The conversation takes place on one of SpaceX's U.S. rocket launch pads, owned by billionaire Elon Musk.
"I congratulated him [Tesla's founder] on his ambition to reach Mars, something he was close to achieving," recalls a senior executive at a Spanish satellite company, who requested anonymity.
"What did you say?—.
- You didn't understand anything! Getting to Mars is not a complex issue, the mission of this company is to colonize," he snapped.
"Its purpose is to colonize the entire planet and exploit its natural resources," admits the manager.
This conversation shows the character of the Silicon Valley oligarch. Despite being "incomprehensible" it does not bluff. Tesla, X (formerly Twitter) and SpaceX are well-known colossi. Many analysts argue that Musk repeats the same monopolistic strategy of Big Tech. Someone with a fortune of 202,000 million dollars counts his money with the same disinterest as a child star. Although it leaves clues of what it pursues. "Between the three companies it is possible that you have in one head more real-time global economic data than anyone else," he tweeted in April.
He wants to transform the information on his ticket to hear the siren songs of distant Mars. Meanwhile, from Earth, industry and competition take off. Communication satellites – according to Morgan Stanley – generate about 70,000 million dollars a year (65,000 million euros) and observation satellites about 10,000 million (9,400 million euros). Numbers that will soon be so decimated that no one will remember. The consultancy Research and Markets launches a figure of 24,200 million in 2030. Very short for Euroconsult's calculations, which raises them, only in the area of communications, up to 123,000 million dollars (115,000 million euros) during 2032. For its part, Bank of America looks to a higher and more protective sky: it estimates that the revenues of the space economy will reach 1.4 trillion during that 2030. In fact, Matthew Weinzierl, an economist at Harvard Business School, believes that 95% of turnover will come from satellites. Especially from low orbits. "If geopolitical tensions don't get out of hand, the space is big enough to distribute benefits to everyone," he reflects.
But the current space has nothing to do with the one that President Kennedy conquered with the Apollo program in the sixties. Now follow the phrase of science fiction writer Robert Heinlein (1948-1988). "Once you get to Earth's orbit, you're halfway anywhere." Imagine space as overlapping layers. Low Earth orbit, called LEO (Low Earth Orbit), is between 500 and 1,000 kilometers from Earth. Here the great economic fight runs. There are also medium orbits (MEO), ranging from 2,000 to 36,000 kilometers, and from there the geostationary. It is the one used – satellites have the advantage of orbiting at the same speed as the Earth rotates on itself and the coverage of the planet is greater – by Spanish operators such as Hispasat and Hisdesat. The nearby ones are an unregulated terrain and nobody knows how many are operable. Some compare it to the Wild West. Others, such as Miguel Ángel Panduro, CEO of Hispasat, remember the oceans of the fifteenth century. "They lack rules, laws and there are pirates." "Every month we have to correct the orbit of our satellite Paz, either you move away or..." Below 300 kilometers run the very low Earth orbits (Very LEO, in English), every day, by the way, more crowded.
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Feb. 27, 2023, in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Joe Raedle (GETTY IMAGES)
Where Elon Musk lives is in low Earth orbit. His company, SpaceX, has found a way to build reusable heavy rockets. It launches the payload into orbit and they return safely. In 2019, it began sending smaller communications satellites. They weigh about 260 kilos. They resemble a flattened car, with a large panel that reflects sunlight. The New York Times nicknames them, because of their size, "flying sofas." Satellites communicate with terminals on Earth, so they can transmit high-speed internet to almost the entire globe. They provide a phone system called Starlink. Elon Musk controls half — about 1,300 — of the existing 2,600. However, it wants to reach 42,000. It has offered connection (download of 100 megabits per second) to 60 countries.
Undoubtedly, the technological oligarch dreams of a sky of constellations of flying sofas. "The big change is that they manage the entire chain: they manufacture the rockets, design the satellites [between 150 and 300 a month], operate them, create the applications and sell them directly to the user," summarizes Panduro. "And, in addition, with a different price in each country. It is the strategy of brute force. You have huge resources and you can even lose money until the rest of the companies can't take it anymore." Being a private firm, few know how much Musk earns or loses from the launch of one of his Falcon 9s. In theory, Starlink has 1,500,000 subscribers (airlines, cruise ships and telcos have flocked to it) and, several experts, estimate that the company subsidizes with $ 700 the cost of each Internet terminal.
