Final frontier: Bermuda sets sights on space industry

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(In photo: Danielle Wood, Director of Space Enabled at MIT Media Lab)

by Jonathan Kent 

Bermuda has set its course to boldly go into the space industry, in search of economic diversification.

Human activity in space was once the preserve of vying superpowers and government agencies, but in recent years an array of private companies has led the way. Satellite infrastructure, communications, Earth observation, solar energy, reusable rockets, asteroid mining and space tourism are some of the ventures being pursued with varying degrees of success.

During 2020, the global space industry generated revenue of $371 billion and record-breaking growth in new investment in the sector, according to the Satellite Industry Association. 

The potential for investment in this vibrant sector is vast. The Bermuda National Space Strategy spells out the island’s goals to try to win the island a piece of that business:

  • Build Bermuda’s reputation as a responsible, leading jurisdiction for space and satellite-related business 
  • Enhance domestic space and satellite-related capabilities 
  • Further integrate Bermuda with the international space community 
  • Generate revenue from national orbital allotments.

Danielle Wood, Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Sciences and Director of Space Enabled at MIT Media Lab, sits on the Space and Satellite Policy Advisory Panel, established in 2018 by the Ministry of Home Affairs.

In an interview, Prof Wood said Bermuda should not discount itself from space opportunities because of its size: “In the 1960s, the United Nations sent out a clear message that space is the province of all humankind. Every country of any size should be thinking about space as a potential opportunity for them.”

In this spirit, the International Telecommunication Union, an agency within the UN, has granted radio spectrum and orbital allotments – limited natural resources – to many different countries. One of the two orbital slots to which Bermuda has sole rights came into use by two commercial satellite operators, SES and EchoStar, in 2013. Bermuda shares rights to two further orbital resources with various Caribbean jurisdictions.

But how does the space industry support economic activity that benefits the average person, down here on Earth? 

Prof Wood explained: “We should view space activities as being like infrastructure, as you might consider an airport. The airport will generate fees, but that’s not the reason it was built. The main economic benefits will come from the visitors flying in and using hotels, restaurants, products and services.”

Many of us use space-based services every day, without realising it. Satellites, acting as “cell towers in the sky”, provide broadband and wireless network coverage in places where the terrestrial network does not reach. Global positioning satellite (GPS) technology helps us with navigation systems in our cars and mobile phones.

“Companies like Uber have built a business model on satellite signals,” Prof Wood said. “There are opportunities for entrepreneurs to find ways to utilise space-based environmental services, positioning information or education systems, for example.”

Bermuda already has strong ties to the space industry through its longstanding tracking of spacecraft launches for US space agency Nasa, from the Mercury project in the early 1960s and through most of the Space Shuttle programme. Nasa closed its Bermuda tracking station in 1997, but reopened it in 2012. The Cooper’s Island facility supports International Space Station supply missions and crew launches, as well as upcoming moon missions. Additionally, the island’s re/insurance industry provides coverage to the industry.

Bermuda sees opportunities to build on these links and to attract space businesses, through the extension of its regulatory prowess to the industry. Supervision frameworks that have gained global respect, while welcoming innovators, in insurance, trusts and asset management, and fintech, are fundamental to those industries on island.

“This is an interesting time in history and I think we’re going to see many proposals for space companies doing things we’ve never seen before, such as commercial space stations or ‘gas stations’ where space travellers can refuel,” Prof Wood said. 

“A government that supports these novel companies, and provides smart regulation and efficient process, could attract space businesses. Once a critical mass is reached, a cluster of emerging space companies becomes a possibility.”

Bermuda’s space ambitions could turn out to be more than a moon shot after all.

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