Q&A: The changing assumptions of the small launch market

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This article originally appeared in the May 6, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Small satellites, launch providers say, are growing larger as satellite operators add more capable cameras, sensors and other payloads to new missions.

It’s no surprise, then, to see so many new launch companies modifying their designs to accommodate larger missions.

Two launch startups changed their designs in the past six months alone — PLD Space in Spain chose to double the lift capacity of its future Miura 5 rocket to 300 kilograms, and ABL Space Systems of El Segundo, California, increased the lift capacity of its planned RS1 rocket by a third to 1,200 kilograms.

According to Alexandre Vallet, chief of the International Telecommunication Union’s Space Services Department, more than 1,100 non-geosynchronous satellite systems have been proposed since 2013. Of that total, around 200 are telecommunications systems — the type of satellite intended to comprise most publicly known megaconstellations.

Predicting which constellations will come to fruition may be just as unpredictable as figuring out which of the 120-plus documented small launcher efforts will actually lift off. But successful constellations are certain to influence the launch segment.

Do small launcher companies need megaconstellation business to survive? How should they approach a market that sometimes feels like its changing faster than the rockets themselves? Five launch companies discussed these topics March 13 at a Washington Space Business Roundtable discussion moderated by SpaceNews.

Small launcher panel WSBR 2019
Small launcher executives say the smallsat market is evolving rapidly, in turn influencing their vehicles. Credit: SpaceNews graphic.

Are constellations important to your business plan?

Bryan Baldwin: If you look at the number of satellites that they are putting up in these constellations, we see that as a market for the larger launch vehicles. Just by economies of scale, to put that many spacecraft up, it doesn’t fit well in the small launcher arena. I think you can do satellite replenishment and those types of things, but you are talking about a lot of satellites that — it’s just going to take bigger rockets to do that.

Les Kovacs: I would back up what [Baldwin] just said. If you are looking at a 2,000- to 4,000-satellite constellation, and your business case revolves around replacing a failed satellite, and you’re doing that one at a time? To me that just doesn’t pass the initial smell test. If you’re launching five or six — maybe more — satellites into a single plane as a replenishment activity, then it starts making sense. Other than that, you are stuck in a situation Bryan was talking about.

Jeff Trauberman: The constellations are part of our business case, but certainly not the totality of it. We have customers that aren’t associated with large constellations as well. I think I do part a little company with Les on this. We think there is a market for replenishment and replacement going forward.

Stella Guillen: [There are] 20,000 satellites that are expected for these megaconstellations and about 13,000 that have been approved by the FCC. If we take that into consideration, and [if] we only expect 25 percent of those to come to fruition, we are going to have a shortfall on the launch industry. I think that’s good news. We are getting prepared for that with the larger vehicles like Ariane 6 with lots of flexibility, upper-stage engine re-ignition, for example, and on Vega C.

 

How many small launchers do you think will survive?

Les Kovacs: There’s over 100 small launch providers that are in some stage of development today. Of those, probably five will survive because they are backed by private capital. The U.S. government is telling me they need two launch providers in the small launch category just like they have for the EELV (now National Security Space Launch) category to sustain that business.

Jeff Trauberman: I could not tell you. I expect there will be some attrition, but the more the merrier. I hope all of them survive.

Stella Guillen: Definitely not 100.

Tim Ellis: Just sharing skill sets and getting to a time where those companies can start and give a go at it, that’s a cool thing to see happening, because it wasn’t that way 10 years ago.

Bryan Baldwin: Since we’re flying and have vehicles already, I’m hoping zero survive … zero of the startups.

How did you decide on the size of your vehicle?

Tim Ellis: Relativity started as a 150-kilogram payload launcher, believe it or not, three and a half years ago … it’s going to be hard to predict where the market is going. We see satellites getting much larger when we talk to customers. It’s very much disproportionate capability with dollars per gigabit being much lower, or optical satellites having higher performance when they get bigger. Our philosophy is to be extremely adaptable and create a system that will be able to adjust. The initial launch vehicle we are building, Terran-1, is 900 kilograms to [sun-synchronous orbit] for $10 million, so we believe we can be cost competitive.

Les Kovacs: In Firefly’s previous iteration, we were about 400 kilograms. Then the company went bankrupt, and during the period that we were down we re-evaluated the upmass requirements. Everything pointed to something a lot larger than 400 kilograms, which is how we got to 1,000 kilograms [to 200 kilometers] at 28 and a half degrees out of the Cape. The thinking behind that would be that you can accommodate a larger dedicated satellite, and then load multiple cubesats on the lower end or some mix of those. The feedback we are getting from the national security community is that it’s sort of a sweet spot at 1,000 kilograms. We are also already getting indications that might be too small. We’re seeing numbers like 1,200 kilograms.

Stella Guillen: With the launchers that we commercialize, Arianespace can carry the whole smallsat market. A Vega, for example, can carry cubesats, nanosats, microsats, minisats in different configurations, rideshares or piggybacks, and on the Ariane 6 side, which was also designed with smallsats in mind, we can carry the same configuration as piggyback or secondaries, but also to different types of orbits. We wanted to be able to cover the entire market.

Jeff Trauberman: We think where we are at — 300 to 500 kilograms to low Earth orbit — represents a sweet spot. You can have a reasonably sizable satellite at that market space; you can aggregate several other satellites together. It provides some flexibility, but as Les and the others said, there is no perfect size. You must try to check your business case, your investments, what your recurring costs are going to be and then size it appropriately.