Elon Musk would like to be alone in that low orbit. Of course, it controls it. But it has competition. Telesat Lightspeed, AST SpaceMobile, OneWeb, IRIS2 (European initiative) and, above all, Amazon's Kuiper seek its trajectory. In any case, it would seem that the space has become the playground of technological billionaires. It seems that only Jeff Bezos can get Musk down from the cloud. "Amazon has enormous potential. And in the end, the great competition comes down to the two tycoons," observes Stephane Terranova, CEO of Thales Alenia Space Spain. Bezos plans to provide Wi-Fi coverage through 3,236 satellites in low orbit. That number, the company advances, gives them the possibility to "fly the safest constellation [network] with the fewest satellites." For now, they haven't sent any. "Although we have secured 77 launches with heavy cargo thanks to Arianespace, ULA (United Launch Alliance) and Blue Origin [owned by Bezos]," narrate sources of the giant. And ditch: "Collectively it represents the largest launch vehicle purchase in history." The schedule proposes to start manufacturing the satellites at the end of 2023 and start the first tests in 2024. The devices last several years and will respect the uniqueness of each country. China does not like open and unregulated access to the internet.
Elon Musk, head of space company SpaceX, at the Axel Springer Award ceremony in Berlin, December 2020. Britta Pedersen (dpa/Age Fotosto
In this space race in LEO orbit, perhaps the last thing to be decided is money. "The goal should not be to find Planet-B, as Elon Musk once said. It's about focusing all attention on our life on Earth, and space is a place for new ideas," says Sophie Hackford, a researcher at the University of Oxford and co-founder of 1715 Labs, an artificial intelligence company. Sounds good. But reality shows a business that is not of this world. Especially if it is controlled by an erratic and incomprehensible billionaire. The reading is the opposite of that of the expert. "The satellite sector is an extremely strategic market and many countries are launching a new space race," observes Rolando Grandi, manager of the Echiquier Space fund. "Having a presence out there through these instruments allows a nation to have a robust communication system protected from attack on Earth." The lesson learned: there are no laws, it is the jungle, the wild West; they are the pirates in a raging sea in the fifteenth century.
Those low skies with passing clouds belong to the United States. For every Chinese satellite in orbit in May 2022, there were seven Americans. Classical physics. Every action is followed by a reaction. China is known to possess satellites with anti-satellite capability and Russia tested missiles against its own aircraft. The Asian giant has launched a bird with a robotic arm capable of capturing other satellites and placing explosives in the adversary's thrusters. The explosives explode over time and simulate an engine failure. Although the detonation is deaf, it is a war. The European Union spent 2.400 billion euros last year to build a constellation of satellites for civil and military purposes. With defensive purpose, Hispasat will launch two geostationary in a couple of years. And the phrase can be read both ways. The geopolitics of the world has changed the use of satellites. "India now has a multi-alignment strategy. Topic by topic. For example, it does not collaborate with Russia in space matters," describes Raquel Jorge, a researcher at the Elcano Royal Institute. Perhaps for this reason, the emerging colossus managed to land on the far side of the Moon and Russia crashed the rocket on its surface.
Just as satellites spin, so does this story, and it goes back to the Elon Musk problem. Almost every week, a SpaceX launcher (the startup's value is estimated at about $140 billion) loaded with Starlink satellites lifts off from Florida or California. Each bird is designed to last three and a half years. There are so many in orbit that they are sometimes confused with tears of St. Lawrence. This interferes with astronomical research. In 000 they tried to coat them with dark paint, but the improvement was minimal. There is no regulation or law that protects the aesthetics of the sky.
