Amazon Web Services looks to space opportunities – from tourism to manufacturing

The global space industry could generate more than $1tn in revenue by 2040, Morgan Stanley says

An Amazon Web Services' ground station. The company established a space unit called Aerospace and Satellite Solutions as Amazon seeks to grow its influence in the space industry. Photo: Amazon Web Services
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Amazon Web Services, the cloud-computing unit of billionaire Jeff Bezos' e-commerce company Amazon, is looking at space opportunities in asteroid mining, tourism, manufacturing and digital services over the next five to 10 years.

This comes as an increasingly lucrative and competitive market unfolds beyond the 100-kilometre high Karman line – a definition of the boundary between the Earth's atmosphere and outer space.

With new sectors emerging in the space industry, the world's biggest cloud services provider is seeking to reduce the cost of capturing, analytics, storing and sharing valuable space data in a fraction of the time for clients from major governments to smaller start-ups.

“We want to democratise space data. We want to provide space data to more people in more places around the world, so that innovative people can come up with all sorts of new ways to support climate, or economic development or smart cities or environmental monitoring,” Clint Crosier, director of the Aerospace and Satellite Solutions unit at AWS, told The National on the sidelines of the International Astronautical Congress in Dubai.

“We need to make the data available in places it's not available today and that's one of our real goals. At AWS, one of our mantras is 'making the world a better place from space'."

The global space industry could generate revenue of more than $1 trillion in 2040, up from $350 billion currently, amid high levels of private funding, advances in technology and growing public sector interest in renewing the call to space exploration, according to a report by Morgan Stanley.

Potential opportunities are in areas such as satellite broadband, high-speed product delivery and human space travel, it said.

AWS's aerospace unit is considering applications for its cloud computing services in the next decade and beyond in emerging sectors.

“There is a broader group of missions that are emerging in space that we are not doing today that we will, and I would put space tourism in that category, but on-orbit manufacturing is one of the things that are really the most interesting,” said Mr Crosier, a former US Air Force major general who most recently directed the establishment of the US Space Force.

Building and assembling satellites on the ground before launching them into space is very expensive, leading companies to explore platforms similar to the International Space Station that can be used for additive manufacturing and building parts in space, he said.

This cuts costs and opens possibilities such as the ability to create purer fibre optics in a zero-gravity environment.

“It does not seem so crazy to say we are going to have people living and working on the Moon, so how do you sustain their life? You need to be able to develop and manufacture things in space,” he said.

For example, AWS is working with Italy's D-Orbit, which handles space logistics, including in-orbit satellite parts servicing. AWS is also working with a team that used a probe to extract a soil sample from a large asteroid and brought it back to Earth for analysis.

We want to democratise space data, we want to provide space data to more people in more places around the world so that innovative people can come up with all sorts of ways to support climate change or economic development or smart cities
Clint Crosier, director of the Aerospace and Satellite unit at AWS

In terms of environmental monitoring, AWS teamed with Descartes Labs, which uses geospatial data to address global challenges such as climate change, sustainability, food security and protecting natural resources.

It also partnered with Satellite Vu, an Earth observation company that uses thermal imagery to monitor the temperature of any building on the planet in near-real time for insights into their energy efficiency, carbon footprint and economic activity.

One growing trend is the use of digital design and engineering that can save space companies millions of dollars in design and testing costs, save years of running tests and is “going to change the future”, Mr Crosier said.

“For every one of those [uses], you need cloud computing technologies for the speed, capability, global infrastructure,” he said. “You just can't do those missions without advanced cloud-based technology, so that's what I see is really interesting for the future.”

With the number of satellites in space expected to increase tenfold to about 30,000 in the next 10 years, there is a need for efficient space traffic management and collision avoidance in the low-Earth orbit environment, Mr Crosier said.

AWS's aerospace unit is working with LeoLabs, which provides commercial radar tracking services for objects in low-Earth orbit. Its services include collision prevention, risk assessment, constellation monitoring and commercial space situational awareness.

Using AWS capabilities allows the company to run satellite manoeuvre scenarios that used to take about eight hours in less than a minute, according to Mr Crosier.

“You can only do that on the cloud,” he said.

Another growing problem is the increasing volume of space debris, which raises the risk of collision with spacecraft and satellites.

“It will certainly become more of a challenge in the future,” Mr Crosier said. “The thousands of satellites against millions of trajectories that you need to be able to run in real time, you can only do that on the cloud.”

With the growing number of satellites in space, “we'll have more data than we know what to do with”, creating the need for faster ways of making sense of it.

Mr Crosier said that cloud services allow space companies to save on investments in hardware, use AWS's ground stations on a pay-per-minute system and allow start-ups to scale their growth.

AWS and the UAE's Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) have called on start-ups to participate in a space tech challenge to develop deep learning or machine learning models that automatically detect palm trees from space that allow them to gather data and extract insights that would help the date industry.

The finalists will be announced during the Dubai Airshow next month.

AWS set up its aerospace and satellite unit in June 2020, in response to a growing global space economy.

Its customers include the MBRSC, Nasa, Lockheed Martin and aerospace start-up Boom Supersonic.

Updated: October 31, 2021, 8:31 AM