From star-gazing to space travel

This article is part of an ongoing State of Innovation series exploring global inventions and innovation trends in 12 key industries.  Download the State of Innovation report on the Aerospace industry now, or download the full 2017 report here.

Who among us has not gazed upwards at the night sky in sheer wonder at the vastness and beauty of the cosmic tapestry? And who has not wondered what the future of space travel and exploration might look like? In the last decade, exoplanets have been discovered in their thousands, rovers have been exploring the surface of Mars and vehicles made of exotic materials capable of withstanding the rigors of outer space have been developed. And yet, the future relies as much on the all-important factor of cost and its effect on the innovation process as it does on today’s advancements.

As of today, we still have not put a person on Mars nor have we left another footprint on the lunar surface. Space travel, even to get to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), is an expensive endeavor and routine trips are out of the financial reach of many innovators looking to stake a claim in this sector. New innovations in the areas of spaceflight, communications, materials, earth imaging and medicine have floated just out of reach, kept behind a prohibitive cost barrier.

Clearly, there is a growing hunger to travel to space, but it must make economic sense for all parties involved, be they government offices, interested companies or launch facility providers. Even in the darkness of space, cash is king. Thankfully, key partnerships between countries and private entities are beginning to take the initial steps, which should reduce the cost associated with research and innovation in space.


Clearly, there is a growing hunger to travel to space, but it must make economic sense for all parties involved, be they government offices, interested companies or launch facility providers.”


In recent years, NASA has engaged in a series of cost-reducing initiatives by partnering with private entities, and the implications for innovation are extremely positive. In particular, the partnership with Elon Musk’s SpaceX caught the public’s attention. On March 30, 2017, a first stage rocket, previously used for a cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station, was launched and landed successfully.

This achievement, providing it can be repeated in a reliable and regular manner, has the potential to completely change how we access space in terms of the associated costs. Furthermore, SpaceX may be the first to successfully reuse a rocket and land it in this manner, but competitors will soon follow suit and further cost savings can be expected.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the decision by the British government to provide grants of up to £10 million to companies looking to launch from UK-based space ports by 2020 is a clear signal that there is huge potential for growth in the sector. The UK is a world leader in satellite technology and is likely keen to strengthen its position in the coming post-Brexit era. In addition, the government has drafted legislation that will help to regulate and operate the commercial spaceflight market. While there is little doubt over the potential of the strategy, a number of key industry figures have cast some doubt on their own ability to launch satellites from the UK by 2020. Regardless of the eventual timeline, these steps should see the UK capture a larger portion of a global market that is expected to be worth £25 billion over the next 20 years. The country will also reap benefits in science, development and innovation thanks to this initiative.

Heading further east, India is heavily focused on becoming a major player in the multi-billion dollar satellite launch market and is now able to launch heavy satellites, such as the 3,136 kilogram GSAT-19 communications satellite launched using the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark-III (GSLV Mk-III). In February this year, its space program broke a world record when it launched 104 satellites at once, mostly for foreign customers. In addition, it has launched satellites for a number of global companies that include Google and Airbus, earning India millions in revenue.

Around the world, the exploration of less expensive and reusable technologies is an important driver of overall innovation in aerospace. The sector experienced a 13 percent increase in patents compared to 2015, with space vehicles and satellite technologies showing one of the largest jumps at 16 percent.


Around the world, the exploration of less expensive and reusable technologies is an important driver of overall innovation in aerospace.”


Boeing, which heads the list of North America assignees in space vehicles and satellite technologies, has registered a number of interesting patents. In particular, the company’s patents for a reusable thrust augmentation stage used during the initial space vehicle launch stage (US9457918B2), a carbon nanotube protective blanket for providing thermal/ballistic/EMI protection for spacecraft/payloads (EP3042760A1), a method for predicting lightning strike damage to an aircraft or aerial vehicle (US20160077027A1) and a method for searching satellite transfer orbit (EP2990338A1) catch the eye.



While the US still leads the way in terms of impact in academic research, that country now holds six of the top 10 spots, compared to eight in the previous year. China appears on the list representing Asia (a region that did not make last year’s academic report) due to China’s heavy space exploration investment in a bid to become the next space superpower. Indeed, if China can offer the same technologies and products currently being manufactured in the US aerospace sector, but at a lower cost, commercial operators may begin to use Chinese products instead.

Looking forward, access to cheaper orbital launches will see revolutionary innovations in space flight, communications, medicine and other areas become a reality. If progress over the last decade has been impressive, just wait and see what developments await the next generations to come.


Read the State of Innovation report on the Aerospace industry


To learn more, download the full 2017 State of Innovation report here, which showcases latest inventions from around the world and focuses on trends in the top 12 industries.