However, Musk's problem is even bigger. Starlink is often the only way to get internet access in remote areas or during natural disasters. It is used by the Ukrainian Army in its war against Russia. The 52-year-old billionaire with unclear loyalties has disabled — in the midst of the war — access to some terminals in Ukraine. He also refused to use marine drones to attack Russian ships docked in the Black Sea. Their reasons range from avoiding escalation to preventing a third world war. Last year he publicly laid out a "peace plan" for the invasion aligned with Russian interests. Alarmed, in June, the Pentagon had to buy 500 terminals and services so that Ukraine would not be left in the dark. "It's certainly been a long time since we've seen a company and an individual like this openly go against U.S. foreign policy in the midst of a war," Gregory C. Allen, a senior fellow in the strategic technologies program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The New York Times.
Because Musk, and his constant Armageddon rhetoric, breeds distrust. Taiwan bans its satellites because of ties it has with China. The tycoon said in a newspaper interview that one way to appease the country was to cede a part of its sovereignty. In those words something had to do with the fact that half of its new Teslas are produced in Shanghai. And Turkey in February rejected the billionaire's offer to provide access to Starlink after a major earthquake. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan extinguished any hint of criticism on the Internet. "Humanity as a whole needs to actively seek the growth of competitive services by nations that uphold the values of neutrality over censorship. If we don't, these platforms will become tools of foreign influence and intelligence gathering," warns Troy McCann, founder of Australian space incubator Moonshot. We must choose. Either we have Starlink or a liberal democracy. We must choose. Either we have Kuiper or a liberal democracy. "Because if they manage to monopolize the use of space we are absolutely in their hands," warns the head of Hispasat. That's where we're headed.
As has happened with solar panels, the price of space falls. The cost of commercial launches, according to NASA, to the International Space Station is already four times cheaper. The equivalent figure for low-Earth orbit is 20. Space shuttles have gone from $54,000 per kilo to $2,720. Little? Wait for Elon Musk's disruption with SpaceX. The Falcon 9 (2010) and Falcon Heavy (2018) have reduced the price to $1,140 per kilo. The cosmos seems closer and closer.
In addition, the military industry is Saturn devouring data. The firm Spire Global, which controls more than 100 constellations, mostly nanosatellites, that monitor the planet in near real time designed to disintegrate naturally, "has seen a sharp increase" — says Joel Spark, head of satellite architecture — "of purchases of commercial satellite data by governments for defense applications." The newly created U.S. Space Force has a budget of $24 billion, up from $000 billion in 5, when Trump inaugurated it. "There is a trend towards the militarization of space, which shows its strategic relevance," warns Stephan Klecha, founding partner of investment bank Klecha & Co. In a meeting with reporters in May at the U.S. Embassy in London, the Biden administration made it abundantly clear in The Guardian: "The U.S. is ready to fight tonight in space if necessary." Rod Drury, international vice president of Lockheed Martin Space, said: "The greatest weapon in the warfare of the future will be information, and satellites play an essential role. The speed with which information is acquired, disseminated and analyzed, and the speed with which important decisions can be made from it, will be critical to winning battles. Space has always been the essential point for collecting and disseminating information on a planetary scale, even in the most remote and conflictive areas."
Despite the misgivings, the relationship between Musk and the government runs deep. SpaceX obtained permission from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last December to deploy 7,500 low-orbit and second-generation satellites. Flat satellites – loaded on the launcher on top of each other – that allow 250 to be sent at a time.
Where would European sovereignty be if one looked through a telescope? Hidden among foreign constellations? "Space has become a hotly contested area and the EU must safeguard its vital interests," said Thierry Breton, Commissioner for Internal Market and Services. "Europe should not depend on the United States." The Old Continent had better take off quickly. Elon Musk has already launched Starshield. It offers more security for classified information and the processing of sensitive data. Even China complained to the United Nations this year that SpaceX was putting so many satellites into orbit that it prevented others from accessing space.
The European answer is the IRIS2 constellation (Airbus, Thales, SES, Hispasat and Hisdesat) which should be operational in 2027. How many thousands of satellites will Bezos, Musk or China have in space that year? The Old Continent recalls the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, when he looks at his pocket watch and shouts: "Oh God! Oh my God! I'm going to be late!"
