7-things Space: 2021 Edition
Looking back at the key developments in space tech in 2021 and predictions for 2022
This is a special edition of the newsletter, in which, I wanted to look back at all the developments in space industry over the past year - especially those that I remember and found interesting. I might have missed many notable events, but feel free to let me know, in case, I missed something significant.
Without any further rambling, let’s get to 7-things space - the 2021edition!
💰 Several SPACs and Copious Cash 💸
According to Seraphim Capital’s SpaceTech Venture Capital Index, over $7.6 billion was invested into the space industry (definition of what this should include is open to debate), just until Q3 2021. Although upstream / infrastructure companies dominated this trend, there was a (surprisingly) big focus on the downstream / application layer - especially Earth observation satellites and products (I attempted to demystify this underreported, but fragmented market earlier this year, ICYMI).
Along with the 10 SPAC deals announced this year - AST Space Mobile, Astra, Spire, Rocket Lab, Redwire, Blacksky, Planet, Satellogic, Virgin Orbit, Terran Orbital and Tomorrow.io - there is no question that money is being infused into the space economy at a rate never seen before.
Predictions: I do expect more funding to follow across the value chain in 2022, but with more commercial rationality than technological excitement. The implications of space tech companies - a domain that very few understand - trading in public markets, whilst trying to achieve their long-term goals is something that I will definitely continue tracking (we are already seeing some strong analysis like this one!).
🛰️ Many “NewSpace” Companies and a Few “New” Space Companies 🆕
As a result of the capital flowing into the market, I continued to track an incredible number of startups, over the past year. Frankly, it is becoming difficult - I attempted to map the European NewSpace ecosystem earlier this year, but I guess, this and my spreadsheet might need updates more frequently than I thought.
(I will start mapping the NewSpace ecosystem on a national/regional level in 2022, stay tuned!)
But, for me, the more exciting trend was this “new” kind of space companies being formed - those that weren’t operating in space before, but decided to go to space taking advantage of the attractive economics, in order to solve a problem. John Deere was looking into launching satellites for IoT. ExxonMobile will launch satellites to monitor methane. And, yes, the company that I work for, Tomorrow.io, will be launching first-of-its-kind weather satellites to revolutionise weather forecasting.
Predictions: Just like in any other sector, many of the startups in NewSpace will fail - depending on the space market segment, for various reasons. Two things that I certainly expect to happen in 2022: consolidation and strategic pivots - the former, because of market fragmentation (especially in EO), and the latter due to commercial reasons (like this one ). And, as for the “new” space companies, this will continue - I have been expecting a large insurance player to announce their satellite plans (in 2022, perhaps?). You will know when I am right!
🌍 More “Space” for Climate 🌱
We all have our own opinions about what the year 2021 meant for space. For me, 2021 will be the year climate got some “space” from the space industry. Sure, space has an irreplaceable role to play in monitoring the planet and modelling the climate, thanks to all the missions from space agencies around the world, but personally, I don’t think this narrative reached the commercial space market until this year.
From the announcement of new projects to track and report emissions like CarbonMapper and ClimateTrace to the development of products like Tomorrow.io to help prepare for extreme weather events, space and Earth observation continue to play a major role in climate change (see, this piece for some context). What I find interesting, though, is how this narrative to climate is being adapted both by other non-obvious space tech companies as well as climate tech funds, investing in space.
Predictions: As funding for climate tech continues to grow, space will continue to be a part of this conversation. I expect more companies (esp. those using EO data for climate solutions) to be founded and funded, and more generally, more space companies to add a “our impact for climate” slide in their pitch decks. It is inevitable!
🗣️ Many Space Travellers, Space Communicators and Space Ninjas 🥷
Space tourism got so much attention this year that I was actually frustrated with how it took the attention away from other segments of space. As this well-written piece points out, there are two sides of the equation to the ‘space is for everyone’ narrative that came out of the SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin missions. In any case, this was a some kind of victory for humanity, and I hope we can tread on mindfully.
