It should come as no surprise that this year’s list of the Top 5 Companies To Watch features the entrepreneurial startups that are making their presence felt throughout the industry and a launcher sector that is undergoing a transformation driven in part by their arrival.

Rocket maker SpaceX is easily the most recognizable of the relative newcomers, and returns to the list this year with several key initiatives on the immediate horizon, not the least of which is returning to flight from its first failure.

Others in the entrepreneurial category are OneWeb, whose production plans for a 720-satellite Internet-delivery constellation are expected to take shape in the coming weeks and months, and Planet Labs, which hopes to launch some 250 small Earth observation satellites next year.

SpaceX’s aggressive push into the U.S. government launch sector has dramatically impacted the incumbent provider, United Launch Alliance, which in addition to having to deal with that competitive challenge also is facing a congressional ban on the Russian-built main engine that powers its most competitive rocket.

The launcher sector is being reshaped in Europe as well following approval late last year by European Space Agency governments of the Ariane 6 rocket and upgrades to the smaller Vega launcher. With these programs now in place, this could be the year that ownership of solid-rocket motor maker Avio SpA, which has been on the block for years, finally changes hands.

As always, the Top 5 is a list, rather than a ranking, and represents but a small subset of the companies that bear watching in an industry that, though mature in many respects, remains as dynamic as ever. — SpaceNews staff


Since SpaceX burst on the scene more than a decade ago, there haven’t been many years in which it wasn’t trying something new or making an aggressive move to expand or strengthen its market position. But the year ahead promises much more than the usual share of drama for the hard-charging rocket maker.

In early December, the entire industry will be watching as SpaceX attempts to return to flight following the June failure of its Falcon 9 rocket on a resupply mission to the International Space Station. The flight also will debut a new Falcon 9 variant featuring 30 percent more lift capacity than previous versions.

The added performance of the Falcon 9 Upgrade will enable SpaceX to launch geostationary-orbiting satellites and have sufficient fuel remaining to land the vehicle’s first stage intact for recovery and reuse — a key to the company’s future competitiveness and profitability plans.

SpaceX recently swapped payloads for the upcoming flight, opting to launch 11 low-orbiting satellites for Orbcomm’s machine-to-machine data service instead of a geostationary satellite for SES. The Orbcomm mission will not require a reignition of the rocket’s revamped upper stage, which will be tested following payload separation.

SpaceX has yet to stick the landing of the Falcon 9’s first stage, but the company should have ample opportunities to do so over the next year.

The final flight of the Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket, meanwhile, likely will occur sometime in 2016 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, in a mission to launch the Jason 3 ocean-altimetry satellite for NASA.

In January, SpaceX is expected to hear from NASA on whether it has been selected for a major contract to continue providing cargo transportation services to the space station. The Commercial Resupply Services 2 awards had been scheduled for November, but NASA delayed them for unspecified reasons.

Also on the 2016 agenda is the long-delayed debut of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, a vehicle that features three Falcon 9 core stages in a side-by-side configuration. The Falcon Heavy will be used to launch two geostationary satellites simultaneously and also for some of the bigger satellites in the U.S. Defense Department’s portfolio. A commercial flight of the Falcon 9 carrying two commercial satellites could take place before the end of the year, assuming success on the demonstration mission.

SpaceX’s first of several upcoming opportunities to wrest military business away from longtime monopoly United Launch Alliance also is at hand. Bids were due in mid-November to launch a GPS 3 satellite in 2018, with a contract award expected in March.

SpaceX appears well positioned to win at least some of these contracts, assuming no hiccups as it returns to flight and then quickly ramps to a launch rate that allows it to burn off some of the substantial commercial manifest it has built up over the past several years.

Though known as a rocket maker, SpaceX has indicated that it intends to enter into the satellite business in a big way. Early this year the company unveiled plans to establish a satellite development facility in Seattle and build a constellation of 4,000 low-orbiting satellites for Internet delivery.

However, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell recently played down those plans, saying the constellation is not a top priority at the moment. That’s probably just as well given everything else the company has on its plate.

Avio logo

Corporate mergers and acquisitions often come as a bolt from the blue, known beforehand only to a select group of individuals.

Others are telegraphed months or even years in advance, as is the case with Italy’s Avio SpA, a maker of solid-fueled rocket stages and in-space propulsion systems. Avio makes strap-on motors for Europe’s Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket and also is industrial prime contractor on the Vega small-satellite launcher, which it produces as part of the ELV joint venture with the Italian Space Agency.

