It’s been an amazing year for the space industry, and while we all know that progress is not linear, we feel confident that 2024 will be even more amazing.
This year has been tough for many companies in the space, and we’re not trying to write that off in our optimism. The world of zero-interest-rate policy, or ZIRP, is officially over; money became more expensive and fundraising became more challenging. However, 2023 has also produced several tailwinds that we think will make next year one of the biggest events to date.
Here is a short list of what to be most excited for next year. This is TechCrunch, so the list skews toward venture-backed startups; remember that before you complain about the loss of Artemis II.
More Starship tests
SpaceX has had a landmark year this year, and not only because it has carried out almost 100 launches of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. The company also launched the Starship — the most powerful launch vehicle ever built — not once, but twice.
The first trial took place in April; the second in November. Both ended in mid-air explosions and both fell well short of completing the full mission profile: sending the upper stage (also called the Starship) on a flight halfway around the world with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, and the landing of the Super Heavy booster in the Gulf of Mexico.
However, both missions were great successes.
Part of this has to do with SpaceX’s culture of quick and constant hardware improvements. During the six-month stretch between the two launches, SpaceX implemented a ton of infrastructure improvements on the ground and the launch vehicle. Those include an improved launch design, a water deluge system and upgrades to the Raptor’s engines. These changes helped the Starship fly a second time; most impressively, the company pulled an experimental hot game, a way to separate the rockets in two phases by lighting the upper phases of the engines while the booster is still connected and fires its engines.
We expect to see further improvements and a higher testing cadence next year. We wouldn’t even be surprised if they were able to pull off the entire orbital flight plan.
Historic lunar lander missions
More private companies will try to land a spacecraft on the moon next year than before, by an order of magnitude. Excited to see companies including Astrobotic, Intuitive Machines, Firefly Aerospace and ispace all take their shot. So far, only four nation states have landed spacecraft on the moon – so when a company succeeds, it makes history.
2024 will see launches from Intuitive Machines and Astrobotic. Currently, it is likely that both will attempt a landing in the same week – the third week of February. Firefly aims to launch its Blue Ghost lander in the third quarter, while iSpace aims to launch its mission later this year.
Demonstrations of advanced satellite operations
In the broadest possible terms, a large portion of space startups are interested in increasing the number of things a satellite can do in space. A good example is something called rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO), which is when two spacecraft intentionally maneuver to land or otherwise interact with each other. Another hot area in satellite operations involves in-space manufacturing and satellite re-entry.
Next year, we expect to see more demonstrations from startups seeking to implement state-of-the-art satellite operations. Off the top of our heads, a few to look forward to (although this is by no means an exhaustive list):
- True Anomaly, a startup focused on space defense, will demonstrate at RPO with two of its Jackal satellites early next year
- In-space logistics startup Atomos Space will launch its first two orbital transfer vehicles that will eventually help reposition satellites in orbit.
- Japanese company Astroscale has partnered with Rocket Lab to launch a spacecraft that will conduct an orbital debris-removal demonstration.
- Varda Space Industries will carry its first in-space manufacturing spacecraft, successfully growing crystals of the drug ritonavir in orbit.
- Impulse Space, a startup founded by ex-SpaceX propulsion expert Tom Mueller, will launch two more missions on its Mira spacecraft for last-mile orbital delivery and satellite constellation deployment.
More rocket testing from new entrants and established players
We’ve already mentioned SpaceX, but they’re far from the only game in town. 2024 should be full of exciting tests and new developments from other companies looking to get their share of the launch market. We’re especially excited for the first launches — of Blue Origin’s New Glenn, Rocket Lab’s Neutron and Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser spaceplane — and getting updates from Stoke Space and Relativity, the two companies with rockets that don’t will be launched by the end of the decade. We will also be watching for the second flight test of the ABL Space System RS1 rocket.
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