Theory of Next by Antler India | Episode 04—The Next Era for Space Tech
India’s space tech industry is witnessing a paradigm shift driven by a factor common to most tech disruptions: a dramatic fall in cost. How will the confluence of multiple trends define the next era for space tech in India? Nitin Sharma (Partner, Antler India) and Rahul Seth (Scouting Director, Antler India) tackle these questions in the latest episode of Theory of Next. In a special section, Awais Ahmed (Co-founder and CEO, Pixxel) joins the team to talk about Mars colonization, asteroid mining, and space factories.
Highlights From Transcript
[00:00] - Introduction
[02:04] - The “Jio” Moment for Space Tech in India
[04:05] - Primer: Rockets, Orbits, and All Things Space Tech
[07:34] - The Space Tech Landscape
[11:44] - Future of India’s Space Tech Ecosystem
[16:31] - Opportunities in Space Tech for Aspiring Founders
[20:53] - Sci-Fi or Reality: Mars Colonization, Asteroid Mining, Space Factories, and More
Nitin Sharma: Hi everyone, this is Nitin Sharma, Partner at Antler India. Welcome to the next episode of Theory of Next. We started this series a few months back to build our thesis out in public. To be one of the few VC firms that share our thinking and get feedback from the audience and founders working on interesting spaces. And we covered EVs, DAOs, and mental health with a tremendous reception. And as we were talking about all these spaces, it struck us that we should talk about space next. So today we're bringing out our sci-fi nerds and our space nerds to talk about this very interesting topic. You know space is not just about space technology because it underlies so many other things, ranging from city planning or military needs to crop insurance and weather forecasting. So, it's a really fundamental layer, and of course the awesome thing is that India has been at the forefront of this. You talk about the legends of ISRO doing things with a bullock cart that NASA could not do or sending our various missions for one-hundredth of the cost or down to Team Indus trying to send something to the moon. So this is what we're going to dive into, and no better person to do this than Rahul. Rahul Seth heads scouting for Antler India. But above all, he is an expert when it comes to space and he's truly fascinated by this topic. So, I'm really looking forward to this conversation. And Rahul was also an investor prior to Antler, in companies like Pixxel. And in fact, Awais who is a really interesting entrepreneur who founded Pixxel will be with us at the end of this episode. So let's get started.
The “Jio” Moment for Space Tech in India
Nitin Sharma: Welcome, Rahul.
Rahul Seth: Hi Nitin, glad to be here. Excited for the launch.
Nitin Sharma: Rahul, let's start with this thing you've been annoying us with for many months, “This is the Jio moment of India space tech.”
Now that's a big statement. That's a huge superlative given the impact of something like that aside. So why is this such a big moment?
Rahul Seth: So Nitin, I agree with you. We've been talking about space for the last 70 years. We've been talking about the promise of space for everybody for the last 20 years, and in some ways, it feels like maybe it's not materialized. But what's important is what has happened over the last decade, and that's been the phenomenal magic that's happened. So I'll come back to Jio and why I keep using that analogy. So, Jio did 3 things when it launched. The first is, it built a very strong, fast, cheap network which is the infrastructure layer on top of which everything could be built.
The second thing it did was make very cheap devices to be able to access that network, one without the other is useless, and then they built applications on top of it.
The same parallel if we look at this space technology industry, the infrastructure layer is launched until you can send a satellite upstairs. Now, the launch costs for that have dramatically fallen to the extent that it's become 1/200th when it started with the Space Shuttle launch back in 81. So that's one.
The second thing that's led to this amazing magic happening is hardware miniaturization, partly driven by the smartphone industry as well, and that has led to smaller circuits, better solar cells, better battery technology, better transponders, and communication devices. So both of these are coming together.
In the last 10 years, they all converged together. So, if you want to call it the convergence theory of all of these things coming together literally over the last decade and we'll dive deeper into it aside. But these two big things are what we are now going to lead to the applications that are going to be built on top of it so when I told you about the Jio analogy, the network is the launch provider. The cheap devices are the small size CubeSat movement that's now taking place, and the applications are what's going to be built and which is what I'm very very excited about.
