WASHINGTON — A large launch vehicle could end up having a big effect on the small launch vehicle market through low prices and encouraging customers to build larger satellites.

The emergence of SpaceX’s Starship vehicle, which is designed to place 100 metric tons or more into low Earth orbit, has captured the attention of companies developing vehicles that can place one metric ton or less into orbit because of Starship’s potential to further reshape a market already affected by the company’s Falcon 9.

“Starship for sure will disrupt further the launch business and the space business in general,” said Marino Fragnito, senior vice president and head of the Vega business unit at Arianespace, during a panel at the Satellite 2024 conference March 20. “One scenario is that [SpaceX Chief Executive Elon] Musk could really monopolize everything.”

Starship would seem to be ill-suited for launching smallsats given its massive size. “I think Starship will open new business, like exploration, human spaceflight and commercial space stations,” he said. “I don’t think Starship can launch small satellites or will be used to launch small satellites.”

Later in the panel, though, he suggested one way Starship could be used to disrupt the smallsat launch markets by pairing the rocket with orbital transfer vehicles, or OTVs. “With Starship, OTVs can become the best option for smallsats,” he said. If Starship is able to achieve the very low per-kilogram launch prices proposed for it, “then it will be difficult for small launch vehicles.”

Starship’s capacity and prices, though, could affect the small launch market in other ways by encouraging satellite developers to produce bigger spacecraft. Such spacecraft, using heavier but less expensive materials, could be faster and cheaper to produce than smaller satellites.

“Starship will open up opportunities for satellites to grow the same way that they shrunk when there was more capacity for smallsats,” said Stella Guillen, chief commercial officer of Isar Aerospace, a German company developing the Spectrum small launch vehicle. “The industry may shift to launching larger satellites.”

She and others, though, said they did not see Starship overwhelming the market. “There’s still the potential to see the satellites continuing to shrink with technology improvements,” said Kevin Lowdermilk, chief executive of Vaya Space, a small launch vehicle developer.

The debate about Starship parallels existing discussions, and angst, about the role SpaceX’s Transporter line of Falcon 9 rideshare missions have played in the smallsat market. Those missions have attracted strong interest from smallsat developers, with some missions sold out up to two years in advance.

“We’re very proud of our deep collaboration with SpaceX,” said Kier Fortier, managing director of Exolaunch USA, a launch integrator that has flown payloads on all 10 Transporter missions to date. “For most of these missions, we’re continuing to thread the needle with procuring the capacity that we need to meet the customer demand.”

That extends, he added, to the new line of SpaceX rideshare missions called Bandwagon that will go to mid-inclination orbits, rather than the sun-synchronous orbits used by Transporter. “There’s a strong interest there.”

Other launch vehicle companies, though, have argued that Transporter missions are so attractive to customers because SpaceX charges prices that, to them, seem unrealistically low. “You have to complete with an unreasonable level of pricing,” said Fragnito, noting that he was now focused on launching larger satellites. “We don’t compete with Transporter missions.”

Guillen said companies like hers should pay less attention to SpaceX. “A good point for us is not to concentrate on playing catchup, because there’s no point,” she argued. “Playing catchup and trying to figure out how SpaceX is doing things or not doing things, without knowing what the future will be, is irrelevant.”

“What we need to do is to encourage and stimulate the market as a system to have the capacity and demand for what we are providing,” she added.

However, Pablo Gallego, vice president of customers and sales at Spanish launch vehicle developer PLD Space, argued that much of the industry owed its existence to the demand for smallsat launch stimulated by SpaceX rideshare missions. “If they were not there,” he said of SpaceX, “maybe we would not be here.”

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...