Science

Now, companies globally are out to pluck money from space

M Ramesh Chennai | Updated on September 08, 2019 Published on September 07, 2019

From ‘ash releases’ to experiments and data banks, there’s much happening outside Earth

Celestis, a company based in Houston, Texas, is into a rather interesting, even if a bit morbid, business. It offers its customers what it somewhat fancifully calls ‘memorial spaceflights’. You can give them an urn of ashes of a deceased friend or a relative, and they will shoot it off to space.

But why on the earth — or space — would you want to do it? Because, if the deceased was, say, a space aficionado, you might want to give him/her a final joy-ride into his/her favoured frontiers.

Celestis offers four kinds of joy-rides: just go up and come back to earth (the urn will be given back to the customer), keep orbiting the earth, orbit the moon, or, just shoot off into space — the urn will keep going, cutting across the solar system and into the deep darkness beyond. These are priced between $2,495 and $12,500.

If the deceased is buried and not cremated, no worries; a DNA sample will fly.

If you are thinking, ‘Oh, what a terrible business model’, think again. Celestis has been in business since 1994.

In its first flight, in 1997, among the ‘passengers’ were the ashes of Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek. Years later, when Gene’s wife Majel died, the couple again flew, this time together.

Out-of-earth experience

Celestis is an example of how, with imagination, one can pluck money from space. The company just tapped into a sentiment and created a business opportunity.

When you read the testimonials of those who ‘sent up’ their dead, the idea doesn’t seem too outlandish. For instance, somebody who’s space-crazy teenaged son died might feel a sense of fulfilment in giving the boy a joy-ride as a final gift.

Many other enterprises are coming up with ideas as seemingly crazy as Celestis’.

Take, for instance, Japanese start-up ALE will create a meteor shower over the region of your choice, for entertainment — the spectacle can be seen over a large area, up to 200 km in diameter. They do this by sending up satellites loaded with tiny, pebble-like particles that burn when they re-enter the atmosphere.

ALE aims to get into business next year, probably synchronous with the Tokyo Olympics.

Customers? “Our customers are general companies such as entertainment, media, advertising companies, but we are also considering individual customers,” the company’s Public Relations Officer Mariko Yamasaki told BusinessLine by email.

Computing power

Finding new applications for satellites is the latest mega-trend in space.

This has become possible because of the big jump in computing power in the recent years and “unprecedented modularisation in satellite and mission planning,” according to Vishesh Rajaram, Managing Partner, Speciale Incept, a company that runs a venture fund that has invested in several Indian space start-ups.

German company Orbit Oracle Technologies intends to send up over a hundred shoebox-sized satellites designed to give very early alerts on forest fires. Another company wants to synthesise a type of protein in a satellite because, down here, gravity affects the process.

The provision of internet and user-specific weather data are big businesses today.

Apart from Amazon and Boeing, which plan to send 3,000-odd satellites each, there are others such as OneWeb, SES and LeoSat that aim to provide internet to remote areas. As for weather data, there are again dozens of companies.

A Chennai-based company that grows corn, which has requested not to be named, wants a constellation of satellites for its exclusive use. And, there are companies that want to keep data banks in space, where it is safer from hacking, and companies that use satellites to keep an eye on ships and airplanes.

A Morgan Stanley report projects that the internet-related space business will see $410 million in revenues by 2040.

As a corollary of the satellite boom, a number of rocket companies have emerged. US-based Rocket Lab is ahead in the race, having already launched 35 satellites over seven launch missions in the last two years from its launch-pad in New Zealand.

The company’s founder and CEO, Peter Beck, observes that today’s “highly capable, faster and cost-effective satellites provide resiliency in numbers.”

Booking a launch

In an emailed communication, Beck told BusinessLine that the order of the day is to make a large number of small satellites that have shorter life-spans, leading on to better opportunities for innovations. Rocket Lab is licensed to launch 120 times a year from its launch-pad. The company has “monthly launches scheduled for the rest of the year”, Beck said, adding that its rockets are “booking up fast”.

There aren’t enough rockets to take up the satellites. Chennai-based rocket start-up Agnikul Cosmos says over a dozen satellite firms are talking to it. And, its first rocket is at least a year away. That is how big the space business is growing to be.

Published on September 07, 2019

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