Before we jump into it, we need to do a short primer or a little bit of the physics involved with this.
Primer: Rockets, Orbits, and All things Space Tech
Rahul Seth: So, a primer on how to think about space right? And I will quote the great Douglas Adams for this where he says, “The knack of flying is to find a way to throw yourself at the ground and miss it.”
So, what happens when you talk about sending something to space or sending something up? Basically, this “something” is what we end up calling a satellite. You put it on top of a rocket. Literally like a Diwali pataka, but it's much better, much bigger, much better designed. We can go into the details of that.
And it burns just enough fuel for just enough time without exploding to take it up there. Now, the moment it takes it up there, it gives it a shove on a side and what this object, the satellite ends up doing is, it misses hitting the ground and it goes into what we call an Orbit.
Now, what's critical for us to understand is there are three kinds of orbits that we generally end up talking about. The one that was most used was the geosynchronous orbit or the geostationary orbit. This is at an altitude of 36,000 kilometers and it mirrors the Earth’s rotation so the satellite stays at the same point around the Earth. What you can also have is that orbit, if it's around the equator it's considered geosynchronous. You can have it around the polar orbits, etc., and in a lot of different places.
Nitin Sharma: That's what the PSLV, etc. are about.
Rahul Seth: Exactly! Launching very big satellites up there as such initially for telecommunications and television, which still constitutes a very large part of the economy.
Nitin Sharma: And for the longest time, this is how we did space tech. Why is that? Why did it have to be so high up?
Rahul Seth: One, we need to be above certain areas constantly. So, we need it to sync with Earth's rotation, and at that altitude, you are able to sync with it without falling down as well as having the velocity required for the mass that you had. So, we had really huge satellites, the size of many rooms.
These are GPS satellites or military satellites or television satellites; are sat phone satellites that are really massive. 36,000 kilometers, this is what we use for remote sensing, disaster management, etc.
Nitin Sharma: Because of its big size, you also had a huge launch cost.
Rahul Seth: Exactly!
Nitin Sharma: So, that was the big sort of Holy Grail for space tech to bring that down.
Rahul Seth: Exactly, and this is where stuff gets interesting because we get to the other orbit which is called LEO (Low Earth Orbit). So, this spans anywhere between 200 to 2000 kilometers.
And now what can you do fundamentally? You put something in a rocket, you fire it. Hope it doesn't explode. Put into orbit and now you effectively have a camera in this sky. Now that camera in that satellite can do three things, it can look towards Earth, it can look into the universe, it can look around itself.
Nitin Sharma: That’s really interesting so you can look away with that camera which is for space observation and telescopes and look around.
Rahul Seth: Yes.
Nitin Sharma: This is for things like space debris, etc.
Rahul Seth: The first sat that we sent up looked down at Earth. This is called Earth observation and imaging. This is what we use for disaster management etc, as well as for telecommunications.
Nitin Sharma: So, the fact that you can now make these smaller satellites more useful by putting them in LEO but you can do a constellation of them.
Rahul Seth: Exactly!
Nitin Sharma: And then that is where sort of mass applications are.
Rahul Seth: That's where the magic is happening. Now this constellation becomes interesting, when it's closer, it's cheaper to launch, and it's smaller. With a bunch of them, you can literally have real time coverage of the planet. So, if you want to do health diagnostics, think about it as if you had the finger pricking, insulin monitors that would be able to do it once a day. These small satellites are like a continuous blood glucose monitor, continuously able to give you data.
Nitin Sharma: So, it's basically those 2 things coming together. You have the likes of SpaceX creating lower launch costs and you have the miniaturization, etc, which is creating this Jio kind of network as you call it.
Nitin Sharma: Interesting!
Rahul Seth: And with that intelligence and what you're able to build on that infrastructure is where we are headed over.
Nitin Sharma: Yes, the application side of it.
The Space Tech Landscape
Nitin Sharma: So, that was awesome, Rahul. The next question that comes to my mind is, what is the business part of? And from our perspective, What is the venture opportunity? So, as we move towards that and you talk about this is a multi-trillion dollar industry in a few years. I think it's about 400 billion right now.
Rahul Seth: Yeah.