For the past several years, private equity investor Cinven has been trying to sell its 81 percent stake in Avio, a transaction with broader implications for a European launcher sector that is undergoing a major transition in association with the Ariane 6 next-generation launcher development program.

Back in June, at the Paris Air Show, Avio Chief Executive Pier Giuliano Lasagni expressed confidence that 2015 would be the year the sale would happen, and there was no reason to doubt him, notwithstanding the fact that previously a seemingly done deal unraveled at the last minute.

Vega now has five successful launches — featuring different flight profiles and configurations — under its belt, and is likely to be the go-to vehicle for European science missions for years to come. Moreover, the European Space Agency in December committed to developing an enhanced version dubbed Vega C, which will be able to place 1,800 kilograms of payload into low Earth orbit.

Rome-based industrial conglomerate Finmeccanica, a 14 percent Avio shareholder, has made no secret of its desire to take a majority stake in the rocket company. That deal likely would win favor with Italian government authorities who reportedly want the company to remain Italian-controlled.

“Due diligence has begun” with Finmeccanica, Lasagni told reporters, referring to the process whereby a company opens its books to a corporate suitor.

That was five months ago.

Finmeccanica is not the only likely suitor: Airbus Safran Launchers, the recently established joint venture company that is prime contractor on the Ariane 6, also is interested in Avio. The Vega C will be powered by the same solid rocket motors as the strap-on boosters for the Ariane 6, an example of the type of synergy that the ESA governments backing both programs would like to see.

Another possible scenario has the Italian Space Agency selling its ELV shares to Airbus Safran Launchers while insisting that Avio remain under Italian control.

Despite the long wait and at least one broken-off engagement, it seems likely that the long-awaited change of Avio ownership will happen in the next year. But the exact timing of the transaction, and the form it takes, is still anybody’s guess.

Planet Labs

Earth imagery provider Planet Labs has become a standard bearer for the cubesat revolution, and the coming year will be a pivotal one for the San Francisco-based startup.

Will Marshall, Planet Labs co-founder and chief executive, says the company expects to launch as many as 250 small imaging satellites next year. The company has so far launched a total of 101 satellites — about 50 of which are still flying — and has lost another 34 in launch failures.

“In 2016 Planet Labs will have enough satellites in orbit to image the entire globe, every single day,” the company boasts on its website.

Founded in 2010 by three alumni of NASA’s paradigm-melting Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, Planet Labs has secured more than $150 million in venture capital to date. It is darkening the skies with its three-unit Dove cubesats, all of which are launched as secondary payloads.

Just 30 centimeters long and weighing only a few kilograms each, Doves operate in low Earth orbit without propulsion systems — or the financial security of a government anchor customer.

Planet Labs’ initial plans call for quarterly releases of new global image mosaics, which will top out at a resolution of 3 meters per pixel.

The company’s data distribution architecture is as much a part of its paradigm shift as its cubesats. Web-based and preprocessed, Planet Labs imagery will be available online and on demand.

The company hopes this self-serve approach will appeal to commercial customers who may be interested in the business intelligence space-based images can provide but are utterly disinterested in dealing with raw data or inventing data products. Target markets include the agriculture, energy and finance sectors.

Established Earth imaging providers — which operate higher-resolution satellites in higher orbits for deep-pocketed government customers — have shrugged off Planet Labs, but the company is looking less like a science experiment and more like a business.

In January, Planet Labs announced new financing worth around $95 million — its largest outside investment to date. In July, Planet Labs made its first acquisition, scooping up Berlin-based BlackBridge and its RapidEye constellation of five medium-resolution imaging satellites.

This November, Planet Labs co-founder Chris Boshuizen quit his job as chief technology officer, leaving Marshall and President Robbie Schingler to shepherd the company into the future.

But by next November, 3-meter imagery could be as easily and widely accessible as your Netflix queue.


OneWeb made a big splash early in 2015 with its audacious plan to deploy a 720-satellite constellation in low Earth orbit for global broadband delivery. But even with big-name financial backers in Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and chipmaker Qualcomm, the venture had to contend with the ghosts of Teledesic and SkyBridge, whose similarly ambitious ­­­— and heavily hyped — constellation projects fizzled in the late 1990s.

In June, however, OneWeb, led by Greg Wyler of O3b fame, went a long way toward answering the skeptics, announcing contracts with Airbus Defence and Space to build the satellites and with Arianespace and Virgin Galactic to launch them. Perhaps more importantly, Wyler announced strategic partnerships with companies including Coca-Cola, Totalplay and even Intelsat, along with $500 million in early stage financing.

