Spaceflight waits out SpaceX delays, expands rideshare business to larger satellites and GEO orbit

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PARIS — Spaceflight Services started by arranging rideshare launches for a few cubesats at a time before moving to dozens at a time, with 87 to launch this spring on a SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying Spaceflight’s Sherpa tug.

The company then broadened its portfolio, offering the same service for satellites weighing up to several hundred kilograms. To accommodate them, it purchased its own Falcon 9 rocket, scheduled to launch in late 2017. That launch will carry around 20 satellites.

Next up for Seattle, Washington-based Spaceflight is geostationary orbit. That’s where most telecommunications satellites go, and that’s where the money is.

But in an interview during the recent Satellite 2016 conference, Spaceflight Chief Executive Jason Andrews and Spaceflight Services President Curt Blake said the geostationary-orbit market looks ready for a more diverse customer set, including satellite servicing missions.

Spaceflight Services President Curt Blake. Credit: Spaceflight Services.
Spaceflight Services President Curt Blake. Credit: Spaceflight Services.

When is the 87-satellite Sherpa tug going up on SpaceX? Aren’t some of your customers getting frustrated with the delays?

Andrews: I think the whole launch industry is very frustrating. We’re their next launch out of Vandenberg, so around June – this summer. All indications are that we are still on track, with a launch just ahead of Iridium [scheduled for July].

But we’re a secondary payload. The problem with being a secondary payload is we don’t have any schedule control. That’s why we bought our own Falcon 9 for a later mission.

 What is the principal payload for the June flight?

Blake: The Formosat-5 [optical Earth observation satellite] from Taiwan.

You still have 87 payloads on the Sherpa for this launch?

Blake: Yes.

No one has moved off because of the delays?

Blake: No.

What about the Falcon 9 you purchased for your own account?

Blake: It’s going really well for a planned late-2017 launch.

What is payload configuration for that?

Andrews: It is an integrated payload stack, with mostly microsats, but with some cubesats too. It started out at less than 20 satellites in total, but since we’ve started adding the cubesats, we’re now past 20. The launch with Formosat has mainly cubesats, whereas this one with our own Falcon 9 is more microsats. We think of microsats as up to 500 kilograms; these are mainly around 150 kilograms.

When is your next launch aboard India’s PSLV rocket?

Blake: In May.

With the first pair of your BlackSky optical imaging satellites?

Blake: No, there’s another one in July with Blacksky on it.

What does the U.S. government tell you about a launching on the PSLV?

Andrews: We can get waivers from the general restriction. There’s some flexibility now because people are starting to recognize that PSLV pricing is at, or higher than, U.S. launch prices. So the whole fear of dumping is unfounded.

Wouldn’t someone need to know a lot about PSLV’s cost structure to call it dumping?

Andrews: What we need to know is that they are not going below U.S. prices. I mean, if they were dumping it would have to be under some reference.

The Russia-Ukrainian Dnepr was priced under that U.S. reference for a time.

Andrews: We undertook this because our customers are the next generation of small satellite manufacturers.

We need to protect their interests – that’s what we do. There was a time when it looked like the Russian launch market was going to be completely closed down to us. A few U.S. launchers came on, but it was sporadic. I guess the way to put it is they launched very seldom. Then you had other folks whose pricing was high.

Our reaction was: We’ve got to find another avenue to meet our customers’ needs. So we looked everywhere we could and made what we thought was a good case for the PSLV waiver.

But it’s still considered an exception each time under U.S. policy?

Andrews: Yes, it’s still an exception.

Does that entail a lot of paperwork?

Blake: It’s a fair amount of paperwork, and it’s not as though they [India and PSLV] have a ton of space per launch, either.

Does it seem odd that the United States decrees that pricing in California should be the mandated worldwide minimum?

Andrews: We’re just trying to do right by our customers.

So you launch in May and then in July on PSLV?

Andrews: Yes, and then a launch in September.

Also on the PSLV?

Andrews: No, and I can’t say more. The point is that there are consistent launches available, but it’s challenging. It’s a problem not only for us, it’s a problem for the whole small satellite environment.

[Orbital ATK’s] Antares had its challenges and they’re not back yet. SpaceX had its challenges and is now working to get back. The invasion of Crimea threw a wrench in the whole Russian rideshare. Dnepr [Russian-Ukrainian] has its issues. The new small launch vehicles haven’t launched yet. So really there’s not a lot out there and we do our very best to find rides for our customers.

What’s the status of your BlackSky Global optical Earth observation constellation?

Andrews: Two Pathfinder satellites are going up this summer. And then we have four more going up next year.

And with six in orbit you’ll start initial commercial operations?

Andrews: The two Pathfinders are demonstrators. The next four are operational. And once that second launch occurs, it should allow us to secure the financing to complete the rest of the constellation.

Has your assessment of the market and competitive landscape changed?

Andrews: No, in fact it’s been further validated. For us the key is high revisit rate with one-meter-resolution optical imagers.

So you’ll pull the trigger on financing the full constellation after the four satellites launch in 2017?

Andrews: I think we’ll do it before that, just based on the two that are going up this summer.

Is the U.S. government a market for BlackSky?

Andrews: We think everybody’s a market for it. The whole business plan is that it takes weeks now to get imagery. We have mapping with Google Earth, and people want something like a Google Earth Live. We are revisits per hour versus revisits per day. So it really is like having UAVs in space. We have validated there is a good market for that.

It doesn’t matter that many others are popping up with similar business models?

Andrews: Think signal-to-noise ratio. There’s a lot of noise right now. I don’t know how much signal there is.

 Is the return on investment satisfactory for both your divisions?

Blake: Return on investment for Spaceflight Services has got to be satisfactory. You are launching rockets full as opposed to not full. It will be cheaper to launch than it was. And we’re moving to the GTO market as well with electric propulsion.

Andrews: It started with cubesats, and moved to microsats and now we’re putting together a dedicated mission for a GTO rideshare.

You mean someone going to GTO gets a ride on a launch carrying a main payload also going there?

Andrews: Yes.

Doesn’t that model already exist with launch-service provider Arianespace?

Andrews: But theirs is a dual manifest. What we’re doing is true secondary – not necessarily a co-lead where both get to define the schedule. We’re just coming along for the ride and getting a much cheaper price. If someone can save $10 million or $15 million on the launch, that’s real money.

But wouldn’t SpaceX or Arianespace say: We’ll do this ourselves, thanks very much?

Andrews: The launch providers generally don’t want to shepherd a bunch of secondary passengers. They want to have one customer, not eight or 10. It’s the same reason they want dedicated rideshares. They want one customer – us. They don’t have to worry about a lot of people calling them and asking questions. That’s really what makes the model work.

For GTO you are dealing with communications satellites?

Blake: There are several mission types that are out there now, such as satellite servicing – technology demonstrators for future serving missions. We have some customers signed for GTO launches.