Nitin Sharma: So help us break down the landscape and what kind of companies do what?
Rahul Seth: The expected growth path is from 400 billion dollars today to anywhere from a trillion and a half to five to seven trillion as such, depending upon what report you choose to look at, but it's going much faster is my personal belief. Now when I look at this space technology industry, this 400 billion is broken into three segments, and I draw the analogy to oil for this.
Nitin Sharma: OK.
Rahul Seth: So, you have upstream, midstream, and downstream.
Nitin Sharma: Yeah!
Rahul Seth: Upstream is where the oil is extracted, midstream is when it's transported, and downstream is where you refine it into plastics, petrochemicals etc.
Nitin Sharma: Petrochemicals, yeah.
Rahul Seth: Same with satellites and space in some ways; upstream is satellite and rocket manufacturing.
Nitin Sharma: And launching?
Rahul Seth: Yeah and launching those rockets, and midstream is the communication between whatever you've launched upstairs.
Nitin Sharma: Getting that data back.
Rahul Seth: Yeah, so transponder system, etc. And the last which is downstream is the most exciting bit where all these applications are being built on top of it to do everything. So, this is where Planet Labs, CropIn, etc. come as companies.
Rahul Seth: With rockets, if you look at it, the biggest innovation in a lot of ways has been the re-usability of rockets.
Nitin Sharma: Right.
Rahul Seth: If I break a rocket down, the two hardest things to solve for within a rocket are; one, obviously the engine so it doesn't blow up, which is very very common even after you've perfected it and it takes companies 10 to 15 years to get there in some ways as well.
Nitin Sharma: Yeah, not for the faint-hearted.
Rahul Seth: Yeah, the second part is obviously the communication ensuring that it's able to follow the flight plan, come back on board and navigational computation is utilized to land it back down. These are the two hardest problems to solve.
Nitin Sharma: So, are there any startups in India working on these areas?
Rahul Seth: In India, you have the likes of Agnikul and SkyRoot. SkyRoot builds multi-purpose, multi-stage, large scale and small-scale rockets as such where Agnikul specifically focuses on 3D-printed rockets.
Rahul Seth: The second bit, in addition to launch providers who are making large rockets, small rockets. You also have people who do in-orbit transfers. So, once you get to a certain orbit, if you want to move into a more fine-tuned orbit.
A company in India that does this is Bellatrix. Globally you have Orbital ATK, and a lot of other folks who do this as well. So, this is primarily the rocket bit. The satellite bit is the satellite manufacturing, the specific payload, and then coordinating and creating satellite constellations to be able to do this. So, you have the likes of Planet Labs which does this globally, makes its own satellites. They also come back later into the picture. You have the likes of Pixxel that does this in India as well and makes its own satellites to send up for particular use cases. So, this is primarily what upstream constitutes.
Nitin Sharma: The downstream is where you have applications and software-like attributes to software margins and exponential growth possible.
Rahul Seth: Right. Yes, that's the really interesting bit. So, once you have this, what can you do on top of that is where the magic is happening. So, you have what I would sort of call satellite or space-adjacent companies that utilize this data for their core business like a CropIn or an Aquaconnect that does it for farming and aquaculture farming. You have in some way space-native companies like SatSure that primarily focus on providing this data and analytics to companies that are going to use it, whether it's BFSI, whether it's AgriTech, etc. You have full-stack companies that operate satellites and sell the data and sell the analytics on top of that data, with two different players. So this is someone of the likes of a Pixxel or a HyperSat abroad as well. Then you have outside of just these applications you have people who are using this for orbital debris tracking.
Nitin Sharma: Makes sense.
Rahul Seth: You have 250 billion dollars out of the 400 billion dollars in downstream, about 100-108 billion dollars in upstream and about 30 to 40 billion dollars in midstream. So this is where the opportunity lies.
Nitin Sharma: Interesting.
Future of India’s Space Tech Ecosystem
Nitin Sharma: So now we want to bring it back to this whole Jio thesis and the first part of that was launch costs. So let's start to quantify this a bit.
