas as well. Schaeffler Aerospace, for instance, supplies parts for the Orion spacecraft.

Sky busters
The Perseverance rover has been exploring Mars with Schaeffler support since February 2021© NASA

A further expansion of the Aerospace business is emerging. “We’re observing the growing number of space projects with keen interest and, thanks to our expertise that has been growing over many decades especially in the areas of materials and manufacturing, are in discussion with many of the players,” says Armin Necker, Managing Director at Schaeffler Aerospace.