Monetizing the Final Frontier


Today’s news that Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin could ink a deal with Space Florida to headquarter its civilian space travel company in the Sunshine State demonstrates how tangible privatized space missions have become.

The dream of exploring the cosmos has now moved beyond the theory, with billionaires like Elon Musk and Richard Branson working on respective projects like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic to make space travel a reality for (rich) civilians. But tourism is only one industry in a growing community of companies focused on outer space. Distant travel, private satellites and even mining are among the expanding list of endeavors space startups are now focusing on.

Besides those major endeavors, there are hosts of smaller space-bound startups you might not have heard of. Here is a list of 10 companies who probably deserve a lot more attention for their projects.

1. Planet Labs

Planet Labs is a private satellite company that seeks not to launch huge individual satellites into orbit, but herds of them. Referring to its machines as doves, its first “flock” of 28 was launched into space last year. Their second flock was aboard last month’s doomed SpaceX rocket, leaving 36 doves up in smoke. Earlier this year, another rocket from Orbital Sciences also failed at launch, burning up a flock of 26. Bumps in the road are to be expected though, according to the company.

Imaging data from the doves is sold to a number of customers from different industries, including agriculture, mining, geospatial and government civil sectors.

The company has thus far raised $93 million according to CB Insights. It was founded by former NASA scientists CEO William Marshall, CTO Chris Boshuizen, and President Robbie Schingler. They describe their mission as “democratizing access to information about the changing planet.”

2. Thoth Technologies

Thoth made a giant leap forward this week when it announced it had received the first approved patents from both the US and UK for the construction of a 12-mile-high space elevator, aimed at eliminating costly and energy-intensive rocket launches to reach space.

Before that announcement, the Canadian company has been supplying a whole line of machines designed for extraterrestrial use: spectrometers, linescan cameras with extended range and infrared capabilities, all-terrain rovers and flight computers. The company also operates its own radio observatory and offers thermal vacuum and vibration testing.

The company was founded in 2001.

3 & 4. Elysium and Celestis

Elysium Space and Celestis are not necessarily pioneers in new technology or offering living experiences in space – dead experiences however, that’s another thing. Elysium offers three post-funerary plans for the ashes of loved ones, all blasting those remains into space.

A maiden Celestis voyage for deceased passengers landed 24 urns on the moon in 1999 – including Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Other options include sending ashes trekking out of the solar system or allowing them to re-enter in a Shooting Star Memorial that would burn up on reentry.
Both companies have inked deals with lunar hopefuls Astrobotic and Moon Express.

5. Astrobotic

One of the main competitors in Google’s Lunar X competition, the Pittsburgh-based company wants to put its Griffin Lander on the Moon and begin a series of payload deliveries for other scientific endeavor companies and governments. They signed a futures deal with the Mexican Space Agency in June for future lunar deliveries.

The company was “spun” off from Carnegie Mellon University by William “Red” Whittaker, in the words of Astrobotic’s website. The company plans to launch translunar injections (sending something from Earth orbit to the Moon’s), lunar orbiters and landers capable of carrying 270 kg (595 lbs) with price variations per kilogram depending on the type of mission. Their website allows you to configure a theoretical mission and estimate its costs.

Space ship
Photo Credit: Shutterstock


6. Moon Express

Moon Express is also hoping to grab Google’s $30 million prize and has already raised about $10 million itself. Founded in 2010 by Dr. Bob Richards, Naveen Jain, and Dr. Barney Pell, the company looks to exploit the Moon for its resources, referring to it as an “8th continent” on its website. The company hopes to exploit the surface of long-theorized lunar supplies of helium 3, platinum group metals and rare earths used in modern digital technology.

The company unveiled its MX-1 prototype lunar lander in 2013, but has not made many headlines since. Like Astrobotic, they are also looking at lunar deliveries as a business. In May, the company signed an agreement with Italy’s National Laboratories of Frascati and the University of Maryland to place laser-reflecting arrays on the Moon in order to continue experiments started by the original Apollo missions.

7. Planetary Resources

Although the prospect of mining for precious and industrial metals on asteroids still seems economically unfeasible, Planetary Resources believes that it could soon change. In July, the company launched its first space mission, testing some of its in-house-developed tech.

They hope that years of research and a new era for detecting so-called “near-Earth asteroids” (rocks outside the main asteroid belt which orbit the sun nearer to our own planet) will make access to meteors easier. In addition, they anticipate utilizing hydrogen and oxygen on these destination asteroids themselves to fuel return probes to Earth, lightening the load by packing less fuel for the initial journey.

The company was founded as Arkyd Astronautics in 2009 by with Director Peter Diamandis and Chief Engineer Chris Lewicki. Co-founder Larry Page and Chairman Eric Schmidt of Google are among the company’s investors. Ahead of realizing the long-term goal, the company is seeking to decrease the cost of space travel and to survey potential targets.

8. SpaceFlight Industries

SpaceFlight purchases spare cargo space on upgoing rockets and sells them to other companies looking to send items into space. The company networks with private launch providers to provide space to other startups, among them Planet Labs’ recently downed flock of small satellites. The company develops its own satellites and provides continuous global tracking as well.

The company was founded by Jason Andrews as Spaceflight Systems in July 1999, who is currently president and CEO of the company. To date, the company has raised about $20.25 million. According to the Puget Sound Business Journal, Andrews wants to increase staff beyond 100. Revenues have been steady at $25 million in 2014, with hopes that it will continue to grow this year.

9. Blue Origin

The news that Blue Origin is finalizing a deal to build rockets in Florida is a major step toward private space travel. That deal might be worth upwards of $200 million according to Space Florida, with launches to take place at the world’s most established spaceport in Cape Canaveral.

The company was founded by Amazon owner Jeff Bezos, who aims to build new spacefaring vehicles that would enable private space travel at more feasible rates. The company’s prototype vehicle is called the New Shepard, which will bring space tourists into suborbital flights. The company is also developing a new generation rocket to go even higher.

Orbital Insight

Like Planet Labs, the company is using satellite imagery and data analytics as the cornerstone of its business. But, it is also utilizing artificial intelligence to process that data. The company has raised about $8.7 million thus far.

Founder Dr. James Crawford, a robotics expert and former engineering director at Google Books, compares his current operation to his former job.

“What this company really is, is a Google Books like pipeline – that is, an automated AI pipeline – designed for understanding and processing satellite imaging at scale,” founder and robotics engineer Dr. Crawford explained to Forbes.

The company wants to apply its analytics to all industries, including retailers, agriculture, real estate and commodities.


Photo: Shutterstock


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