LONDON — Four startup small-satellite launch providers — ABL, Firefly, Orbex and Vector — gave updates on their inaugural flight dates and what technical hurdles lie along the way.
These startups represent no more than 4% of the total population of 100+ smallsat launch services now fighting for a market foothold, according to market estimates.
How to assess the credibility of all these companies? One metric is financial. Of the four, Firefly, Orbex and Vector have disclosed financing sources and funding rounds.
The fourth, ABL Space Systems of California, declined to disclose funding sources and funding volume beyond saying it had completed three funding rounds with venture-capital investors, mainly from the United States.
ABL Chief Financial Officer Dan Piemont asked that the company be judged instead by its plant and equipment — a 40,000-square-foot test facility in New Mexico, a 30,000-square-foot development site at its El Segundo headquarters and 10,000 square feet ground systems testing site in Georgia, near one of the company’s possible spaceports.
Only one of them, Orbex, is based outside the United States and cannot reasonably count on much U.S. Defense Department business.
The other three say U.S. government launches figure heavily in their business plans.
The U.S. government’s importance as a future customer for ABL, Firefly and Vector
Speaking during the Seradata Space Conference here June 25, here’s how each of the three U.S.-based companies assessed the U.S. government’s importance to their success.
ABL: “No launch service provider has ever survived without primary support from their government,” Piemont said. “I see massive potential sources of demand, but that’s not what the U.S. government is, or any government is. But to provide that base level of support, take risk on early missions and be a sustaining source of demand for 1-2-3-4 launches a year is really important in making a project viable.”
Piemont said ABL estimates it will need to launch between five and 10 times per year to be financially viable — “closer to five than to 10.” Its first launch is scheduled in Q3 2020. Piemont said an integrated stage test planned late this year will be key to determining whether the mid-2020 flight is feasible. If that launch occurs and is successful, ABL would make a commercial flight at the end of 2020, followed by six launches in 2021.
Firefly: Commercial Business Development Director Eric Salwan said the company, which hopes to launch in December, “would expect about 20% of our business to come from the U.S. government.”
Salwan noted that U.S. government officials have said they are not going to anoint a couple of small-satellite launch options and then sustain them, as it has done with heavy-lift rockets.
“They are saying: ‘We want you guys to me mostly commercial companies, and then we’ll buy our small satellite launches on the margin,’” Salwan said. Firefly needs four flights per year of its Alpha rocket — a heavier Beta vehicle is being planned as well — to break even.
“Building a rocket like Firefly Alpha takes a minimum of five years and $100 million,” he said. “We have already taken the five years and the $100 million.” Firefly is backed by the Noosphere Ventures fund, whose managing director has promised to continue funding through the first launch or two.
Coming milestones for Vector include the qualification test of its rocket’s second stage, a long-duration firing of its first-stage engine in both two-engine and four-engine configuration.
“There’s a lot of work to get done this summer, but Firefly has a history of hitting very aggressive milestones,” Salwan said.
Vector: Deputy Business Development Director Joseph Sasso, whose vehicle is among the lightest of the small-launch startups, estimates that 30% of it business could be from the U.S. government. Vector has said it needs 10-15 missions a year to reach financial viability.
Vector hopes to make its inaugural flight from Alaska by September. The company has raised $103 million from multiple venture capital companies including Khodem, Sequoia and Shasta, and is now preparing a fresh financing round, Sasso said.
Orbex is counting on European government demand
Orbex: As a British company, Orbex is is not counting on the U.S. government. How much it can count on the British or European governments depends on part on what other small rockets are developed. Several have been proposed.
But Orbex Chief Commercial Officer Jan Skolmli said Vector needs just three launches per year from its proposed Scottish launch site to break even. “Early on, we will be focused on Europe and the uniqueness of launching from the UK and the European mainland,” he said.
Orbex has raised around $40 million from High-Tech Gruenderfonds of Germany and from European government grants.
The Orbex vehicle is a made-in-Europe product, with no components that pose ITAR technology-export issues, he said.
The inaugural launch is scheduled for the end of 2021, with three or four launches to follow in 2022. Orbex is also among the vehicles competing to be selected by the Portuguese government for the proposed spaceport in the Azores, in which case Skolmli said the company would offer customers two spaceport options.