Is the Space Economy self-sustaining?

The following guest article is brought to you by The Physics Society, in promotion of World Space Week 2020: Satellites Improve Life. Find out more at @thephysicsociety!

In an ever growing world economy, the Space industry is getting big. As a result, the number of Satellites going into space each year is increasing. But where does all the money that gets pumped into launching a Satellite and keeping it there go? 

Well, the major cost of satellites is the equipment that goes into building them. Transponders cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to maintain yearly, while bandwidth cost per MHz is usually $3,500 a month. Just running a satellite at a 36MHz bandwidth costs over $1.5 million a year. Just to get a satellite to function properly, plenty of equipment is needed, such as sensors and computer software. These are quite expensive, and add on to the already high costs.

The next factor that contributes to the expenses with satellite use is the cost of launching one into orbit. The launch of a single satellite can cost anywhere between $50 million to as high as $400 million, depending on the type and size of the vehicle used. A small launch vehicle such as the Pegasus XL rocket (built in 1990 and used by NASA) can lift 976 pounds (443 kilograms) into low-Earth orbit for about $13.5 million. That works out to be almost $14,000 per pound. A heavy launch vehicle, on the other hand, costs more to launch but also provides a greater lifting force. For example, the Ariane 5G rocket ( used by the European Space Agency) can lift 39,648 pounds (18,000 kilograms) into low-Earth orbit at a cost of $165 million. That works out to $4,162 per pound, making it more cost-effective on a per-pound basis.

SpaceX Falcon Heavy Launch. Photo by SpaceX

Yet another factor to be considered, is the cost of satellite maintenance. After the satellite is placed in orbit, it has to be monitored from a ground facility, which requires large manpower. Sadly there are still high chances that Satellites can break down or go through faulty times in which they will need even more money. Furthermore, if things don’t go too well during a launch, a multi-million endeavor can either end up in pieces or sustain damages that will cost more money to repair.

Despite the costs and risks associated with building, launching and operating satellites, it isn’t impossible for companies to make big money out of this. Boeing is one of those companies. Its Defense, Space and Security division managed to deliver 10 satellites in 2012 and acquire orders for seven more, contributing to the business unit’s nearly $32 billion in revenue

Jobs in the Satellite industry

As mentioned, satellites require great care and effort so it isn’t surprising that there are a lot of human-oriented jobs. Some current jobs in the Satellite industry include Astronomers, Atmospheric and space scientists, Aerospace and Computer hardware engineers, technicians, Media and communications workers and Photographers. Astronauts may be the most well-known space workers, but they are a small fraction.

Well that’s a lot of jobs isn’t it? Well, a large amount of money goes into the salary of all the workers as well, contributing a great amount to be accumulated for the overall finance of the industry. The average NASA salary ranges from $55,335 per year approximately for Office Secretary to $174,326 per year for Director of Operations. Average NASA hourly pay ranges from approximately $8.59 per hour for Camp Counselor to $60.00 per hour for Electrical Engineer. 

For the first half century, space was dominated by the public sector. Due to advances in science and technology, as well as changes in the economy and industry funding models, private commercial enterprises are initiating projects that the government once led.

However, even with the huge amount of jobs already present, it seems like many more are yet to come. Some of these include Mining specialists, Space Tourist Managers, Space Architects and Space Traffic Managers. As more vehicle operators emerge, there is an increasing need for expertise in coordinating human piloted and robotic spacecraft.

It was mentioned that ranging from the years 2014 to 2018, the total manufacturing value of spacecraft/satellites launched each year increased almost 50 percent from just under $30 billion to $45 billion, & that expected to grow exponentially in the decades to come.

  • There will be 100,000 space sector-related jobs available in the UK by 2030.
  • The overall demand for satellite data will grow annually at 30% between now and 2025.
  • The global market for new launch technology for small satellites will be worth £25 billion over the next 20 years.
  • Revenue from cellular and satellite connectivity fees will reach more than $138 million in 2017.

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