Launch of the Landspace Zhuque-1 solid-propellant rocket Oct. 27, 2018. Credit: Landspace

PASADENA, Calif. — Despite a surge in Chinese launch activity and growth of commercial Chinese launch developers, executives with American companies said they’re not worried about potential competition with them.

The issue of Chinese competition has become a particular concern in the last year for small launch vehicle developers. Several private Chinese companies are working on small launch vehicles, although none have yet successfully placed a payload into orbit. Some in the industry believe that, should some of those companies be successful, they could offer launches at significantly lower prices than American or other Western vehicles.

Those Chinese companies, though, don’t worry Tim Ellis, chief executive of Relativity, a small launch vehicle startup. “When you look at global competition, it’s certainly something that is interesting,” he said during a panel discussion at the Space Tech Expo conference here May 21.

However, he felt his company’s Terran 1 rocket will not be undercut by Chinese vehicles on price. The company is offering launches of the Terran 1, which can place up to 1,250 kilograms into low Earth orbit, for $10 million each. “When we’ve looked at price competition,” he said, “we can be competitive with Chinese launchers.”

Chinese vehicles are off-limits to American companies because of export controls that prohibit the transfer of American satellite technology to China. However, satellites from other countries that don’t use U.S. technology can use Chinese vehicles, and Chinese companies have also bundled domestically manufactured satellites with those vehicles, particularly for geostationary orbit satellites.

“People have been buying Chinese satellites launched from Chinese launch vehicles,” said Thomas Carroll of Northrop Grumman. He suggested, though, that customers have not been satisfied with the reliability of such satellites. “Many of them have had problems with their satellites on orbit.”

He added he was skeptical that Chinese launch vehicles, at least at the larger end of the market, were significantly cheaper than alternatives. “I don’t think their launch services are as cheap as everybody thinks,” he said. “I’ve heard prices for launch services and satellites, and it’s not as cheap as everybody thinks.”

The emergence of commercial Chinese small launch vehicles has exacerbated worries about an oversupply of launch vehicles with, by some estimates, more than 100 such vehicles under development worldwide. However, Ellis and an executive with another small launch vehicle company were optimistic that demand for such vehicles would materialize.

“There’s still a deficit” in the supply of launch vehicles if many of the projected smallsat constellations materialize, Ellis said. “There’s still a huge imbalance in launch supply versus the overall demand just because the sheer number of satellites that people want to launch.”

Shane Fleming, vice president of U.S. operations for Rocket Lab, said that he expected two to three companies to be sustained by the current smallsat market. That could change, though, if new technologies and applications stimulate demand for more smallsats. “LEO could just explode and be full of satellites,” he said. “I think it will continue to grow.”

“As long as customers still have really good businesses and are getting to orbit successfully,” Ellis said. “I think we’re all going to be fine.”

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...