Electron launch of GMS-T
A Rocket Lab Electron lifts off Jan. 20 carrying the GMS-T communications satellite built by OHB. Credit: Rocket Lab

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Companies offering smallsat launch services argue there is no “magic” price per kilogram that allows them to unlock greater demand, with customers willing to trade off price for responsiveness or other capabilities.

During a panel at the Satellite 2021 conference here Sept. 7, Dara Panahy of Milbank LLC asked a panel of launch vehicle and in-space transportation services companies about a perceived threshold of $2,000 per kilogram required for launch companies to be successful, citing research by McKinsey & Company published in 2020.

“That’s a magic number where economies of scale somehow fall into place, and we will have a doubling, tripling or quadrupling of the market for orbital commerce,” he said.

Panelists, though, disagreed. “What we’re seeing in industry is that there aren’t a lot of folks who are attached to a dollar-per-kilogram metric,” said Lars Hoffman, senior vice president of global launch services at Rocket Lab.

He said Rocket Lab is seeing a diversification in the market, with customers willing to pay more to launch to a specific orbit on a set schedule. “They’ll pay the premium to have that service,” he said.

Rocket Lab has been working to accelerate the time payloads can be launched to meet those customers’ requirements. Hoffman said that while it typically takes 12 months from contract signing to the dedicated launch of a microsatellite, it has compressed that schedule to as little as five months. Cubesats can be launched within six months and in some cases within three months.

Some launch companies are making no effort to compete on cost. “We’re not really a low-cost provider. We’re looking to be the launch provider you go to when you need a last-minute ride to space,” said Jay Skylus, chief executive and founder of Aevum, a company developing an air-launch system yet to make its first flight.

That focus on responsiveness — the company has a goal of a three-hour turnaround time for a launch — comes at a price. “We’re not aiming for the $2,000 per kilogram price point,” he said. He estimated the company’s Ravn X will have a cost of $7,700 per kilogram. “That’s not what we’re going to charge our customers. We’re probably going to charge three or four times.”

“The customer is going to look for the highest value that they can get,” said Negar Feher, vice president of business development at in-space transportation company Momentus. The price that corresponds to that value depends on the customer’s needs: companies that just need to get a satellite to orbit will want to pay as little as possible, while those with specific requirements will pay more.

That changes over time for individual customers, she argued, with companies seeking to minimize costs when deploying their first demonstration satellites, then paying more later to fill in specific gaps in a constellation.

Momentus is trying to offer customers the benefits of low-cost launch and precise orbital insertion through its line of Vigoride tugs that will begin flights in 2022. The company plans to make those tugs reusable and capable of proximity operations, allowing one to pick up a satellite launched on a low-cost rideshare launch and deliver it to a precise orbit.

“In our opinion, the cheapest option that will be reliable and efficient is the best option,” she said. “We predict it’s going to go down to $500 per kilogram eventually as New Glenn, Starship and others come on board.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...