While Europeans were focused on the Brexit vote, others, further west, were gazing toward a more celestial horizon, and a new world of commercial possibilities.
At Mojave, California, Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, unveiled his ambitious plan to launch satellites into orbit from the world’s biggest airplane, which is currently under construction and scheduled for lift-off in 2020.
A twin-fuselage behemoth as wide as a football field and powered by six 747 engines, the Stratolaunch, complete with its 60 miles of electrics, is designed to carry a rocket attached to its central undercarriage.
The rocket would be set to ignite its engines and launch itself into orbit at 35,000ft.
Part of Mr Allen’s Vulcan Aerospace company, the Stratolaunch will propel a series of satellites into a permanent, low Earth orbit, from which an enhanced range of internet options will be offered, including detailed ground imagery and climate data.
“When access to space is routine, innovation will accelerate in ways beyond what we can currently imagine,” Mr Allen said.
One of a number of high-profile billionaires who are looking to ‘the final frontier’ for commercial opportunities, Mr Allen likens this new space race to previous technological developments that are now taken for granted.
“Thirty years ago, the PC revolution put computing power into the hands of millions and unlocked incalculable human potential,” he said.
“Twenty years ago, the advent of the web, and the subsequent proliferation of smartphones, combined to enable billions of people to surmount the traditional limitations of geography and commerce. Today, expanding access to low Earth orbit holds similar revolutionary potential.”
Last year, the commercial aerospace industry attracted increased attention from venture capital firms and Fortune 500 companies, accumulating more private investment than it did in the previous 15 years.
The Satellite Industry Association’s recent ‘State of the Industry Report’ showed steady growth throughout 2015. Globally, 2015 revenues totalled just over $208bn (€188bn), led by the satellite services segment.
The growing importance of the industry is underlined by the continued increase in the number of operational satellites in orbit, at 1,381 as of the end of 2015, compared to 986 in 2011.
“With overall growth remaining consistent, plus double-digit growth in both satellite broadband and Earth-observation revenues, last year was another significant and positive year for the satellite industry,” said Tom Stroup, president of SIA.
While Mr Allen’s enormous Stratolaunch is destined to garner a significant amount of media interest, he will not be alone on his journey to the last frontier.
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, intends developing his SpaceX project, from its current task of designing and manufacturing advanced rockets and spacecraft, to an ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets, specifically Mars.
Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, established his Blue Origin programme in 2000 to “increase private human access to space” at a reliable and lower cost. Virgin Galactic, the privately-funded space company owned by Richard Branson, unveiled its SpaceShipTwo last February, launched by Professor Stephen Hawking.
Earlier this year, Enterprise Ireland signed an agreement with the European Space Agency to develop an Irish Space Business Incubation Centre, with the objective of supporting 25 start-up companies in space-related technologies over the next five years.
There are currently over 45 Irish companies working with the ESA, in the development of technologies for the global market.
The Government’s annual investment in ESA has resulted in significant growth in the sector, generating revenues of €75m in 2015. The sector supports 600 high-value technology jobs.
“Global space economy is undergoing rapid change, as more countries enter the 21st century space race,” said ESA director general, Jan Woerner.
“Given the high level of technology innovation we have seen in Ireland, Irish space companies are ideally placed to gain a significant share of the global space market and are already expanding rapidly into it,” he said.
Membership of the ESA provides Ireland’s businesses with access to a €5bn-a-year technology development organisation, unequalled anywhere outside of NASA.
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