Rahul Seth: Sure, so if you look at launch cost, they were originally close to a million dollars per KG. The best ones that are useful for parallels are $85,000 per KG was the cost on the first shuttle that went up back in 81, which is about $300,000 in today's money. Now that price came down to $10,000 per KG with the first Falcon rockets in 2016, and it's expected to go sub $1000 per KG.
Nitin Sharma: So it's gone from?
Rahul Seth: $300,000 40 years ago in ‘81 to close to $1500 today.
Nitin Sharma: Per KG?
Rahul Seth: Yes, per KG. and the expectation is over the next 10 years to 15 years, this is expected to go down to $100 per KG. We’re close to like, not close to, but close to airline rates in some ways.
Nitin Sharma: Yeah, I mean sort of following a price curve. That's what you see in technology.
Rahul Seth: Absolutely exponentially decreasing price curve, so that's one of the biggest things and again, it's been driven by two things. One re-usability second, multiple smaller rockets being available and the private sector coming into the building. A lot of this because this was originally just the domain of Government.
Nitin Sharma: So the second thing you talked about was hardware miniaturization. So how do we break that now?
Rahul Seth: Now literally because of smartphones, the camera technology that we have has gone up exponentially from the sensors that are used to the lenses that are manufactured to the number of precision lenses that can be manufactured at scale, so the costs have dramatically fallen.
Now, the moment the payload is smaller, the battery you need to run it is smaller, which has also gotten better. So now what's happened is at the same time the solar cells that you need to do it has gotten smaller. The microprocessor you needed on satellite to be able to do stuff has shrunk in size as well.
Nitin Sharma: So everything is smaller.
Rahul Seth: Yeah.
Nitin Sharma: You can pack it more compactly.
Nitin Sharma: And the price per kilogram to send it up has become much lower.
Rahul Seth: Much smaller as well.
Nitin Sharma: So, you have a combination of these and what this means is that it makes the smaller satellites that were in lower Earth orbits far more effective, far more powerful, far more useful.
Rahul Seth: Yes, far more useful, and now at the price of one large satellite, you can deploy like 20 small satellites and about a Constellation.
Nitin Sharma: And these are CubeSats servers.
Rahul Seth: That's also the standardization framework, which has allowed for component standardization across industries. It's still not gotten to the level of auto parts manufacturing, but it's headed there.
Nitin Sharma: Yeah.
Rahul Seth: So, what this now does is with the cost of one satellite, which would only cover one region. You can send up close to 20 to 30 satellites to have a constellation that covers the entire globe 24/7.
Nitin Sharma: Wow!
Rahul Seth: And what you can do is amazing.
Nitin Sharma: And then because you have that sort of substrate, you can do a lot more in applications.
Rahul Seth: Absolutely.
Nitin Sharma: So that's what we are calling the Jio thesis.
Nitin Sharma: So these are the two macro trends that are being driven globally as well in India. The interesting bit and this is where the Jio thesis gets more interesting.
Nitin Sharma: Yeah, so let's connect it to two other things right, which are talent and government support. So let's talk about this, are there just more people now who are working in?
Rahul Seth: Yes, very interestingly, ISRO set up this college in 2007 called IIST. There are about 40 colleges in India that offer degrees in Aeronautical engineering.
Nitin Sharma: Wow!
Rahul Seth: IIST was specifically set up to produce space technology graduates and they were a direct pipeline to ISRO where they had a contract at ISRO. So the first batch graduated in 2011, wrapped up their contracts by 2016. They have a batch size of about 200 people, so you now have 200 people who have close to 10 years of experience in this industry who are now coming out to build stuff. they've seen.
Nitin Sharma: Every year?
Rahul Seth: Every year from 2016 onwards and they're all now adding up. So that's one thing that's happened. The other thing that's happened is the first generation of space companies that were built in India say Earth to Orbit team and DEVAS to a certain extent as well created a talent pool that's now building second generation thing.
The third part is where with the convergence of technology talent and this is where government support gets very interesting.
If you look at the US as a parallel, SpaceX exists because there were NASA grants available for them to exist in so many ways. Given just the costs associated with everything. ISRO, today provides testing facilities and access to know-how technology transfer. A lot of ISRO scientists have been very generous in sharing their experience, their time, and their know-how with young individuals who are coming out and building this. So, you have the ISRO talent pipeline and new folks who are coming into it. And there is a support that's given monetarily as well from a technology perspective. That's making it super booming in India.
