Private unmanned space missions

I described in my previous essay how affordable launches would allow humanity to become a multi-planetary species, and I mentioned how this routinization of space travel would make private scientific missions possible.

Just like Red Bull sponsored the jump of Felix Baumgartner from the stratosphere, or Rolex sponsored expeditions to the Mariana Trench and the top of Mount Everest (amongst others…), relatively cheap space missions could be sponsored by corporations.

For instance, Europa. Probably our biggest chance of finding life in the Solar System. Its ocean, hidden beneath a few miles of ice, is enormous, and likely contains all the basic ingredients for life.
There are a lot of opportunities to raise money for such a mission, from disinterested donors to corporations. I’m not suggesting something like Mars One, which is a project so expensive that it’s impossible to raise so much money from corporations willing to sponsor the endeavor. An unmanned scientific mission is a rather niche market, but when we’re talking about alien oceanic exploration and possibly life, even complex, multicellular life, the fame associated with such a mission could be durable for sponsors.
There is actually a company designing a mission like this with NASA, Stone Aerospace. Its founder, Bill Stone, is a well-known explorer, and he and his team along with the other aerospace companies that would be involved in such a mission, would be great as “heroes” of a TV show about the mission for example.
The preparation of the mission could be a great source for in depth journalism and frequent TV shows. National Geographic or Discovery could finance a part of the mission in exchange for access to the team of scientists and engineers designing the spacecraft. This would also give the mission great visibility, meaning that placing products would be more attractive. Apparel companies could outfit the team; Nike for example, or another major technical apparel manufacturer (The North Face, etc) whose ethos is about pushing personal and global limits.
The team could be equipped with Rolex watches, and the probe sent to Europa’s ocean could carry Rolex watches on its arms to demonstrate their reliability.
Given Rolex’s appetite for oceanic exploration, as a way to demonstrate their watches’ durability and reliability (their latest feat was sending one of their Deep Sea watch to the bottom of the Mariana Trench with James Cameron’s submarine), this could be a great challenge for them, both from an engineering and marketing perspective.
RED, the manufacturer of cinema cameras and lenses, could provide cameras both for filming the TV show and to be placed on the probe to film Europa’s surface and oceans in 4, or even 6K.
Gigantic corporations like Coca-Cola or Acer for example, which are big sponsors of sport events, could also sponsor the mission in exchange for advertisement or product placement.
And let’s not forget that the rocket fairing provides a gigantic canvas for logos to be printed upon!

It’s a very “business minded” approach to financing a scientific mission, but it makes possible missions that cannot be funded right now, given the constraints placed on NASA and other space agencies.

Even cheaper missions could be designed by individuals, NGOs, or Universities, thanks to CubeSats. If they are still limited and a bit expensive, demand will drive down prices and spur innovation, allowing the tiny CubeSats to accomplish interplanetary missions. A lot of small companies and University teams are currently designing deep space components for CubeSats, like communication systems or plasma engines.
In the near future I expect services to develop to help people develop their own missions. For example, a simple website could allow you to virtually design your CubeSat based on where you intend to go and what you intend to do. You would select your destination, budget, science objectives, and the website would guide you, advising you and suggesting components that might suit your needs.
Once you have selected all the components needed to build your CubeSat and achieve your mission, the website would propose to sell them to you, or sell and assemble them for you. It could also provide wholesale prices for the launch of the CubeSat. Easy to use software would make guiding the small probe really simple. The companies developing such services would also need to invest in ground radars to allow users to communicate with their CubeSats once they are in space.

Exciting times indeed. I can’t wait to see the launch prices plumet.

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