The New Space era and its synergies with aviation

What is “New Space”?

The space industry is undergoing a profound transformation underpinned by new digital technologies and business models often referred to “New Space”. The modern space age was initiated in the 1950s during the cold war and has been historically focusing on defence applications and dominated by institutional actors. This New Space age is populated by new aerospace companies, launching space missions at a pace never seen before with the main objective of providing commercial services at global level. This is enabled by technological progresses, making it cheaper than ever to produce and launch small satellites forming constellations at Low Earth Orbits (LEO) around the earth.

The trend revealed by numbers is scaring: LEO satellite launches in the last three years have been equivalent to the cumulative numbers of launches in the previous 2 decades, with more than 2,100 satellites since 2018, compared to the 2,100 in the period 1997-2017. And this is just the beginning of a myriad of launches from hundreds of companies around the world, led by Elon Musk’s SpaceX which represents the 60% of the total payload launches in a LEO for the 2020 year with more than 700 launches.

Figure 1. Number of yearly payload launches in LEO. Source ESA

But, what really is New Space? The concept remains quite fuzzy, because the commercialization of space activities and the use of miniaturized technology such as CubeSats as space assets has been a reality since decades. Commercial space has been present since the early 60s with missions covering a broad range of applications such as broadcast television, satellite radio, and satellite mobile communications and therefore it cannot be considered as a defining trait of the New Space concept.

It is really about the new business models, starting from funding which is mainly driven by private capital sources in contrast to the main public funding programs supporting traditional space practices. However, New Space is not only a shift regarding the privatisation aspect of the space industry but also a shift in the utilisation of new downstream services, where space assets are not the main factor in defining a mission. Rather the service delivery model and the management of the whole company structure are at the core, following new agile principles permitting constant evolution based on a modular space infrastructures. Technology supports the second pillar of New Space, in particular through innovative approaches to product development and manufacturing processes, thanks to massive use of Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) products, reducing upfront investment costs and the miniaturisation of components reducing the cost of launches, which in turn reduce financial risks and deployment times. Although CubeSats are not a unique feature of New Space, many initiatives are choosing them to deliver all the mission requirements while keeping the costs low.

Figure 2. Main differences between Traditional Space and New Space

The opportunities

The type of services that the New Space concept enables is immense: the easy access to space opens the door to a myriad of projects and initiatives that are impossible to list. However they can be broadly categorised into commercial and governmental.

As of today, the most common commercial service is the provision of high-speed broadband internet access to remote areas. This type of service is being highly contested by the already working solution of Starlink, by SpaceX, the future project Kuiper by Amazon, and the OneWeb project by Airbus, with the common purpose of delivering high-speed internet access to any remote area at a competitive price. Another service that is expected to gain a lot of popularity is the provision of space-based 5G coverage in dead zones. The proliferation of these services will enable future effective use of the IoT which is expected to have an impact in multiple areas, like autonomous vehicles and smart cities to name a few.

As for the governmental counterpart, there are a plethora of services, which are considered crucial for both defence and public applications, based on the provision of reliable, resilient, secure, and cost-effective end-to-end communications, from the final user, up to the ground and space segments. Currently three service families can be identified for governmental services.

  • Surveillance: Involving the land and maritime border surveillance and detection of illegal activities,
  • Crisis management and external actions: Includes a range of activities ranging from Search and Rescue (SAT) missions, response to humanitarian crisis, and support to police and civil protection units,
  • Connecting key infrastructure: Communications for transport infrastructure (air, road, rail, and maritime traffic management, for EU Space infrastructure (EGNOS, Galileo, Copernicus)…

However, governments do not limit their necessities to security purposes but also look forward to improve the quality of life of their citizens through the provision of broadband coverage for the population living in dead zones where internet access is non-existent. The European Union is very ambitious in this regard, as testified in the new flagship Space-based Global Secure Connectivity programme, launched to reinforce the EU space programme for the years 2021-2027 and the Commission’s Action Plan (COM(2021) 70 final) with the strategic objective for Europe of becoming technologically sovereign in the Space domain.