Nitin Sharma: Got it—interesting.
Opportunities in Space Tech for Aspiring Founders
Nitin Sharma: OK Rahul, now that this Jio thesis is clear. We've mapped out the landscape. If we have to pick 3 or 4 things that are most interesting from your perspective for startups in India or opportunities that we think people should pursue, I'd like to go into that.
Rahul Seth: Super. So, just to start off with, the biggest opportunity from India, this is where I will preface. There are opportunities globally but what is something that we can do given the constraints of the ecosystem that we work with is what we will focus on. So, while the hardware is what captures the largest amount of attention, we will spend a lot more time, particularly on the software side. The application side is where we see more venture value in so many ways.
Nitin Sharma: It's just for this. We're just to be clear for this episode. We've chosen to focus on the application software.
Rahul Seth: Applications software, yeah. The most important is what I call space-adjacent industries, which are using all of this data, and all of this technology that is now available to apply it to real-life problems that they're solving. A prime example of that is CropIn, which focuses on agriculture, but they focus a lot on utilizing satellite data to inform farmers of crop yields, Pestilence, ground composition, etc.
Nitin Sharma: Yeah!
Rahul Seth: Another example of this is Aqua Connect which focuses on aquaculture and helping farmers do it and this is where space-adjacent is very interesting. When we can monitor this, a large number of these people are underserved with credit. So, this allows large insurance companies as well as credit providers to be able to look at yield, to be able to look at potential future, and then offer credit.
Nitin Sharma: So these things we talked about for a long time. I think what you're saying is because of as you call the Jio moment, the LEO or all the data. You have these satellites being more effective and it's not just sending imagery data. It's actually that you can now use this in more interesting ways around credit scoring and all of that insurance etc.
Rahul Seth: Exactly and because the costs of all of this have gone down, it's easier for a lot more people to do it. So hedge funds and large insurance agencies already bought this kind of data for their work. Now you have NABARD buying this data.
Nitin Sharma: So data is just the end result of the Jio. This data is so cheap and space data is also cheap.
Rahul Seth: Cheap and far richer in quality. So not just 3G, 4G. And now you can do amazing things on top of it.
Nitin Sharma: Got it, so this is space-adjacent companies.
Rahul Seth: Yeah, and then you, also have space native industries in this like SatSure, which are focused on aggregating the data, finding analytics and providing it to different companies in this space. Companies like SatSure, and companies like Pixxel they're building their own platforms for people to be able to sort of literally plug and play and find out what's happening.
This actually brings me to the second interesting opportunity. So far buying this kind of Earth imagery data or Earth observation data is a very broken experience. It's still done over emails Sometimes you literally maybe print it out and then go by hand on top of it, like what comes out that comes out. So these companies which are now building platforms are streamlining the process of acquiring this data and then being able to analyze it on their platform itself. So this is where the transitional services to product are happening more and more as well.
Nitin Sharma: Makes sense.
Rahul Seth: So, these are two opportunities which are there about how you utilize different kinds of data to be able to do actual real world things, and addition to that, which is also an opportunity to own the satellites. Now that's more capital intensive, but then you have stronger moats because you own the imagery that you're going to build stuff on top of. So this is one way.
The second area, where I'm particularly excited about is space infrastructure being built out, so this is relatively easier than rocket engines in some ways, but this involves orbital debris tracking, fueling stations, and communications in space itself, so all of these are areas that are growing and maturing, and nobody has a head start in this area everybody is starting to get into it as well, so we're sort of on a level playing field across the world. Capital requirements are also significantly lower because you're not building rockets again which is the most expensive.
Nitin Sharma: So, space-adjacent startup, space native companies, but still essentially being on the application side and third is in space platforms.
Rahul Seth: The third is what you do with the satellite and how do you make that satellite better. One big part of a satellite energy expenditure is to be able to beam the data back. So being able to do on-board processing, edge computing as we call it, it's an actual good use case of edge computing in so many ways, because if you're able to analyze it, you're only able to send insights down rather than having to send massive datasets down.
