Big rockets cutting in as little launchers vie for smallsat business

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This article originally appeared in the August 19, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine under the title “Life of the smallsat party: Rideshare vs. small launch in a fierce dance off.”

15 years ago, SpaceX was the life of the party at the annual Conference on Small Satellites at Utah State University — literally. Smallsat developers eagerly anticipated the company’s Falcon 1 rocket as a low-cost option that didn’t require hitching rides on other rockets or going to Russia. SpaceX was a major exhibitor at the conference and also threw one of the biggest evening receptions.

But as SpaceX turned its attention to the larger Falcon 9 and programs like commercial cargo and crew, its presence at the conference, and the overall smallsat industry, faded. The Falcon 1 was quietly retired, the booth in the exhibit hall disappeared and other companies took over the party hosting duties. The smallsat field was growing without, rather than because of, SpaceX.

At this year’s conference, SpaceX retained its low profile but also announced its return to the smallsat market. As the conference got underway Aug. 5, it announced it was beginning a series of dedicated rideshare missions to sun-synchronous orbit on the Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, starting in late 2020 or early 2021. A 150-kilogram smallsat could fly for as little as $2.25 million, significantly less than the cost of launching it on one of the many emerging small launch vehicles.

“This is something we’re really excited to be able to offer,” said Stephanie Bednarek, director of commercial sales at SpaceX, during a panel discussion at the conference. “We see a growing need for smallsat launch capability.”

CUTTING IN

SpaceX previously sold a Falcon 9 to Spaceflight Inc., the Seattle-based company that arranges launches for smallsats on a variety of vehicles, for a similar dedicated rideshare mission called SSO-A. While SpaceX will now be selling such launches directly, Bednarek said the company will continue to work with companies like Spaceflight.

The same day as SpaceX announced its rideshare launch plans, Arianespace offered a similar service. The company said it will fly a number of smallsats directly to geostationary orbit on an Ariane 64 in the first half of 2022. The GO-1 mission will be able to carry up to 4,500 kilograms of satellites, placing them in GEO just six hours after launch.

“There is a market out there,” said Wiener Kernisan, president of Arianespace’s U.S. subsidiary, during a briefing at the conference. Arianespace is in talks with three or four potential customers, and he expected the first deals signed in perhaps three to six months.

“If our satellite is sitting on the ground, we’re leaving revenue on the table,” says In-Space Missions CEO Doug Liddle.

Arianespace is focusing on the growing field of small GEO satellites that, while larger than the typical smallsats flown in low Earth orbit, are a fraction of the size of standard GEO communications satellites. “We see this as a growing trend,” he said, projecting GO-1 to be followed by similar missions, perhaps annually. “Clearly there is a need for this type of service.

The advantage that Arianespace and SpaceX offer to smallsat developers is price: on a per-kilogram basis, a large rocket is usually less expensive than a small one. SpaceX also emphasizes its ability to offer lower prices by leveraging reusability. “Because of the launch capacity that we have and the availability of hardware from our success with reusability, it really enables us to enter this market directly from a business perspective,” Bednarek said.

GETTING INTO THE GROOVE

If small launch vehicle providers are worried about losing business to lower-cost rideshare options, they’re not publicly showing concern. Dozens of companies are working on small launchers, a number that continues to grow despite a widespread belief that the market, even in the absence of any rideshare competition, can support only a small fraction of those companies.

At the forefront of the small launch vehicle market is Rocket Lab, whose Electron is now flying regularly. At the conference, the company announced it will attempt to recover and reuse the first stage of the Electron, a decision it says was motivated not by a desire to reduce costs but instead to increase launch rates.

“At the moment we just can’t build enough rockets,” said Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, in an interview. The company’s factory current produces one Electron every 30 days. “We need to get that down to one a week.”

Reusing the first stages, even once, could help the company catch up with demand. “Even if I only fly it once more, I essentially double production,” he said. “That’s a massive win. It’s not easy to double your production rate in a factory.”

That demand is coming from customers who are willing to pay a premium to have more control over when they launch and to what orbit. An example is In-Space Missions, a British company that, during the conference, announced a contract for a dedicated launch of its Faraday-2b satellite in 2022 on Orbex’s Prime small launcher currently under development.

“We can be a primary on this, which means we get this end-to-end service so we can be very responsive and drive the whole schedule all the way through,” said Doug Liddle, chief executive of InSpace Missions. “If our satellite is sitting on the ground, we’re leaving revenue on the table.”

Spaceflight is among the most experienced companies dealing with launching smallsats, buying entire rockets or excess capacity on other launches. It’s worked with everyone from SpaceX on the SSO-A mission to SEOPS, a company that deploys cubesats from Cygnus cargo spacecraft.

Curt Blake, chief executive of Spaceflight, said in an interview that he’s starved for launch opportunities given the growing number of smallsats seeking launch. At the conference his company announced it would be the first commercial customer for India’s new Small Satellite Launch Vehicle, using it to launch four smallsats later this year.

“We just need more small launch vehicles out there,” he said after describing the demand his company was seeing for launch services.

That suggests there may be room for both rideshare missions and small launch vehicles, at least in the near term. Maybe if SpaceX finds some demand for its rideshare services, it will come back in force to the smallsat conference. There’s room for another party.