These developments clearly established OneWeb as leader of the pack in the race to deploy mega-constellations in low Earth orbit for broadband service. Another high-profile contender, SpaceX, has recently thrown some cold water on its own constellation plans.

But aside from the recent hiring of Matt O’Connell to serve as chief executive, OneWeb has been relatively quiet of late. O’Connell is a known quantity in space industry circles, having served as chief executive of imaging satellite operator GeoEye, which he ushered out of bankruptcy and ultimately sold to rival DigitalGlobe.

Among the anticipated next steps for OneWeb that have yet to happen are the finalization of its satellite construction arrangement with Airbus and the selection of a U.S. manufacturing site. Industry handicappers say the plant will be located in Florida, but there has been no confirmation from OneWeb and Airbus.

These things likely would need to happen relatively quickly if OneWeb is to begin launching satellites in 2017 as currently planned.

“We look forward to announcing something,” Wyler said in a Nov. 10 interview when asked about the status of a U.S. production facility. He declined to elaborate.

Satellite component makers are no doubt champing at the bit — a 720-satellite production run would be a shot in the arm for a manufacturing base that is experiencing a slowdown in orders for commercial geostationary satellites. Com Dev earlier this year said it was gearing up to be a supplier to the mega-constellations, while MDA Corp. more recently suggested it has secured some sort of OneWeb manufacturing role and expects to begin work in 2016.

Then there’s the question of money. OneWeb estimates it will ultimately need $2.5 billion to $3 billion to fully deploy its constellation, and the job of securing that money likely will fall to O’Connell, who has strong ties to Wall Street. Wyler said in June that OneWeb is fully financed through 2016, but with interest rates projected to rise at some point in the near future it would seem there is little time to waste.


The launch of another GPS 2F navigation satellite Oct. 29 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket — the fourth such mission since January 2014 — was emblematic of the how the company has turned the inherently risky business of launching satellites into an almost ho-hum affair. It was the 102nd success for the Boeing-Lockheed joint venture since its 2006 founding, and the 59th for its workhorse Atlas 5.

But ULA’s ability to carry out launches with workmanlike efficiency belies the fact that the company is facing an existential crisis of sorts.

SpaceX is challenging ULA in its primary Defense Department market with its low-cost Falcon 9. Congress, meanwhile, has curtailed access to the Atlas 5’s Russian-built RD-180 main engine just as the competitive phase of the Air Force’s main satellite launching program gets underway.

The National Defense Authorization Act for 2016, now awaiting U.S. President Barack Obama’s signature, gives ULA access to four additional engines, presumably enabling ULA to bid for the first competitively awarded mission, to launch a GPS 3 satellite in 2018.

The question is whether ULA can win the contract, slated for award in March, under any circumstances given that the Falcon 9 can launch GPS satellites for around $80 million, according to court documents. Although the price tag of the Atlas 5 appears to be coming down, it is not in the Falcon 9’s ballpark.

What Atlas 5 has going for it is an extensive track record of successful missions. The Falcon 9 has a much shorter history that includes a failure on its most recent mission.

But even if ULA is able to hold serve in the early competitions — the GPS 3 mission is the first of several planned over the next year or two — it still has access to far fewer RD-180 engines than it needs to stay viable until its next-generation Vulcan rocket is ready for operations around 2020. The battle for additional relief from the ban is likely to resume as soon as Congress begins work on its 2017 defense authorization bill.

Meanwhile, ULA is expected to make a final decision next year on the main engine for its next-generation rocket, which has yet to be fully funded by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. ULA’s preference is the BE-4 being developed by the secretive Blue Origin venture, with Aerojet Rocketdyne’s proposed AR1 as a standby choice.

A selection of the BE-4 would effectively commit ULA to the Vulcan, which is designed to accommodate that engine, whereas the AR1 is compatible with the Atlas 5 as currently designed.

But funding for the Vulcan remains a big question mark. Craig Cooning, who as president of Boeing Network and Space Systems is chairman of ULA’s board, said recently that funding the Vulcan ultimately is the government’s responsibility if it wants to have access to at least two competing rockets.

Congress has allocated funding to develop a new engine to replace the RD-180, but the Air Force wants to use that money for a broader launch system development effort. Whether or not that issue has been settled — the NDAA includes language directing that the engine-development money be used for that purpose only — remains to be seen.

Finally, there’s the matter of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s unsolicited offer of $2 billion for ULA, news of which surfaced in September. Boeing executives including Cooning have said in no uncertain terms that they are not interested, but Lockheed Martin has been silent on the matter. Industry sources have suggested that Aerojet has not given up on acquiring ULA and that discussions are continuing.