Figure 3. Illustrative representation of New Space services for Commercial and governmental applications

How aviation will benefit from New Space

Focusing on the aviation market, the implementation of new space-based initiatives is expected to bring a series of benefits to air transport. In particular for the provision of communication, and surveillance services at global level, enhancing the safety and efficiency of air traffic. There are already a number of important initiatives ongoing devoted to provide services to aviation.

For air/ground communication, the Iridium aviation solution, composed from 66 satellites in LEO, already offers the provision of Air Traffic Service (ATS)/Airline Operational Communications (AOC) and passenger services with the possibility of hosting additional payload (i.e. ADS-B service, already used by Aireon). On the other side, and started in 2008 by the ESA, Satellite Communication for Air Traffic  Management (IRIS) aims at providing a safe and secure text-based data link between pilots and air traffic controllers using satellite technology. This is part of the European Commission’s Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) masterplan to modernise Europe’s air traffic management.

For air traffic tracking, the Aireon solution is operational, relying on an ADS-B payload embedded on 66 Iridium Next Satellites on a LEO. Aireon’s ADS-B complies with the ICAO Global Aeronautical Distress Safety System (GADSS) standard, launched after the losses of Air France 447 and Malaysia Airlines 370 flights. GADSS enables the Aircraft Tracking, Autonomous Distress Tracking, and Post Flight Localization and Recovery functions.

The Startical initiative on the other hand aims at providing integrated communication and tracking services to air traffic since its conception. It consists of the creation of a LEO satellite constellation for innovation in the provision of air navigation services, with a collaboration between Indra and the Spanish aeronautical services provider, Enaire. Startical will provide pilot-controller voice and data communications and aeronautical surveillance ADS-B services globally through the deployment of 240 nano-satellites. With an expected launch in 2026, the implementation of this initiative will improve air traffic safety, capacity, and efficiency. The initiative will also provide global coverage, serving areas where there is currently no radar coverage. In addition and as opposed to Aireon’s solution, the Startical initiative will provide an extra safety feature against malicious attacks to the ADS-B signal (jamming and spoofing) by adding multi lateration techniques. This technique uses the ADS-B measurements from different sources (satellites) and triangulates the position of the object (aircraft) to ensure that signals are genuine and emitted by real aircraft.

The need for a Space traffic Management

This run to the New Space is not exempt from challenges, in particular space congestion caused by the exponential increase in space traffic. At present, over 7500 active satellites are orbiting the Earth, but, as the New Space practice becomes more popular, the population could increase exponentially, increasing the possibility of collisions with the further possibility of initiating the Kessler effect. This situation needs to be addressed accordingly and by consequence will raise future challenges in space traffic management and situational awareness. At EU level the Commission has recently launched two projects tackling the challenges and benefits of having a Space Traffic Management (STM) systems set up:  SPACEWAYS which will provide recommendations on STM evolution from concepts to industrialization, taking into account the evolution of legislation, and its impacts on technologies, space infrastructure and satellite operations. And EUSTM that will analyse the current STM support competences in Europe and define the related needs for an autonomous European STM capability.

In particular the Air Traffic Management (ATM) capabilities can provide a reliable success story, based on the track records of safety and the long evolution it underwent since its foundations. Its intertwined structure of governance at policy and operational level involve hundreds of different entities at global and local scales that work in a seamless way. Similar principles and working structures should be inherited by the STM, to guarantee that there is global coordination and cooperation on a global scale, which is a prerequisite to ensure the maximum levels of safety, security and efficiency of the overall system.

Regional agencies such as EUROCONTROL are already providing airspace management coordination functions across several Member States at regional level in Europe when space launches occur. This requires closing an airspace to air traffic to ensure safety, an activity that needs to planned in advance and run through well agreed procedures and systems.

The New Space run has just started and the next decade will be crucial in defining the rules for the system to be sustainable, safe and efficient, while ensuring that people can benefit from new services, enabled by a global level playing field, a necessary condition for the industry to remain competitive in such a global business, where the sky is really not the limit…


About the authors
Andrea Ranieri is PhD in Operations Research and Senior Manager at ALG.
David Sabiron is MSc in Aeronautical Engineering and Analyst at ALG.

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