Virgin Orbit Cosmic Girl
Cosmic Girl, Virgin Orbit's Boeing 747 aircraft, is prepared for its next LauncherOne mission, scheduled for June 30. Credit: Virgin Orbit

WASHINGTON — The number of small launch vehicle projects continues to grow despite the pandemic and the widespread belief of there is a significant oversupply of such vehicles, but that growth may be showing signs of slowing.

In a presentation at 35th Annual Small Satellite Conference, Carlos Niederstrasser of Northrop Grumman provided an update to an annual survey of the small launch industry that he has produced since 2015, tracking the growth of small launch vehicle development efforts worldwide. The survey includes those vehicles with payload capacities no greater than 1,000 kilograms and available to commercial or U.S. government customers.

That total has grown to 155 vehicles, he said, ranging from 10 vehicles in operation to several dozen that have gone defunct since the survey started in 2015, when about 30 vehicles were included.

“I was really expecting to see a slowdown in the number of new launch vehicles that we were seeing coming out of the woodwork in the last few years,” he said during a conference session Aug. 11. “It turns out that slowdown has not happened at all.”

There have been some changes in the industry, though. He found the number of vehicles in active development declined slightly from last year, to 48, with a decrease as well in the number of vehicle concepts on a “watch” list that have not yet entered active development. More than 40 vehicles are now classified as defunct, about 10 more than last year. “This is not surprising given the challenges of getting one of these vehicles fielded,” he said.

For those launch vehicles that have folded, one factor has been dominant: funding. “If you’ve got money, you stay alive. If you run out of money, you have to close up shop,” he said. No other trends in terms of types of vehicles or countries where they’re being developed stood out.

Among vehicles in operation or under development, the United States has the most, accounting for 22 of 58 such vehicles. However, six of the 10 operational small launch vehicles are Chinese, thanks to the growth of small launch ventures there like Galactic Energy and iSpace. India is emerging as a new hotbed of launch activity, with four small launch vehicles under development by companies after government reforms backed commercial launch ventures there.

In a prerecorded video presentation, Niederstrasser said that he was seeing “some level of realism” enter the market with the slowing growth in number of vehicles but couldn’t rule out some effects from the pandemic. “I think we’ll have to wait another year or two to determine that.”

He said in the conference session that he did not expect many launch companies to merge given the difficulties of finding two companies with complementary technologies and sufficient funding to develop them. “I think finding both of those items is going to be hard for most of these small competitors,” he said.

Niederstrasser added that any slowdown in small launch vehicle development should not be confused with market saturation. “I think we reached market saturation back in 2015 when there were 30 or so folks trying to build vehicles,” he said. The current vehicles in operation may be “more than enough” to serve demand, but exactly how many vehicles are needed may not be clear for some time. “It will be some years before we realize we’ve reached that point.”

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...