Sci-fi or Reality: Mars Colonization, Asteroid Mining, Space Factories, and More Ft. Awais Ahmed, Founder & CEO, Pixxel
Nitin Sharma: So Rahul, this has been a really fun discussion and I know one of the things we've been talking about is in some of these episodes bringing someone in who's actually, an operator or founder in this space doing something very interesting. So we've talked about so many really cool things towards the end with asteroid mining, space manufacturing and so on. I think we should have our friend Awais join us who many of you know is the founder of Pixxel, a company that the whole ecosystem is very proud of and so we're really excited to have him here!
Rahul Seth: Hi folks! we're back with Awais here today. Awais and I met 4 years ago and it's been an incredible journey. He's the founder and CEO of Pixel. They've built a company from ground up through multiple stages to having their first hyperspectral satellite being launched very, very recently, the images are back on the ground as well. We're looking very sharp. We have, Awais here, to discuss some crazy stuff with us. We've talked about all the realistic things, how does the science work? What makes sense? This last bit is a fun bit where we want to talk about the crazy stuff that we hear, the science fiction that we hear and how close is it to being a fact for us today? So Nitin, I know you've asked me a lot of these questions. I haven't been able to answer them as well, which is why we have Awais here today.
Nitin Sharma: I think it's a great time to talk about some more out there stuff. I think we've talked enough about some very practical things, but the real joy of space is the dream, right? The way it sparks imagination. So maybe a good point to start is just everybody keeps hearing of Elon Musk, the 100 things he does; talks a lot about the ultimate mission is to make humans in Multi planetary species. So Awais, what do you think, is that something which is really important?
Awais Ahmed: Yeah, I would say it's not only important to become multiplanetary, but multi stellar eventually taking a step beyond what Elon says in terms of becoming multiplanetary, they are just step one and then we need to become multi-stellar.
There are two reasons I would say for that right. One is the fact that it de-risks us as a civilization, as a species, humans are unique as far as we know in terms of intelligence. It becomes important I think for us to actually not have all our eggs in one basket. So as to say, there are events such as an asteroid hurtling towards the earth that we might not be able to deflect.
There are things such as super volcanic eruptions that can happen here that might lead to Earth becoming inhospitable for a few centuries. Which is why it becomes important to have a second home where we can actually be de-risked from planetary extinction events, and then there are also entire solar system based extension events where it might be a gamma ray burst that happens somewhere in the vicinity of our Galaxy that makes all of the planets right in the pathway of not being habitable or a rogue star and compelling around towards our solar system approaching the gravity wells that are here, right?
So I think those are logical reasons, but then I think the more important reason is that we humans have always had an exploratory zeal. If there was something that wasn't attainable, humans sort of went out and said, you know, let's see what's out there. When humanity started in the cradle of Africa, the humans didn't say, you know, we have enough resources here. They expanded towards Asia. From Asia they expanded towards the Americas. From Asia they expanded towards Indonesia and they didn't stop there. They said, you know, let’s see what's beyond the seas. Must have been some crazy people who built out some initial rafts and said let's go out to an island and study civilizations there, right?
So, I think just because of that exploratory zeal, we have sort of covered the entire planet. Now it becomes important for us to see what's out there beyond the earth. Also, that's I think the second and probably the most important reason for us to become multiplanetary.
Nitin Sharma: You know why this is awesome because it's really fun to talk about spaces, no pun intended. Where you're not thinking about what's a Series A, B, C, because for something like this we're talking about, you know, a completely different level of ambition, right? But what about time frames? Like what? What do you guys think? Is this something which we can achieve in the next 50 years? 100 years?
Awais Ahmed: Yeah, I think it depends right on the incentives that are aligned. If we wanted to do it with the current technology that we have and with the current resources that we have, it's probably a 10-year job for us to actually create a thriving mars ecosystem. And we could have probably done that by the turn of this century if we had continued on the same level of pace that the Apollo program went on.
Nitin Sharma: That's true.
