A place that is out of reach despite being visible from anywhere on the planet – that is space. Until now, space has been a subject of science and people's curiosity. It has been developed and used by public organizations as national projects. However, space has become the target of business in recent years with the activities of private companies becoming prominent.
Development has been steadily progressing for the private use of space as a new field of technological development that will bring innovation to all industries and businesses. We give an explanation here about the movement in technological development called “space tech” that uses space to bring new value to people's everyday lives, work, and social activities (Fig. 1).
Using space to create innovation in familiar places
Space tech is a term that has been coined by combining the words “space” and “technology.” When we think of familiar uses of space, what probably comes to mind are the weather satellites we know of well because of weather forecasts, television satellite broadcasting, and the global positioning systems (GPS) we use daily in car navigation systems and smartphones. These are all applications based on space technology using artificial satellites orbiting the earth. Currently, many of the technologies called “space tech” are those related to artificial satellites.
However, the applications of space technologies that are the targets of space tech have been expanding to more diverse fields than ever seen before. Information services that have come to us from weather satellites that utilize images of the ground taken from satellites and sensing data are already being used in a diverse range of industries including logistics, agriculture and fishing, and finance. In addition to this, businesses such as those that make artificial shooting stars to use as entertainment, space burials that scatter ashes in space, and the collection of space debris are starting to move toward being realized.
Space is unquestionably the frontier for humankind. The space business market is expected to approximately triple in size from 37 trillion yen in 2018 to 100 trillion yen in 2040. Many countries and organizations are focusing their efforts on cultivating the space business that is expected to be a future growth industry. The Cabinet Office in Japan has announced “Space Industry Vision 2030.” This vision sets a target to double the current market size of approximately 1.2 trillion yen early in the 2030s. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), which has so far centered its efforts mainly on research and development, is now promoting activities focused on pioneering application.
Bringing the use of space even closer to our lives with the downsizing of artificial satellites
Development is underway on infrastructure to bring the use of space even closer to our lives for a wide range of purposes in keeping with the pace of the spread in the use of space. A particularly remarkable movement that has emerged in recent years is the ultra-miniaturization of artificial satellites. In its early days, the computer was also a device that was large and could only be used by special research institutions and other such organizations. It became an everyday tool used for various purposes with the appearance of the personal computer. In the same way, the artificial satellite is becoming a tool that can be used for purposes that are familiar to us due to downsizing.
Artificial satellites until now have been large and heavy. For example, weather satellites are about the same size as a minibus when the solar panels that serve as their power source are deployed. These large artificial satellites weigh 1 ton or more. They cost approximately 40-60 billion yen and take five years or more to develop.
Semiconductors, electronic components, and other parts that comprise the electronic systems installed in artificial satellites are becoming smaller and lighter with higher performance. The ideal is to be able to make the same functions even smaller and lightweight. It is possible to reduce the cost to approximately 300 million yen with a microsatellite that weighs 10-100 kg. The development period of such a microsatellite can also be shortened to about two years. Small and lightweight satellites can be put into orbit by launching them with small rockets or piggybacking them onto regular services to deliver food and other supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) (Fig. 2). This makes it possible to dramatically reduce costs. JAXA is already starting to provide a service to launch microsatellites from the Kibo Japanese experiment module on the ISS. If artificial satellites become smaller with the advance of technology, the era may arrive in which artificial satellites are owned by individuals in the same way that computers have become the property of individuals.
Many microsatellites are already in orbit. They are being used for various purposes. For instance, some companies have emerged stating that they plan to realize a mechanism to link up operations with microsatellites to make it possible to connect to the internet at high speed from anywhere in the world through them. Furthermore, there is also an idea to build an IoT mechanism to detect information over a wide area by collecting data acquired by sensors distributed on the ground with satellites and then transmitting that data in a batch to the ground.
Use of space is gradually expanding – from disaster response to logistics management, finance, and damage insurance
Moreover, an idea is progressing to use microsatellites to collect information over an even wider area than drones, airplanes, and similar devices by using them to understand the state of the earth's surface from space with cameras and radar. Satellites equipped with synthetic aperture radar (SAR) that transmits microwaves from the satellite to the earth's surface to explore the state of the surface with radio waves that are then bounced back have been gaining particular attention in recent years (Fig. 3). SAR is characterized by the fact it is possible to detect unevenness on the earth's surface with a high degree of accuracy both during the day and at night because it penetrates rain and clouds – something that was not possible with weather satellites that take images with visible light. SAR has used a lot of power for it to transmit radio waves until now. This meant that it could only be equipped to large satellites. SAR can now also be equipped to microsatellites with the progress of technology in recent years. Accordingly, its application has been expanding.
The central and local governments in Japan are using SAR to improve the quality of initial response in the event of a tsunami or other large disaster. It is necessary to locate the area that is experiencing trouble by using SAR satellites and other systems to send rescue and relief first to places where social infrastructure has been disrupted to an extent that it is not possible to report damage (Fig. 4). There is also an idea to use SAR to identify where to repair tunnels, roads, and other infrastructure on a priority basis by identifying land subsidence and swelling.
A movement has also started to create business that produces new value by utilizing information obtained with SAR in ordinary times as well as in emergencies. For example, there is an initiative to automatically analyze ground information obtained with SAR using artificial intelligence (AI) in order to use it to understand the status of urban development in emerging nations and elsewhere and the movement of marine vessels, to discover illegal logging of forests, and to find offshore oil fields, among other purposes. Furthermore, there are also companies that are monitoring the stockpile status of oil tanks around the world with SAR to provide information for futures trading as an interesting application of this technology. As roofs of oil tanks float on the oil, it is possible to estimate the level of stockpiles by observing their height with artificial satellites.
Japan is also seeing the appearance of damage insurance companies with a mechanism to enable early payment of insurance claims in the event of a flood by utilizing SAR. It is possible to grasp the damaged area and the inundation status to an accuracy within a few centimeters with SAR. This has made it possible to significantly shorten the payment period of insurance claims, which normally took two to three weeks.
In addition to the examples we have introduced here, the development of space tech is proceeding by incorporating various perspectives and ideas such as the construction of communications infrastructure and the development of biotechnology using space. Space is now no longer a place just to look up at and feel a sense of wonder.