SpaceX cheap rideshare flights change propulsion equation

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BREMEN, Germany – SpaceX’s plan to slash the cost of space transportation is shaking up the small satellite propulsion market, according to speakers at the Space Tech Expo Europe here.

“If it happens, that changes everything,” said David Henri, co-founder and CEO of Exotrail, a French startup developing electric propulsion and software for small satellites.

SpaceX announced plans in August to transport 200-kilogram satellites to low Earth orbit for $1 million through its Smallsat Rideshare Program.

“Drastically dropping the price for getting a kilogram up to orbit will make chemical propulsion for low Earth orbit much more attractive than it is sometimes considered at this moment,” said Jeroen Wink, co-founder and CEO of Dawn Aerospace, a Dutch propulsion startup.

With the new SpaceX price list, the cost of reaching low Earth orbit falls so dramatically “you should select the cheapest launcher even if it does not go exactly where you need it and then use propulsion to go where you need to be,” Henri said. “From a total system cost standpoint, that will make the most sense.”

Lorenzo Ferrario, chief technology officer for D-Orbit, an Italian space services startup, thinks low launch prices also will benefit companies like D-Orbit offering in-space transportation.

“If you look at what SpaceX has done, it’s $5,000 per kilogram,” Ferrario said. “That is several times less than prices we are used to seeing. This means it becomes more convenient to have regular rideshare launches and then leave it to in-space transportation businesses to do the last mile.”

SpaceX also plans to conduct monthly rideshare flights for small satellites instead of waiting until it has enough customers to fill the rocket.

“Now that SpaceX says they will launch on a precise date even if the launcher is not filled up, it will also change the impact on propulsion,” said Ane Aanesland, president and CEO of ThrustMe, a French propulsion startup.