This year also made me realise that not only are we sending more people to space, but we are also getting more folks to talk about space, and more controversially, to become space experts (I call them ninjas). From popular publications & news channels hiring space reporters to many independent folks writing space newsletters, I think space is becoming mainstream, after all. Special shoutout to my friends at Payload, a new digital media company covering space (their daily newsletter is awesome!).
Predictions: On the tourism front, it is only going to get bigger with more missions planned like Axiom. Can it get more affordable though? I am not sure, yet. What I am sure though is more digital media houses will start covering space, and we will see more “space” for space in our daily general newsletters. As for the space experts, well, I think there will continue to be many faux ninjas and few real ones. Watch out!
☀️ More Missions to the Sun, Moon, Mars and Beyond 🔭
This year was particularly spectacular if you happened to be an outer space enthusiast. From Perseverance landing on Mars (followed by the Ingenuity helicopter lifting off from the surface) to NASA's Parker Solar probe flying into the atmosphere of the Sun, 2021 was filled with many special events. But nothing was probably as special as seeing the James Webb Space Telescope launch on Christmas Day - especially after the delays, but testimony to the global co-operation.
Moving on, we saw SpaceX win the NASA contract to build the human lander for the Artemis mission, and the legal battle with Blue Origin that followed (including all the memes and jokes from Elon!). SpaceX also made me understand what a belly flop means, with their test launch of the Starship prototype.
Predictions: SpaceX will probably continue doing SpaceX things, and we could see Starship get to orbit next year. This piece provides a good summary of what else to look forward to in 2022, from an exploration standpoint.
🌐 More Spacefaring Nations (especially China) 🇨🇳
I think it was also fascinating to read about all the developments from around the world, especially countries that are fast becoming major space players. Some of the notable ones include - UAE’s successful Mars mission, their space agency selecting first female astronaut, Japan’s goals for the moon, Mexico and Poland’s interest in the Artemis mission along with Australia, South Korea’s plans for small launcher and their own satellite navigation system and India’s revised geospatial policy.
However, the growth of China in space has been simply astounding. From a record breaking 55 launches in 2021 (including one that launched the first crew to their own space station) to their plans for collaborating with Russia on a lunar research station, the Chinese were pretty busy throughout the year. Personally, I have also been fascinated with the market dynamics of Earth observation in China, and I will continue to track that in 2022 (along with a possible collab with DongFang Hour).
Predictions: None. As China, Japan, South Korea and UAE continue their investments in space, 2022 will be an important year for Europe, with the European Space Summit in February followed by the ESA Ministerial Council in November. NASA will launch some amazing Earth science missions in 2022, along with EUMETSAT’s new weather satellite. Definitely a lot to look forward to in 2022!
🧹 More Focus on Space Sustainability and Cleaning Up Space 🗑️
Let’s end with space debris, as I thought this subject deserved its own section. There was certainly a lot of focus in 2021 on space sustainability - both in terms of formal discussions in conferences and technological demonstrations on-orbit. From availability of institutional funding to study debris removal to alliances between companies to reduce orbital trashing, we seem to be moving in the right direction. Satellite operators seem interested in using these services, while others are also developing different technologies to monitor and track debris. Some good news!
Predictions: Wishes, actually. Hopefully, there won’t be another ASAT test, like the recent one from Russia, but who am I to say? But, I do expect the debris management situation to evolve just like the climate crisis situation - everyone knows and (almost) agrees that it is a problem, but nobody wants to pay to fix it. Not very hopeful we will figure out a way in 2022 either (if I have learnt anything from COP26!).
PS. I started writing this newsletter in February 2021, and also launched my podcast around the same time. It has really been an incredible journey, over the past year. Both the newsletter and the podcast started out as a hobby, and I expect them to evolve in 2022. In any case, thanks for all the kind words and your support!
Happy new year!
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