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NM entities unite seeking bigger bite of space pie

The global commercial space industry is rocketing to unprecedented heights, and local leaders are working to make New Mexico a key business launchpad for it.

Some of the most-active industry representatives announced the launch of New Space NM in May to unite the state’s public and private entities in joint efforts to tap into growing opportunities and attract more investment and business activity here. They formed a 13-member executive board to lead the effort, and they invited about 100 industry-related representatives from around the state to form an advisory team for the initiative.

That team met for the first time on July 12 at the Albuquerque headquarters of SolAero Technologies Corp., one of the entities leading the effort. Casey DeRaad, a former Air Force Research Laboratory executive who now heads the local consulting firm DeRaad Tech Connections, told participants the time to act is now, given the space industry’s explosive growth and New Mexico’s unique abilities to tap into it.

“We have all the ingredients needed here – intellectual capital from the national labs and defense installations like White Sands Missile Range, plus all the investment they’ve made in equipment and laboratory infrastructure that we can leverage,” said DeRaad, now administrative lead for New Space NM. “We also have many companies already working here. If we work together, we can bring a lot more business opportunities to the state and expand our space workforce.”

SolAero President and CEO Brad Clevenger and Peter Wegner, chief technology officer for the Seattle-based companies Spaceflight Industries and Blacksky, said the commercial opportunities emerging globally are unprecedented in space industry history. Both are co-chairing the New Space executive board.

“In my entire career I’ve never seen this type of change happening in the space industry,” said Wegner, a 21-year veteran of space-related operations at Kirtland Air Force Base. “Space today is like the computer industry in 1981, when the world went from mainframes to truly distributed computers.”

That reflects advances in space technology plus the world’s demand for high-speed data services. Together, those things are generating a shift away from expensive, traditional geostationary satellites that orbit 22,000 miles above earth to small satellites made for low earth orbit at less than 1,000 miles up, Clevenger said.

Today’s small satellites, which range in size from a loaf of bread to a filing cabinet, are far cheaper to make, launch and operate than the large geostationary ones that have provided most global telecommunications signals to date. As a result, companies and conglomerates worldwide are now launching swarms of small sats to provide the instantaneous data feeds needed to operate everything from earth and weather observation to smartphones.

SolAero, which makes robust solar cells and panels for space vehicles, is now manufacturing the solar cells that will power OneWeb, the largest satellite project in the world to date for broadband internet. It will send about 700 small sats into low earth orbit starting in November.

But it’s only the first of a string of projects now in the works.

“There’s a half-dozen other constellations in planning and design stages that will soon make OneWeb only the fifth or sixth largest project in the world,” Clevenger said. “That creates a lot more opportunities to do more as an industry in New Mexico. There’s hasn’t been a change like this in the history of the satellite industry.”

In addition, as space-related development continues to shift away from government-controlled activities to public-private partnerships and wholly owned commercial endeavors, the final frontier is becoming a driver for private sector investment. The government itself is turning more and more to private companies to build and operate the new low earth orbit technologies required for future military and civilian needs.

The global space market reached about $350 billion in 2016 and is projected to grow to about $2.7 trillion over the next three decades, according to a new report this spring from Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

“Capital investment since 2016 has been greater than all 40 years prior,” Clevenger said. “Companies like SpaceX are unveiling probably the flashiest demonstrations of new technology, but there are equally fantastic things happening in every aspect of the industry.”

That includes everything from manufacturing space vehicles and all the components that go into them to launch operations, ground-control, software development and satellite service management. It also includes firms that harvest reams of newly generated data from space to offer communications and information processing and analysis.

“It’s a huge industry with many opportunities that New Mexico businesses can build on, not just the large aerospace contractors that have traditionally focused on government contracts,” Weger said. “We need to get out in front to be market makers, because there’s a lot of competition in other states.”

New Space NM’s advisory team reflects the broad diversity of capabilities and opportunities in New Mexico. It includes a range of private businesses in engineering, manufacturing, software development, and new types of service firms, such as Santa Fe-based Descartes Labs, which uses proprietary data analysis technology to turn satellite-based feeds into useable information for public and private customers. A range of government entities are also involved, including the AFRL and other national labs, local and state economic development agencies, aides from New Mexico’s congressional delegation, and leaders from the state’s three research universities and Central New Mexico Community College.

Advisory board participation remains open as the leadership continues to recruit more space-related companies and entities, DeRaad said. Leaders are especially focusing on software development firms, because there’s a lot of money pouring into that side of the industry.

“Hardware is the traditional side of the industry,” DeRaad told the Journal. “But there are so many software applications and opportunities, and we want to aggressively build on that as well.”

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