LOGAN, Utah — An annual survey of dedicated small-satellite launch vehicles has found 101 of them in some form of design or development, with at least 34 having demonstrated more than just a PowerPoint slide.
The survey, performed since 2015 by Carlos Niederstrasser of Northrop Grumman, makes no pretense of exactitude and does not kick any tires to determine project credibility.
Niederstasser told the Small Sat Conference here Aug. 8 that he made no phone calls or other attempts to separate what’s real from what’s not, in part out of concern that any culling on the part of Northrop Grumman — which has its own small-satellite-dedicated rockets — would raise issues of bias.
“With Pegasus, Minotaur and Omega, we’re a competitor,” Niederstasser said. “We do not pass judgment” on technical, financial or other credibility.
The vehicles included in the survey must meet the following criteria: They must be designed to deliver no more than 1,000 kilograms of satellite payload into low Earth orbit — however the sponsors wish to define LEO. They must be designing a full launch system, not just an engine, and they must be targeting the commercial market, not solely government customers.
Since the first survey in 2015, four new vehicles — three from China and the U.S./New Zealand Rocket Lab Electron — have actually flown.
The arrival of even a small number of the vehicles now being designed would change the small-satellite market. But how many of them can be expected to survive? That will depend on part on how many can count on a stable base of government missions.
But from a launch-price point of view, the new rockets better hope that the commercial smallsat operators are willing to pay much more for dedicated missions than they do today for ride-share launches on larger rockets.
“Are these vehicles really going to revolutionize the way we do business in small launch?” Niederstrasser asked. He said most of the new rockets, or at least those that have disclosed some pricing information, are planning launches for a total cost of less than $10 million.
“Ten million appears to be the nice round number that no one wants to go above,” he said. “Everyone wants to stay under $10 million.”
A possibly more useful metric is the price per kilogram. These remain highly speculative at this point and will not settle until the new vehicles actually begin operations and determine their annual launch cadence and cash-flow-break-even points.
But the preliminary figures suggest the new rockets are looking at $10,000 to $15,000 per kilogram, if not more, Niederstasser found. That compares to less than $3,000 per kilogram on a large vehicle such as the SpaceX Falcon 9, or a ride-share mission with Nanoracks using cargo vehicles heading to the International Space Station.
“One thing becomes clear very quickly,” Niederstasser said. “These small launch vehicles are not going to be the cheapest way to get into orbit. Their main selling point is convenience: You are not waiting to be a secondary, you are not riding along with someone who is going to impose restrictions. You get a dedicated launch.
“But if you really want the cheapest access to space, you’re still pretty much left to ride share.”
With such dynamism in the small-launcher-development market, it’s difficult to pull out trends from the data, especially after just four years. But Niederstasser pointed to the growing number of vehicles that have fallen off the radar screen, in addition to vehicle sponsors that have publicly thrown in the towel.
The two categories — no word on status, and definitely shuttered — each account for 11 vehicles in the 2018 version of the survey.
“You can see we really are starting to see attrition even though the numbers continue to grow,” he said.
And even the rockets that have remained in development over the four-year period have experienced schedule delays.
“They are all finding out that this takes longer, and is harder than it first appears,” Niederstasser said. “We have made a lot of progress in the last four years. There are many new players. We have had a lot of companies that have started doing orbital tests, making progress toward an orbital launch vehicle.
But also “a lot of heartbreak. Several companies have gone bankrupt. We’re definitely seeing the growing pains of the industry.”