Small launch industry growing, but with growing pains

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This article originally appeared in the Aug. 13, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

The number of small launch vehicles under development continues to grow despite some high-profile setbacks and uncertainty about the demand for such vehicles.

In a presentation Aug. 8, Carlos Niederstrasser of Northrop Grumman said his latest survey of the small launch industry, which makes use of open-source information, identified 101 vehicles that are or have been under development in the last four years.

“Let that sink in for a little bit,” he said. “One hundred and one different entities are trying to build a small rocket to get all your small satellites into space. The number is staggering.”

Of that total, only six are currently in service: Northrop Grumman’s own Pegasus and Minotaur; the Kaituozhe-2, Kuaizhou-1A and Long March 11 vehicles from China; and Rocket Lab’s Electron. An additional 34 are in active development, he said, compared to just 20 in 2015, the first year of his survey.

That small launch vehicle industry is diverse. Of those 34 vehicles, 20 are in the United States, with six in China and three each in the United Kingdom and Spain. Most are land-based vehicles, but he said there are multiple air- and sea-launch vehicles under development. The payload capacity of the vehicles varies from under 20 kilograms to 1,000 kilograms, the cutoff for inclusion in the survey.

Despite that diversity, success for any of the vehicles is not guaranteed. “Are any of these vehicles really going to revolutionize the way we do business in small launch?” Niederstrasser asked. Those vehicles, he said, offer launch prices in the range of $10,000–$50,000 per kilogram, far higher than existing rideshare options.

“One thing becomes very clear very quickly: these small launch vehicles are not going to be the cheapest way to get into orbit,” he said. “Their main selling point is convenience.”

There have been casualties along the way in the development of small launch vehicles. Niederstrasser said that 11 vehicle projects he had previously been tracking are now defunct, and the status of another 11 is unknown. Those defunct vehicles include government projects that were canceled and companies that have gone bankrupt.

“There’s been a lot of heartbreak,” he said. “We’re definitely seeing the growing pains of the industry.”

Those growing pains, however, do not appear to be deterring new entrants. In a later presentation at the conference, Yoshifumi Inatani of the Japanese space agency JAXA discussed the successful launch of an experimental small launch vehicle, SS-520-5, earlier this year.

“Everybody asks me, ‘What comes next?’” he said. The answer is a new company, Space One, which is planning a small launch vehicle capable of placing 150 kilograms to sun-synchronous orbit, with a first launch in 2021.

Other new small launch vehicle projects are emerging. “I’ve added two more just in the last four days,” Niederstrasser said, based on discussions at the conference.

“As of a minute ago I’m up to three additional ones,” he tweeted shortly after his talk.