The number of satellites in space will increase from the current 2,700 to 27,000 by 2030, according to Ariane Espace’s CEO. The major American (SpaceX, Amazon, Facebook) and Chinese groups are launching very large constellations of satellites for commercial and military purposes. China is preparing to conquer the moon (taking lunar samples in 2020 with the Chang’e 5 mission) and is considering manned missions in 2025 – 2030. In October 2020, Elon Musk announced that SpaceX was planning an unmanned mission to Mars in 2024, followed by a manned one later.
Strenghts & Weaknesses
Switzerland is not a great space nation, dominated by the world’s superpowers. But it is involved in many critical projects as a founding member of the European Space Agency (ESA). Its high-precision technologies are highly sought-after in space applications, such as the Maxon engines powering robots on Mars. ESA has just entrusted the Swiss start-up ClearSpace with the mission to clean up debris in orbit in 2025, with a budget of €86 million. This is a world first. This EPFL start-up was in competition with 12 other candidates, including some European industrial giants. The orbital cleaning market represents a long-term opportunity of several billions per year. In addition, ESA has set up an incubator in Switzerland (ESA BIC). Some twenty companies are already part of it in the sectors of satellite image analysis (Picterra), telecommunications (LiGenTec), aeronautical design software (Neural Concept), photonics (Miraex) and environmental sensors (MIRO), for example. In addition, Astrocast, the EPFL spin-off, has just launched a few micro-satellites for tracking objects on earth. SWISSto12 has developed a 3D printing system to provide ultra-light satellite antennas.
The memorable round-the-world tour of the Solar Impulse solar airplane, a start-up intimately linked to the ETHZ and EPFL ecosystem, showed the world the unique Swiss know-how in stratospheric (at 20 km altitude) and electrical aeronautics. This visionary project with strong emotional appeal is a source of inspiration and marketing for a Swiss cluster focused on a sustainable approach to space development. ClearSpace is a first concrete example. Others will follow.
Switzerland has a strategic playing card in the space sector, which will become increasingly important over the decades and will probably eventually overtake earthly activities on Swiss territory. Switzerland’s historical forces can be (must !) duplicated in space. Neutrality allows it to be ideally positioned to offer trusted services in interaction with all countries, as is currently the case with international organizations or the spin-off of Swisscom, TOGEWA, one of only two telecom roaming platforms worldwide. Arbitration technologies between countries, such as anti-collision management between satellites, will have to be implemented. The Swiss values of quality, confidentiality and security will be very useful for ultra-secure data transmission and storage services. Robotics and autonomous systems will form the basis of any space conquest before the arrival of humans and the exploitation of gigantic raw material resources. Finally, in the shorter term, Switzerland’s extensive experience in the luxury industry and its know-how in managing the passions of the ultra-rich will be very useful in selling and managing tourist trips outside of earth’s gravity.
Humanity’s space odyssey has only just begun. Everything (or almost everything) remains to be built : transportation, communication, security, tourism, cleaning and environmental management, housing, exploitation of natural resources etc. Space technologies exist for specific niche projects but have not yet been tested and proven on a very large scale. The transfer of technology and business models from the earthly world to space (and vice versa) represents an enormous challenge but also a major economic opportunity. Space is likely to become the most important investment sector for venture capital in the coming decades and centuries.
- European Top three in deeptech technologies for space use
- Three start-ups valued at more than CHF 1 billion