Bringing space tech to a store near you

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Space exploration in MENA: in April, the Wamda team thought it was April’s fools material.

But just a few months later the UAE signed a partnership with NASA to work together on a mission to Mars, plus some partnerships with space programmes in China, the UK and Russia to collaborate on space science.

Space tech, then, is clearly a hot topic.

At the Hello Tomorrow summit in Paris last month it was entrepreneurs and investors rather than governments who were presenting the business and tech possibilities that space enables.

Welcome to the revolution

“We stand at a time when everything is about to change,” said Rick Tumlinson, from Deep Space Indus when he opened the space tech panel.

He said traveling in a spacecraft wasn’t much crazier than train travel was back in the 18th century, and today entrepreneurs from a variety of backgrounds were working on the most visible part of space tech: rockets.

There’s Jeff Bezos who “had a book company”, Paul Allen, a programming nerd, record store owner Richard Branson and Elon Musk, a cofounder of Paypal. They are soon to launch their first rockets and others have already launched, such as Bob Bigelow, who used to mop the floor of the hotel he founded and today has had two modules in orbit since 2008.

Tumlinson believes that within several years several thousand people will be living on Mars - Musk has already outlined his plan for getting one million people on the red planet by the 2060s - and space tourism is approaching fast.

The great news is that apparently you don't have to be a billionaire like Musk or Branson and you don’t have to build a rocket to get in the game.

More than rockets

There are many fields related to space tech, such as food, housing, robots, and storage innovations.

At Hello Tomorrow entrepreneurs highlighted three massive challenges for ambitious entrepreneurs.

According to Stéphane Cueille an executive at French high-tech industrialist Safran the industry needs to find new tech because kerosene is not sustainable.

None of the current alternatives are perfect. Biofuel is more expensive than kerosene and requires components or land that could be use for food.

Solar panels would be a good idea if an A320 plane didn’t require the equivalent of a soccer field of solar panels to get it off the ground.

Electric batteries are already used for small planes, but they’re too heavy for large planes. Liquid hydrogen would be too dense, meaning it would take up too much space. And fuel cells are too heavy and would require too much energy for propulsion.

It is time now to develop a hybrid solution that would borrow from all these ideas.

Ryan Weed, CEO of anti-matter propulsion company Positron Dynamics, says traditional rockets were developed in the 1920s and but tech hadn't changed much since then.

It would take 30,000 years to get to the closest habitable planet using current fuels and propulsion systems.

"If we want to go outside of our solar system, we need to find a new technology, we need to harness that new technology to be get to our closest stars in a human lifetime.”

Researchers are looking into once-radical technologies like nuclear fusion, laser propulsion and antimatter.

Taking out the trash

Astroscale CEO Nobu Okada wants to clean up space debris.

"The reality is not too different from [the movie Gravity]," he said. "If we do not do anything, we will not be able to use space anymore."

There’s a lot of trash - close to 99 percent of objects in space are debris - and they’re dangerous because they go as fast as eight km/second, a speed that can destroy satellites.

Astroscale is developing satellites that will identify and then remove large debris before they turn into smaller pieces that cannot be removed anymore.

Getting funding in MENA

In the US and Europe there are an increasing number of venture capital funds investing in space tech, and space authorities NASA and the ESA are doing tremendous work to foster privately led space innovations.

But MENA entrepreneurs don’t have to leave their region to develop an idea, as explained back in January.

In November 2015, Jordanian startup incubator Oasis500 announced a new venture capital fund, the Jordan Space Ventures fund, designed to encourage entrepreneurs and companies in MENA to develop space-based technologies. The fund closed total investments of 7.8 million euros (approximately US$8.4 million).

In May 2015, the UAE Space Agency announced the establishment of a $27 million Space Research Centre to be based in Al-Ain, UAE, intended to be an incubator for space research, development, and innovation. And this summer, the UAE Space Agency announced its mission to Mars.

Many countries in MENA have government space agencies or an agency with space-related research and activities under its jurisdiction.

Feature image via Wikimedia Commons

Space tech is not a startup that will bring you money and glory after only a year of work but if you’re patient, you’ll have the opportunities to impact the development of the MENA region and help mankind grow beyond this planet.

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