How will the commercialisation of space affect our everyday life?
Updated: Nov 20
On Tuesday, Archangel Lightworks’ founder and CEO, Dan Sola, spoke at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, joined by Associate Professor Marc Ventresca, and an expert panel including Associate Fellow Eamonn Molloy, expert in NASA innovation Renee Rottner, space policy expert Greg Autry, and Catapult's COO Lucy Edge.
Marc Ventresca, Associate Professor at Oxford, kicked off the discussion on the growth of commercial space activity with the statement, "I think for a long time people have looked to the skies with both amazement and horror".
Mediator for the talk, Professor Lucas Kello, highlighted the contrast in how and why the space sector started, to its purpose and motivations today. "We have seen that space faring nations pursue very different organisational approaches in developing their domestic space sectors. The Russians during much of the Cold War era, for example, pursued a highly classified military industrial approach whereas by contrast the United States conquered much of its efforts on a purely civilian enterprise embodied by NASA”.
Greg added "I want to point out that the original intent of many of these rockets was to be frightening weapons technologies and then they were converted to space technologies".
Now we are experiencing the rapid commercialisation of the space economy. Lucas noted “We’re seeing an extraordinary situation where private companies such as SpaceX deliver for NASA the crew and supplies to the International Space Station”. This is seen as part of New Space, where private companies and entrepreneurs, including small companies like Archangel Lightworks, work to develop lower cost, more accessible space technology development.
"Currently upwards of 90% of data is simply thrown away, or never captured in the first place"
Dan Sola, Archangel Lightworks founder and CEO, explains the opportunity he saw when founding the company. “What we’ve been working on is developing solutions to what we see as these inevitable opportunities and inevitable contradictions looking at future trends. For us, that’s that the amount of data we produce continues to outstrip our ability to move it.” Later he highlighted the opportunities for bringing data down to the planet where people can use it, “however currently upwards of 90% of data is simply thrown away, or never captured in the first place.” Archangel Lightworks’ mission is to 100x the amount of data downloadable from space.
“Space isn’t just rockets, astronauts and aliens”
Eamonn explains how he got started in the space industry from working as a field botanist on the ground. “NASA started saying we have got lots of data (5 metre pixel scale) of forestry landcover all over the world. So we [field botanists] start saying why are we spending so much time walking around the field drawing maps when there’s a satellite whizzing overhead every 18hrs getting ground truth material for us? The Land Use Research Group became redundant except for those of us who retrained in ArcGIS to integrate this thematic data and map it. This led to a huge structural change in the way that scientific knowledge was produced, and this knowledge was being used to impact Government policy on land use change.”
Eamonn went on to explain how he is using this data today “I am doing work with the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency on how they better use satellite data, particularly open source, to improve harvesting but also tracking things like migration patterns of animals and birds.” Emphasising the importance of ground truthing, Eamonn reminded us “space isn’t just rockets, astronauts and aliens".
"How do you create a resilient food supply for your nations when the climate is changing? ...Using space technology, you can start to see how you can create decision ready data"
Lucy Edge, COO of Catapult Satellite Applications also based on the Harwell Campus with Archangel Lightworks, gives further examples of how this satellite data can be used to improve food security, climate change resilience and emergency response:-
“I’ll start off with food security supply chain issue. We are working with a number of major supermarket chains led by Sainsburys and we are looking at the really significant issue that is going to come out which is the provenance of the food that we eat – if you eat beef, where did that cow come from? Was their deforestation associated with either the cow or the water or food it was consuming? That is a very real example of something that catapult is working on with real end users that you would never normally associate in a sentence with the space sector. We are looking at an option in the future where you can pick up some sushi and it will tell you where it is from, whether there was deforestation, is it net zero?”
Lucas added “On the question of sustainability, it’s not just a question of how space based activities can help us down here on earth solve sustainability issues and achieve things like the UN Sustainable Development Goals, it’s also involving the problem of sustainability within space sector itself, when you think about the thousands of objects in space and the increasing amount of debris...”
Discussing the issue of improving resilience to climate change in the Pacific Islands, Lucy explains “the real goal is to create a situation where the people that run those countries can make sensible decisions about where you can place crops, how do you create a resilient food supply for your nations when the climate is changing?”
The impact of climate change, from rising sea levels to extreme drought, is leading to an increasing number of people being displaced, referred to as ‘climate migrants’. In 2018, 17.2 million displacements associated with disasters were recorded (United Nations, 2019). Lucy stresses the importance of needing accurate data “Populations will need to be relocated – you need to get this right! Using space technology, you can start to see how you can create decision ready data.”
Archangel Lightworks is working to increase the amount of data available to people. As Dan mentioned, 90% of potential high value data is currently lost. Traditional radio links are a constraint for the growth of space data. Lasers offer significantly higher bandwidth, with data rates of 10Gbps available today but are limited by clouds. Archangel Lightworks’ High Altitude Lasers bypass cloud, giving data links connecting hybrid architectures of space, ground and airborne assets. This innovative solution provides capacity for 100x more data to be downloaded into the hands of those who need it most to tackle these global challenges discussed, from building climate change resilience in Fiji to empower local decision makers, to enabling consumers in the UK to make more informed food decisions by tracking the origin of their sandwich.
Lucy closed the conversation by saying “if we can make access to imagery data as accessible and as reachable to entrepreneurs as reachable to entrepreneurs as location data is, then the options are endless in terms of the number of spin offs and ideas that come out of it".
Watch the full talk here:
Via Saïd Business School, University of Oxford on YouTube