Space has already proven its ability to spark global prosperity. GPS technology alone is credited with boosting the global economy by $1.4 trillion after the first commercially available hand-held GPS receiver was sold in 1989. It took several years for the public and private sector to figure out how best to use it, but GPS (along with five other navigation satellite systems) is a core element of our global economy and most peoples’ daily lives. As satellite imagery diversifies, becoming less expensive and more accessible, and as satellite broadband becomes more robust, flexible, and affordable, the countries that invest in their ability to combine, leverage and localize these capabilities will prosper the most.
The benefits of space technology are substantial, most simply demonstrated by how it contributes to every UN Sustainable Development Goal. Most countries’ economies and industries are already dependent on satellites to some degree, for position, navigation, and timing data (transportation, power grids, banking), remote sensing (weather and climate data), or communications (satellite broadband, broadcast, and backhaul services). For most early space actors, space capabilities can be understood as an extension of the digital ecosystem or infrastructure, since satellites collect, broadcast or move data in new and useful ways. The goal is to understand and plan for existing dependencies on space, while methodically developing a domestic capability to maximize space-based benefits.
The overall space “pie” is expanding, predicted to grow to $1trillion by 2040. It includes “downstream” applications like GPS, but also “upstream” in-space applications like satellite design, manufacture and launch, and research and development, with plenty of room for new actors to join the space community. There is no need to follow the exact path to space as the US, China and Russia. Rather, so long as a county establishes some foundational capabilities, it can participate in the space ecosystem using a modular approach, working in areas that best align with national needs and strengths.
Participation in space governance is increasing. The UN Office for Outer Space Affairs started in 1954 with 24 members and, as of 2022, has 100 state members. Additionally, all 193 nations recognized by the UN are members of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the forum where space resources, such as radio-spectrum frequencies and geostationary orbit allocation, are handled routinely, and where all countries have a voice and vote should they choose to use it. Although frequency management doesn’t sound very exciting, it’s where nations negotiate how to avoid doing harm (interference), how to incorporate remaining unconnected and under-connected populations, and how to manifest the promise of 5Gand the Internet of Things– all of which contributes to global prosperity.
There has also been a steady rise of space-related conferences in the Global South, most recently the Global Conference on Space for Emerging Countries 2022 (GLEC2022) in Ecuador and the Kenya Space Expo and Conference 2022 (KSEC2022). Both were focused on harnessing the space sector to spur local economies, deliver better data and connectivity into the hands of their citizens, security, and government personnel, and open up new lines of research, manufacturing, commerce, and applications development. In Kenya, sessions were devoted to such concrete issues as navigation systems for transportation, national and regional frequency management, earth observation data access and use, space law and regulation localization, approaches to space capability development, and the possibility of establishing a spaceport in Kenya. Such conferences, and the actions behind them, show how developing countries are working to expand their ability to use geospatial and navigational data directly, to establish their own sensing, storage, sharing, processing, analysis, and production capabilities.
A new era began when that first GPS-enabled cellphone was put into that first pair of hands. Similarly, space-enabled and in-space technology will expand and diversify as more people and more nations are empowered to put it to good use.
CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.