It was a jaw-dropping year for the space industry, and while we all know by now that progress isn’t linear, we feel pretty confident that 2024 will be even more astonishing.
This year was tough for many space companies, and we aren’t trying to paper that over with our optimism. The world of zero-interest-rate policy, or ZIRP, officially ended; cash got more expensive and fundraising became more challenging. Nevertheless, 2023 also produced a number of tailwinds that we think will make next year one of the most eventful so far.
Here’s a brief list of what we’re most excited for next year. This is TechCrunch, so the list skews toward venture-backed startups; keep that in mind before you complain about the absence of Artemis II.
Even more Starship tests
SpaceX had a landmark year this year, and not only because it executed nearly 100 launches of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. The company also launched Starship — the most powerful launch vehicle ever built — not once, but twice.
The first test took place in April; the second in November. Both ended in mid-air explosions and both fell far short of completing the full mission profile: sending the upper stage (also called Starship) on a flight halfway around the world with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, and landing the Super Heavy booster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Yet, both missions were profound successes.
Part of that has to do with SpaceX’s culture of quickly and iteratively improving hardware. During the six-month stretch between the two launches, SpaceX implemented a ton of improvements to the ground infrastructure and the launch vehicle. Those included an improved launch-mount design, a water deluge system and upgrades to the Raptor engines. These changes helped Starship fly even further the second time around; most impressively, the company pulled off an experimental hot staging, a way to separate the rocket’s two stages by lighting the upper stage’s engines while the booster is still connected and firing its engines.
We expect to see further improvements and an even higher testing cadence next year. We wouldn’t even be surprised if they manage to pull off the full orbital flight plan.
Historic lunar lander missions
More private companies will attempt to land a spacecraft on the moon next year than ever before, by an order of magnitude. We’re 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 if even one company is successful, it will make history.
2024 will kick off with launches from Intuitive Machines and Astrobotic. Right now, it’s looking highly likely that both could attempt a landing in the same week — the third week of February. Firefly is targeting sometime in the third quarter for the launch of their Blue Ghost lander, while ispace is aiming to conduct their mission late in the year.
Advanced satellite operations demonstrations
In the broadest possible terms, a huge 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 dock or otherwise interact with each other. Another hot area of satellite operations involves in-space manufacturing and satellite reentry.
Next year, we expect to see more demonstrations from startups looking to execute state-of-the-art satellite operations. Off the top of our head, a few that we’re looking forward to (though this is by no means an exhaustive list):
- True Anomaly, a defense-focused space startup, will be demonstrating 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 could eventually help reposition satellites in orbit
- Japanese firm Astroscale is partnering with Rocket Lab to launch a spacecraft that will conduct an orbital debris-removal demonstration
- Varda Space Industries will bring home its first in-space manufacturing spacecraft, which successfully grew crystals of the drug ritonavir on orbit
- Impulse Space, a startup founded by ex-SpaceX propulsion expert Tom Mueller, will launch two more missions of its Mira spacecraft for last-mile orbital delivery and satellite constellation deployment
More rocket testing from newer entrants and established players
We already mentioned SpaceX, but they are far from the only game in town. 2024 should be chock full of exciting tests and new developments from other companies looking to take their slice of the launch market. We’re especially excited for 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, both companies which have rockets that won’t launch until later in the decade. We’ll also be looking out for the second flight test of ABL Space System’s RS1 rocket.