Small Launch Vehicle Startups Proliferate

Vector Space Systems Vector-H launch vehicle. Credit: Vector Space Systems.

At the recent Small Satellite Conference in Utah, the Small Launch Vehicles – A 2018 State of the Industry Survey paper was presented which stated that there are 79 small launch vehicles either operational, under development or rumoured. The number is staggering and highlights the enthusiasm and hype surrounding the small satellite marketplace.

The survey, the fourth by author Carlos Niederstrasser of the Northrop Grumman Corporation, identified 6 operational small launch vehicles, 34 under development and 39 rumoured. There are no Canadian small launch vehicles included in the list. However, there are at least four efforts underway in Canada that were not included as they don’t meet the criteria set out in the survey. It is possible, based on what I’ve heard to date, that one of the Canadian efforts might be included in a future survey, having progressed enough to qualify.

The criteria for inclusion in the survey is:

  • Have a maximum capability to LEO of 1000 kg (definition of LEO left to the LV provider).
  • The effort must be for the development of an entire space launch vehicle system (with the exception of carrier aircraft for air launched vehicles).
  • Some indication through a web site, social media, traditional media, conference paper, press release, etc. that the effort has been active in the past two years.
  • No specific indication that the effort has been cancelled, closed, or otherwise disbanded.
  • Have a stated goal of completing a fully operational space launch (orbital) vehicle. Funded concept or feasibility studies by government agencies, patents for new launch methods, etc., do not qualify, but have been included in the “Other Potential Players” section.
  • The launch vehicle must be available on the open, commercial market. (With the understanding that some countries are restricted with regards to what vehicles their space systems can launch on)

The 40 operational and under development small launch vehicles is 18 more than the first survey conducted in 2015.

Operational small launch vehicles

Table 1: Operational Small Launch Vehicles
Credit: Carlos Niederstrasser of the Northrop Grumman Corporation.

There are only three countries that have small launch vehicles in operation, China, New Zealand and the US.

Rocket Lab qualifies as both US and New Zealand as they are based in both countries and will launch from both.

It’s interesting to note that when the survey first started in 2015 the only operational vehicles where the Northrop Grumman offerings. Since then China has developed three vehicles and the other is Rocket Lab of the US and New Zealand.

Small launch vehicles under development

This is where things heat up.

Aside from the commercial prospects, with potentially thousands of small satellite to be launched in the next five to 10 years, both the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and NASA are paying greater attention to small launch vehicles.

The reports states that “as small satellites increase in utility and capability, DoD and its associated agencies are interested not just in traditional launch services, but also in ‘launch on demand’ services.”

Launch on demand can not be minimized in its importance. It takes years to get a big spy satellite built and launched. But a small satellite with limited, but focused capability, could eventually take less than a month, and possibly only days to build and launch.

The report further states that “Programs like DARPA’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) and NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) promised to fund new entrants in their development of small launch vehicles. The latest DARPA launch challenge aims to launch payloads with just 14 day notice to a previously unspecified orbit. The successful team stands to win a $2M reward on the initial launch and $10M reward on a second launch within two weeks.”

The deadline for applications for the DARPA Launch Challenge is in December and there’s possibility of at least one Canadian entry. What’s exciting about this Challenge and the possibility of a Canadian entry, is that to win a team must complete two launches within Q4 2019. If a Canadian team does participate, and has even one successful launch, then a new capability will exist in Canada.

The 34 small launch vehicles the survey has identified come from 12 nations with the US developing more than half the vehicles and Spain, China and the United Kingdom leading the way for the rest.

The report also states that “Spain and the United Kingdom are also well represented, partially as a result of initiatives taken by their respective governments to promote the development of new space enterprises.”

Small Launch Vehicles Under Development
Small launch vehicles under development. Credit: Carlos Niederstrasser of the Northrop Grumman Corporation.

Launch costs

Launch costs will of course be critical as to whether a company will survive or not.

Small Launch Vehicle launch costs
Launch costs. Credit: Carlos Niederstrasser of the Northrop Grumman Corporation.

The report states that “no obvious trend is discernable in the cost per kg, but it is interesting to note that all vehicles with performance under 500kg have a cost under $10M. Nonetheless, none of the vehicles come close to the much lower per kilogram cost of larger rockets such as the Falcon 9 ($2.7k/kg for the reusable variant).”

In fact in scanning the table below, the lowest proposed launch cost per kilogram is $10K, almost five times the cost of a Falcon 9 cost. Of course the survey is not comparing the same size vehicle, but it’s clear that while SpaceX is reducing the cost to orbit for larger payloads, the new small launch vehicles have not yet found a way to equal to efficiencies of SpaceX. However, as the development of these and currently operational small launch vehicles progresses, it is quite likely that cost per kilo will drop.

The report also includes the following statement that’s worth noting, “as small satellite capability increases, operators are no longer satisfied with the traditional rideshare and secondary payload opportunities available to them.”

It seems that dedicated small launch vehicles will proliferate, but how many survive and become viable businesses, is to be determined. Most will fail without a larger marketplace to compete in.

About Marc Boucher

Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceQ Media Inc. and CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef Interactive LLC. Boucher has 20+ years working in various roles in the space industry and a total of 30 years as a technology entrepreneur including creating Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine.

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