Commercial Space Advancements in 2023 

By: Nicholas Florio, Francesco Ventre, Marcelo Boldt


2023 has marked significant strides in the space sector, with groundbreaking advancements in various aspects, including down-mass capabilities, the burgeoning low Earth orbit (LEO) economy, the dual-use space industry, and ambitious lunar missions. In this article, we delve into the noteworthy developments that are shaping the future of space exploration and commerce. 

According to THE SPACE REPORT 2023 Q2 from the Space Foundation, Commercial revenue constitutes 78% of the total space economy, consistent with previous years. The continued vitality of the global space economy was driven by $427.6 billion in revenue for commercial space ventures. Some of the fastest growth came in the communications sector, which saw rising demand for satellite broadband services. This sector grew to $28 billion from $24 billion in 2021, an increase of more than 17%. Satellite manufacturing for the commercial sector also boomed with a 35% increase in satellites sent to orbit from 2021 to 2022.

One of the key points in 2023 has been the enhancement of down-mass capabilities, allowing for more efficient cargo return from space to Earth. This directly impacts the LEO economy, as it facilitates the retrieval of valuable materials, experiments, and equipment from orbiting spacecraft. Companies like SpaceX, with its Dragon spacecraft, and other emerging players are contributing to the development of down-mass technologies, fostering a more sustainable and economically viable space industry. The commercialization of low Earth orbit has reached new heights in 2023, with companies exploring diverse opportunities such as satellite deployment, space tourism, and microgravity research. 

As a reference, in June 2023, NASA selected 7 private space companies intending to push the boundaries of the LEO economy to the point it can sustain both government and future commercial needs. The seven private space companies, which were chosen based on their relevance to the industry and their ability to provide the requested financial and technical resources, include: Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman, Sierra Space Corporation, SpaceX, Special Aerospace Services, ThinkOrbital Inc., and Vast Space LLC.

This trend is bolstered by reusable rocket technology, reducing launch costs and opening up LEO for a myriad of commercial activities. SpaceX launched successfully more than 90 times and their advance in technology brought launch prices down to 2500-2700 $/kg

On the other hand, Europe is promoting and nurturing a new ecosystem of launchers dedicated to small to medium payload capacity.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has been at the forefront of space innovation with its Starship spacecraft. In 2023, Starship went through 2 flight tests, with the last one happening in November. While the rocket made its way to space, there were still some problems with both stages. 

Increasing emphasis has been placed on space sustainability and space domain awareness.

In May 2023, the European Council adopted the following conclusions on the “Fair and sustainable use of space”: (i) call for mitigation measures to monitor and manage existing space debris (ii) propose to reinforce capabilities through, for instance, the contribution of the European Union space surveillance and tracking service, in collaboration with the EU space programme agency, to advance towards an EU approach to space traffic management (iii) recognise that space is a global common that should be free for exploration and use by all states. The concept of a dual-use space industry, where space technologies are employed for both civilian and military purposes, has gained prominence in 2023. This trend is transforming the space sector into a versatile domain with applications ranging from communications and Earth observation to national security. Governments and private entities are increasingly investing in technologies that serve both civilian and defense purposes, blurring the lines between traditional distinctions in space-related activities. 

Another key element of this calendar year has been the pursuit of the Moon. The Artemis program spearheaded by NASA has been a focal point in 2023, aiming to return humans to the lunar surface by the end of the decade. The Artemis missions not only represent a significant leap in human exploration but also pave the way for sustainable lunar presence. Private companies like SpaceX are actively contributing to lunar exploration by developing lunar landers and transportation systems. 

A good example is represented by ispace, which launched their first lander Hakuto-R at the end of 2022, eventually failing the final phase of the moon descent once there.

These endeavors mark a shift towards international collaboration, with space agencies and private entities working together to explore and utilize the Moon’s resources. Ultimately, on 30 Nov 2023, the artemis Accords were signed by Angola. This step marks Angola as the third African country and the 33rd nation globally to endorse this agreement.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) continues to be a key player in the global space arena. In 2023, ISRO expanded its capabilities, launching a series of satellites for communication, Earth observation, and scientific research. India’s space endeavors extend beyond its national borders, as it actively engages in international collaborations, sharing its expertise in space technology with other nations. The country’s commitment to advancing its space capabilities underscores the global nature of space exploration and utilization.

As we reflect on the advancements of 2023 in the space sector, it is evident that the landscape of space exploration and commerce is evolving rapidly. The integration of down-mass capabilities, the growth of the LEO economy, the emergence of a dual-use space industry, ambitious lunar missions, ISRO’s contributions, and the potential of Starship in shaping the cislunar economy all contribute to a future where space becomes more accessible and economically viable than ever before. Also, commercial space has gained great interest from a political point of view, leading to the approval of the U.S. Commercial Space Act of 2023, to modernize government oversight of commercial space activities. The Act also works to ensure that the U.S. remains the world leader in commercial space activities. 

Looking forward onto 2024…