May 24, 2022 - Science

Small but mighty space industry increasingly powers life on Earth

Illustration of an exclamation point made of stars.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The relatively small space industry is having an increasingly outsized influence on life on Earth — from geopolitics to GPS directions.

Why it matters: People, companies and nations are pouring billions of dollars into establishing themselves in space. But it is a costly endeavor, so far limited to a few, wealthy entities that have power over the industry on Earth and are shaping it in space.

Driving the news: Space has proven to be more essential than ever to the way we understand what's happening on Earth, and that can best be seen through the essential role satellites have in monitoring — and aiding in — the war in Ukraine.

  • Photos from space have allowed the public and governments to understand what's happening in Ukraine — for example, they provided evidence of Russian atrocities in Bucha that can be cited by war crimes investigations.
  • SpaceX's Starlink is providing internet access to parts of Ukraine, allowing civilians to share their experiences of war with the world.
  • Much of this is being done using private means, raising concerns that some space companies are able to wield soft power once only reserved for nation-states.

The big picture: War — and everyday life — depends on space for support. Remote tools for key infrastructure like wind turbines are monitored using satellite connectivity, while power grids and banking systems rely on GPS satellites.

  • "Most people have no idea," the Secure World Foundation's Brian Weeden told me. "They don't drive past something like a giant wind turbine and think about, 'Oh, yeah, we probably have an internet connection for that thing.'"
  • The industry's importance to everyday life also translates to the prioritization of space by nations — like the establishment of the U.S. Space Force.

Billionaires have also become the face of the industry, reflecting their values on their companies and therefore giving the public a window into what matters to them.

  • So understanding how Elon Musk runs a company like SpaceX can help illuminate how he might manage Twitter.

Between the lines: As nations realign on Earth, they also realign in space, changing the geopolitical landscape in orbit and beyond.

  • "Space trails events on Earth," space analyst Laura Seward Forczyk told me.
  • For example, NASA and Russia's relationship in space started to devolve after Russia's invasion of Crimea in 2014, a chilling of the alliance that continues today.
  • Now, Russia is starting to align itself with China, making plans to create a joint research base on the Moon.

Yes, but: While Russia's relationship with the U.S. has deteriorated on the whole, the two nations have had to continue talking to keep cosmonauts and astronauts on the International Space Station safe.

What's next: Space will continue to grow in importance in the coming years.

  • Weather satellites are already essential for forecasting, and spacecraft are now being used to spot the beginnings of wildfires.
  • Earth-gazing satellites are monitoring climate change and the worst emitters of greenhouse gases, making it harder for polluters to hide from the consequences.
  • Space is also increasingly becoming a war-fighting domain as nations rely on satellites more and more for situational awareness during wars waged on the ground.

The bottom line: Space matters more than ever.

Go deeper