Awais Ahmed: In about six years from when Kennedy announced it, when they had no technology to do it. We had nothing. When they landed people on the moon. And that was because the entire nation and the people said, you know, there's something that is important that has to be done, and then it wasn't important anymore for the senators that were taking calls. So, you know it was pulled back, so I think it's a call on incentives there as to how we can make it happen, but it's not a question of if it will happen but when.
But whether that is 20 years or 50 years remains to be seen. But I think from the pace that is picking up and not only from the government but from private organizations like SpaceX and Blue Origin, I think realistically probably in 20 to 30 years will have some sort of a basic base on both the Moon and Mars eventually. But as to whether it's a thriving economy will remain to be seen as to how different factors come together.
Nitin Sharma: And what is the beyond sort of ambition and focus? And when you say the entire computing capacity of, I think the Apollo mission is today on a phone, or you know, I've seen that kind of stats thrown around. So do we already have everything we need in terms of, you know, the science to get there and the engineering to get there, and it's really a matter of just pouring more resources or other important bottlenecks which will take a few years to get sorted.
Awais Ahmed: I think there's obviously a few small engineering challenges that have to be solved to get there. We haven't done all of it at the scale that is required, but the delta that exists between where we are today to having a thriving Mars or moon base and the delta that the United States had when it had to send people to the moon in 1962. That delta was much, much larger than it is today.
There will always be new problems to figure out. You know we still don't know what the impact of radiation will be on the people that will be traveling long distances in space and being there, but that's something that will only come out once there's actual data or take it so I would say yes! We have all the scientific and engineering related knowledge to a certain point near to get there, just a matter of the funding and the will of the people to get there.
Nitin Sharma: Wow, I just have to make myself live long enough to see this. What else do you personally find fascinating?
Rahul Seth: So I've always found the idea of asteroid mining very interesting. I've talked about it and I think this is one of the things we should talk a little more about.
Nitin Sharma: Yeah.
Rahul Seth: Why are we mining it like our general belief is just mined resources will be used to make something that's the fundamental idea. But why asteroids? We have a lot of it here, and that's the interesting bit in so many ways for me. So as you mentioned, we're looking to be a multi-planetary species right now then multi-stellar. So where does asteroid mining fit into the picture? Is it that critical piece of it? Is that why we talk so much about it?
Awais Ahmed: Yeah, I would think. Look, asteroid mining has been talking about in the sense of bringing riches back to. There is an asteroid, full of gold or diamonds and platinum and will bring it back and we'll be rich. That doesn't really make sense. Probably the first or first one or 2 folks that do get asteroids that are valuable can create a monopoly like, you know, the Debeers have done with diamonds in South Africa, for example, but what you actually need asteroid mining for is to have resources for you in space not to be able to bring it back or something.
Awais Ahmed: There's a big chunk of space literally between Earth and Moon and Earth and Mars, and between different galaxies and being able to get from here to there and create an economy that sort of links all of these bodies together. It's important to also have infrastructure in space that does it whether that's large scale manufacturing facilities in space for habitats or research facilities, right? Some things can be uniquely created in space such as pharmaceutical drugs can be researched.
You can create high Purity Zealand optical cables that can only be done in space to be able to get material from the surface of the Earth and space is actually a lot expensive because of the gravity that earth but when you're looking at creating large scale structures in space that might you know either powered lunar colonies or earth colonies or Mars colonies and you need large antennas to be able to communicate over far distances, you need much larger interstellar ships eventually. Where will the material come from? You do not want to take it from earth. The earth should be designated as sort of like a National Park where you're maintaining the sanctity, and the ecology.
Nitin Sharma: That's our species roaming around in.
Awais Ahmed: Yeah, so you need material in space for space to actually create habitats in space. And it's not only that when humans expand outward, but they're also going to go to other planetary bodies that actually wanna begin space creating our own.
Nitin Sharma: So, the entire new sort of space economy. Right, we don't all the things we talked about is sort of the terrestrial way to it's all here. This is the actual space economy where things are being manufactured in space used in space, and transported in space.
Rahul Seth: Absolutely!
Nitin Sharma: And the reasons I think Awais you started talking about is just physics and costs and gravity. You don't actually need; you cannot envision a world where these things are payloads they have to be literally mined and manufactured in space. How far out is this?
