Opportunities grow for smallsat rideshare launches

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MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — SpaceX disclosed new details about its small satellite rideshare efforts Feb. 5 as it, and other programs like it by large launch vehicle operators, put new pricing pressure on small launch vehicle companies.

SpaceX updated the website for its smallsat rideshare initiative, including creating an online booking system. Customers can see what launches are available for payloads seeking to go to a range of orbits, select a specific launch opportunity and any additional services, like insurance, and then pay a deposit.

Pricing for payloads starts at $1 million for satellites weighing up to 200 kilograms. That is the same pricing that the company announced in late August, when it updated the program it rolled out earlier that month.

“This is a market that we looked very closely at for many years, and I’m really happy that we can be able to address the small satellite customers directly,” said Stephanie Bednarek, director of commercial sales at SpaceX, during a panel discussion at the SmallSat Symposium here Feb. 5. She said the company crafted the program to provide a range of launch options on its Falcon 9 rockets, giving customers the flexibility to move to a different launch if their payloads are delayed. “And, of course, price,” she added.

SpaceX’s initiative is one of several by operators of larger launch vehicles to provide rideshare launch services for smallsats. The return-to-flight mission for Arianespace’s Vega launch vehicle, scheduled for late March, will be a dedicated smallsat rideshare mission with up to 44 satellites on board. That mission was scheduled to launch last September but was postponed by the July 2019 Vega launch failure.

The company is adding rideshare opportunities on other launches, said Stella Guillen, vice president of sales and marketing at Arianespace. “We worked really hard to get more launches in place that offer rideshare,” she said. “In the past, there was not enough demand to do that.”

Guillen said Arianespace has been working closely with the customers of the primary payloads on its upcoming launches to convince them to allow smallsat secondary payloads. That resulted in two additional rideshare opportunities later this year that were not available last year. “Things like this happen because we have competition and we are pressured to come up with more ideas,” she said.

Alexander Serkin, chief executive of GK Launch Services, which markets launches on Russia’s Soyuz rocket, said on the panel that his company’s first “fully commercial” Soyuz-2 launch is scheduled for the third quarter form the Baikonur Cosmodrome. That launch is fully booked, with 10 smallsats and at least 30 cubesats flying on that mission. Additional rideshare opportunities may be available on launches for the Russian space agency Roscosmos.

The growth in rideshare opportunities on larger launchers creates new competition — or, at least, the perception of competition — with the emerging crop of small launch vehicles. SpaceX’s program in particular, with its million-dollar price point and promise of monthly launch opportunities, has raised questions about the viability of more expensive small launchers.

“It created a bit of an issue,” said Brad Schneider, chief revenue officer of Firefly Aerospace, of SpaceX’s smallsat rideshare program in a separate conference panel Feb. 4. “It’s put pressure on us to take a look across the spectrum at what the best value is that we can offer our customers.”

That best value, he and other small launch vehicles developers argue, is dedicated launches driven by the schedule of the smallsat developer, and the ability to go to specific orbits not offered by rideshare missions.

“The whole point of the size of the Electron is that you need to go to a particular orbit and a particular inclination in a particular timeframe,” said Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, which operates the Electron small launch vehicles. “We don’t compete with rideshare because it’s not really what we offer.”

Beck likened the comparison between rideshare and dedicated launches with that between car services like Uber and public transportation. “You’re taking an Uber because you have a specific destination and a specific timeframe,” he said. “If you want a dedicated mission with control over your schedule and your orbit, that costs more. If you don’t need those things, then you should take the bus.”

Small launch vehicles can also be used for rideshare missions. Curt Blake, president and chief executive of Spaceflight, which brokers rideshare launches on a range of vehicles, noted small launch vehicles have a high price per kilogram of payload compared to larger ones. “If you go by yourself, and you’re only taking up half of the launch vehicle, you just doubled that per-kilogram rate, and it’s super expensive,” he said.

Allowing secondary payloads on such missions, he said, can help make small launchers more affordable. “We can do rideshare on almost any of the different vehicles and in any situation, and that helps to bring the price down,” he said.

Some in the smallsat industry have questioned whether larger launch vehicle companies will remain interested in rideshare services since, unlike small launchers, smallsats comprise only a small fraction of their revenue. SpaceX, for several years, flew virtually no smallsats as it focused on larger payloads for its Falcon 9.

Bednarek said the company is in it for the long haul. “SpaceX is absolutely committed to this market,” she said. “We are committed to offering a great, reliable service on a flight-proven vehicle to small satellite customers.”