How many small launch vehicles are being developed? Too many to track!

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This article was corrected on Oct. 25 at 10:50 am to show that 23 projects have likely failed and the status of 18 more is unknown. A previous version said 41 projects had probably failed. 

WASHINGTON – Of the 148 small launch vehicles on a popular industry watch list, about 40 efforts “are likely dead but the watch list continues to grow,” Carlos Niederstrasser, a Northrop Grumman master systems engineer, said at the 2019 International Astronautical Congress here.

The problem for Niederstrasser and anyone trying to keep up with the market is that the list continues to grow. “Every time I kill off one [launch vehicle], two more show up,” he said.

Niederstrasser, who keeps tabs on the small launch vehicle boom, does not attempt to judge technical or business viability of the projects. He publishes periodic reports on worldwide efforts to build rockets to send 1,000 kilograms or less into low Earth orbit.

Government agencies, government development banks, venture capital funds and private investors have poured roughly $2 billion into small launch vehicle development in recent years, Niederstrasser estimates.

His update published in the paper, A 2019 View of the Impending Small Launch Vehicle Boom, lists commercial rockets and rockets for sale to the U.S. government. As a result, Iranian projects are not on his list. Due to the mass cutoff, Relativity Space and ABL Space Systems also are left off.

Of the 148 vehicles Niederstrasser has been tracking, eight have flown, including three U.S. and five Chinese launch vehicles, and 41 are active development programs.

Another 58 are on a list of projects that Niederstrasser considers worth watching even though they do not meet all the criteria to be considered active. For example, the companies may not be developing entire space launch vehicles or they may not be sharing information publicly through websites, social media campaigns, news reports or  conference papers.

“Over the years, some vehicles and organizations previously on the active list were downgraded to ‘watch’ status,” according to Niederstrasser’s paper. “That list includes Super Strypi due to its uncertain funding status after its launch failure, UP Aerospace and Generation Orbit, which appear to be focusing on their suborbital vehicles, and Leaf Space and Heliaq [Advanced Engineering], which appear to be focused on different efforts altogether,” the paper added.

The status of some rocket development efforts are listed as “unknown” if they were on previous watch lists but have not revealed any information in two or three years, Niederstrasser said.

Twenty-three small rockets that appeared on previous versions of the list have been removed because they were canceled, the organization responsible for development has ceased operations or the website domain name has expired. Niederstrasser does not have enough data to discern the status of 18 more.

“We are starting to see attrition as you would expect of organizations that say, ‘Hey building a rocket is actually really hard,’” he said. Some of the defunct programs have been “three young graduates in a garage with a website and a couple of PowerPoints,” he added.

Niederstrasser considers project to be active if he can find enough public information to get an idea of the technological approach, like the number of stages and whether it is air-launched or ground-launched.

“Some other projects we know less about but they have recently won significant contracts,” Niederstrasser said. “If a large government entity thought they were viable, I should probably put them on the list of vehicles under development.”

Little information is publicly available, for example, on X-Bow Launch Systems technology but the company was selected by the U.S. Air Force for Orbital Services Program-4.

While compiling the list of active projects, Niederstrasser notes progress in raising money as well as engine and rocket testing. “The ultimate proof is if the pointy end goes up, fire goes out the other side and you get a satellite into orbit,” he said.

Funding, though, is also important. “It seems to take in the neighborhood of $200 million dollars to get a small launch vehicle developed, give or take $50 million,” Niederstrasser said. “That is historic numbers we are looking at.”

U.S. companies are responsible for 21 of the vehicles Niederstrasser considers active development programs. Seven are from China, four from Spain and three from the United Kingdom. Germany, India and Japan each have two small rocket development programs. Many other countries have a single effort underway.

The list of active projects includes ground-launched, air-launched and sea-launched vehicles plus some that rely on balloons to reach the stratosphere and others seeking to employ electromagnetic catapults.

Anticipated costs per kilogram are “all over the place,” Niederstrasser said. “There is no pattern.”

Some launch vehicle projects are banking on low prices to attract customers while others emphasize their ability to send payloads into specific orbits.