Awais Ahmed: I would say you know we've already reached asteroids thanks to NASA and JAXA, the Japanese space agency and the American Space Agency. We have reached asteroids. We have collected samples from there and you know we are bringing them back and have brought some back as well. The engineering challenges to actually mine and process minerals is still something that needs to be tested out, so you're not completely there. But if I were to give a timeframe, 15 years is optimistic to be able to actually mine something there and 25 to 30 years where this becomes a fully fledged economy like.
Nitin Sharma: Where do you think we have the first space factory? Whatever that means and what would it look like?
Awais Ahmed: So it depends on the space factory for earth or space factory for space. So for the space factory for Earth, what space is already sort of doing it where they are doing small scale experimentation and manufacturing which they're going to bring back words such as optical cables or pharmaceutical drug testing.
Nitin Sharma: So do you actually. I know you mentioned that I've read the arguments for it, but does this ever make sense? I mean, what's an example where a drug you would think would actually be cheaper to manufacture?
Awais Ahmed: It's not so much cheaper as what can you detect in space? You don't have gravity in space, we have microgravity, so that removes a lot of constraints in terms of your protein building and whatnot which is a lot more fascinating.
Nitin Sharma: Fascinating!
Awais Ahmed: So that's like that's the laboratory. You can only build in microgravity. We don't have antigravity machines to do that here or on earth. So it has to be done in space. That's why it sort of makes sense there.
The other thing again is when you're trying to create organs for humans 3D printed bio organs. Gravity creates a lot of problems because you're building very thin layers of tissues that need to be around each other and don't need to collapse on each other. We need microgravity. Again, you can't create microgravity.
Nitin Sharma: So for you, space manufacturing sounds like the most interesting thing that will happen and in earth orbit is drugs and organs.
Awais Ahmed: In the short term, you need to create a lower earth economy first for you to create a space economy. It's in the lower Earth orbit. We have a robust economy on Earth, you know, at a certain point in time, Europe, Asia and Americas were quite disjointed, but today it's like one single world.
Nitin Sharma: Right.
Awais Ahmed: So to expand outwards, we need to first create a lower earth economy, which is manufacturing for earth and in space economy right there itself in terms of fueling and what not. Then you expand towards the Earth and the moon economy, for which we need this infrastructure, and then you move towards Mars, which will be linked again to the moon and earth. So that's sort of like the natural progression for things will probably come to me.
Awais Ahmed: The lower earth economy is the MVP for the solar system.
Nitin Sharma: Yeah, it's the MVP or the test bed.
Awais Ahmed: Yeah.
Nitin Sharma: Where does India factor investing in all of this? Like what are we going to sort of be closer to, you know you're doing something very interesting, but when you see the landscape and you know the number of new people coming out of the institutes, are they still largely focusing on things that we discussed earlier? Are there enough people thinking about these things?
Awais Ahmed: So I think there's been a difference in how the Indian Space Agency set up versus ESA or NASA has been set up right. ISRO was set up to bring domestic, Atmanirbhar or Self-reliance to our country. They had to create technologies that are already created and catch up and leapfrog in certain areas to provide infrastructure to the country so that we are not dependent on someone.
NASA, whose job was pure research and working on cutting edge research and doing things for the first time. Similarly, with JAXA. So that's sort of been there because it was a necessity for ISRO to do that when it started out versus some other space agencies like we just talked about, but where we are today with the privatization of the economy is in space, has been spun off, so all the commercial grade activities can now be taken upon in space, leaving ISRO free to do the job that space agencies are supposed to do, which is work on cutting edge research, such as sending solar probes to the Sun or sending interplanetary probes to some far off planets. So since that is opened up now, I think. It's more of a level playing field between countries to say who can actually go out to the new strategic playing field, which is space now and assert its geopolitical bill.
Nitin Sharma: So multiplanetary species, space manufacturing, asteroid mining, space debris, and I've learned a lot. So thank you Awais for joining us. I know this was a short segment, but we would love to continue this conversation. Rahul, thank you for all your insights. I think this was one of the more sort of “out there” episodes of Theory of Next. So thank you all for joining and we'll see you next time.
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