Tugboats In Space

Despite the fact that even Lance Bass doesn't seem to have enough money to go, there are some successful commercial space activities.

Space manufacturing, and space tourism and entertainment, won't really take off until the necessary investments are made in high flight-rate, low-cost launch systems--systems that will make affordable the movement of the large amounts of mass necessary to make them happen.

But because space launch remains extremely expensive, the only commercial ventures, so far, that have been successful are those that can generate large amounts of revenue with the delivery of a relatively small amount of mass to space. Fortunately, there's a valuable commercial product that can be produced in space, and cheaply delivered to and from there, because it has very low mass. In fact, it has zero rest mass. They're called photons, the stuff of light and...telecommunications.

Bandwidth has long since become a commodity, and in today's market, communications satellites are almost a license to print money.

Once properly stationed in geostationary orbit, positioned far above a single point on the earth's equator, a single transponder on one can lease for millions of dollars per year. Since the typical satellite has a dozen or more such transponders, the revenue from one can generate tens of millions of dollars per year, and even at high launch costs, still pay for itself very quickly.

However, the high value of a transponder-year is a double-edged sword. Even a month's delay in launch can correspondingly mean a loss of many millions of dollars of revenue for its operator.

For this reason, launch operators compete on many factors other than the pure price of the launch. A satellite owner will cheerfully pay a 10 million dollar premium to have his satellite delivered two months earlier. Similarly, he'll pay a lot to make sure that it gets safely to its designated spot, because even at high launch costs, the launch is still a small fraction of the total cost of building, delivering and operating a modern communications satellite.

This is a factor that has made it very difficult for new entrants in the satellite launch market, because the market isn't very large, and the existing customers are very wary of unproven providers. This is one reason that I encourage anyone who wants to change the launch paradigm to go after unconventional markets--the existing market just doesn't want to play.

There is, however, one area in which they may welcome new approaches, because they can represent low risk, with a very high payoff.

For reasons already stated, getting a satellite up sooner is not the only schedule parameter of interest. At the end of life, providing just a few additional weeks of satellite life can also be worth millions.

One other feature that launch providers compete with is payload capability to geostationary orbit (the location of most comsats). That's because even a few extra pounds can allow the operator to load more propellant for keeping the satellite "on station" and for pointing it. Pointing the satellite, and keeping it on station, are both necessary to allow it to operate and to extend its useful revenue-generating life.

There have been many concepts studied over the years for extending the useful life of comsats, but most of them involved changing the design of the satellite itself (e.g., to allow refueling or propellant tank changeout). The owners weren't willing to spend the money on these changes, given that the capability wasn't proven. But one of the concepts that NASA and its contractors had considered in the past was an orbital "tug" that could keep the "bird" in position, point it, and even move it into a safe parking orbit, above geosynchronous, when it had become so degraded that it was obsolete and needed to be replaced by another in its designated slot.

So what's new?

As opposed to simply studying it, someone is actually funding the idea. With private money.

The money comes from Walt Anderson, a long-time guardian angel of space entrepreneurs. He funded the failed Rotary Rocket company, and more recently, Mircorp, which has been working mightily (but perhaps in vain) to get Lance Bass into space.

He's uniquely qualified for such a venture, having both the money and the knowledge, because he made his fortune in space telecommunications. He's an excellent example of the old aphorism, "...if you want to make a small fortune in the space business, start with a large one..."

He admits that he makes money on the telecom side so that he can spend it on the space side, with the hope that one of his bets will pay off.

This looks like a good one. One of the interesting aspects of the concept is that it's one of the first commercial applications of ion propulsion. While it sounds Star Trekkish, this is a means of providing extremely efficient propellant economy to a spacecraft, by using ions accelerated to very high velocities and the energy of the sun to power it, rather than conventional rocket propellants which most satellites use. So the system can do the job with much less mass, or conversely: for a given amount of propellant, it can provide a "walker" for an aging comsat well into its dotage.

My only concern is that once the big boys (i.e., Boeing-Hughes) figure out that it's a potential gold mine, they'll go after it themselves. With their infinitely-larger financial resources, they can run the newcomer into the ground.

But they're not as spry, and there's a big market, so I think that there's a good chance that Walt will win out. But even if he doesn't, he may still find a profitable niche, and he got the conventional industry off their duffs.  That's what competition, and free enterprise, are all about.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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