No one can deny the Spanish effort in this race. The future Startical constellation (Indra and Naire) is a project of 200 satellites aimed at aeronautical applications of ATM (Air Traffic Management) and PLD Space (Elche) wants to revolutionize the rocket sector by sending satellites of up to 450 kilos into space. Will we arrive on time? The success (it has cost 300 million euros) of the Amazonas Nexus (Hispasat, Thales Alenia Space Spain, Sener and GMW, among others), with which "the digital divide in Spain is closed" -according to Nadia Calviño, acting vice president of the Government-, owes a lot to the white rabbit. "The key has been time: we launched it two years earlier than others; at the right time," says Panduro.
Has the time of Spain sounded? Because many do not want space to be that stained phrase of the last frontier of humanity, but a new wall. There are already too many on Earth. There is also a strong sense of prosperity protection. "The Defense, Security, Aeronautics and Space technology companies employ more than 200,000 people," estimates Domingo Castro, Director of Integrated Defense and Space Systems at Indra. "They are quality, highly specialized and stable positions." In addition, 70% of sales go abroad. The Spanish firm also participates in Copernicus with its catastrophe risk reduction and natural disaster services. We should remember that when space was born there was no time.
"Shall we speak at 8:30 in the morning? If you're an entrepreneur, schedules don't exist." Daniel Pérez holds a PhD in Plasma Physics and Nuclear Fusion and is CEO of Ienai Space. The Madrid start-up designs electric motors for satellites to correct their orbits and avoid colliding with each other. A bird launched on a Falcon 9 is placed in an orbit of 290 kilometers above the Earth and uses ion engines to reach the altitude (between 340 and 550 kilometers) where it can operate. Time again. That white rabbit. "The first one who arrives occupies the trajectory," admits the businessman. "For now we work with half of the market that does not control Starlink," he says.
A danger and a quantum risk
In 2021, the explosion covered its orbit with more than 1,500 fragments that could be monitored on American computers. "If you create that cloud of debris and it stays in orbit for decades, it's almost like detonating a nuclear weapon in your backyard," Jesse Morehouse, a brigadier general who heads U.S. Space Command, the military branch responsible for space operations, told the Guardian. "You pay the price too." In the worst-case scenario, these collisions can render Earth's orbit unusable. Astronomers call it Kessler syndrome (each collision would create even more space debris, which, in turn, would cause even more crashes, and so on) and became famous in the film Gravity (2013), by director Alfonso Cuarón.
But what is not projected in a movie theater, but in reality, are the 100 trillion pieces of ancient satellites that rotate uncontrollably up there. The journal Science says the industry's estimated growth could render large parts of Earth's orbit useless, and those who launch the satellites must be responsible for the debris they produce. Scientists at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) are working on a satellite control system, says Daniel Pérez, CEO of Ienai Space, a firm that manufactures electric thrusters, similar to the mechanism of slots (routes) of air traffic. They could facilitate the orbits of a million aircraft. Another thing is geopolitics and which countries would let their birds identify. So far, the advance in space had worked by the route of collaboration. Now, the verb has been replaced by confrontation. And space regulations – established in 1967 by the United Nations – suffer from the usual problem: they are not binding, like so many other treaties.
Scientists warn that all this garbage can pollute space just as humans have consented to the seas and oceans. "We are very concerned," admits Richard Thompson, professor of marine biology at the University of Plymouth (Great Britain). And he warns: "We are now polluting the Earth's orbit with the same lack of interest in its consequences that has caused the widespread pollution of the oceans." NASA this year launched a $20 million competition for emerging companies that provide solutions to the debris swarm.
Another threat of the future is the immense power of quantum computers, which will be able to find out, with simplicity, the cryptographic keys of an account or credit card. In 2026, Hispasat will launch a geostationary satellite (36,000 kilometers from Earth) aimed at distributing quantum keys to close this cybersecurity fracture. China has already conducted some successful experiments. Space rather than the last frontier seems the new threat.
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