China’s Long March 11 small-satellite launcher has conducted two missions, both reported successes. All things being equal, it may be the best choice to jump-start a British domestic launch service. But all things aren’t equal. Credit: Weibo/Chinaspaceflight.com

ADELAIDE, Australia — The many new launch vehicles being developed to attract the small-satellite market look to be twice as expensive as the larger vehicles that are doing a mediocre job of serving that business now, according to a British government-ordered survey.

The survey further concludes that Britain, whose government wants to encourage, but not subsidize, a domestic launch capability, would be best served by importing a small Chinese rocket if it really wants to help create a long-term made-in-UK launch service.

The findings presented to the 68th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) here the week of Sept. 24 are not good news for small-satellite builders and system operators hoping to break free from the the second-class-citizen limits of their current status.

As secondary payloads on larger vehicles, small satellite owners are subject to the schedule vagaries of their larger co-passengers. Launch delays have been many.

They are obliged to operate from the same general orbit as the principal payloads, even if that orbit is not ideal for them. That’s why so many have launched into the 400-kilometer orbit of the International Space Station: That’s where the rides to orbit have been available, on NASA-contracted SpaceX or Orbital ATK cargo transporters.

This incomplete selection of vehicles on the market or about to enter it and aiming at the small-satellite market suggests that these vehicles may avoid the schedule delays associated with being secondary passengers on larger rockets. But there’s a high price for that luxury. Many are showing per-kilogram prices that are double the prevailing prices on larger rockets. But there is the Chinese Long March 11.
Credit: CST

These frustrations, coupled with the anticipated explosion in the number of small satellites seeking launch in the coming years, have led to several dozen new rockets being funded for initial development.

For smallsat owners: Pay in cash or pay in time

Surveys presented here by small-satellite builder Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) and Commercial Space Technologies Ltd. (CST), both of Britain, concluded that small-satellite owners will have to choose between per-kilogram launch costs that are about double the rate of India’s PSLV, the Russian Soyuz and ride-shares available from SpaceX; or stick with these established rockets.

There is one possible exception: China. At least three vehicles, one of them being developed by a pioneering private-sector operator called Landspace, advertise prices that, on a per-kilogram basis, are more in line with today’s larger rockets.

Under contract from Britain’s Innovate UK, which is examining what it would take to have a rocket on British soil by 2020 — possibly an impossible date in any event — concluded that another Chinese rocket, the Long March 11, would be the best fit from a technical and economic perspective.

The Long March 11, operated by China Great Wall Industry Corp., has launched twice, both times successfully.

Zhang Changwu is chief executive of Landspace, a curiosity for now: a privately owned Chinese launch-service provider. Is Landspace going anywhere? Not to Scotland. But pioneer GomSpace will use the service in 2018. Credit: Landspace

CST’s Alan Webb said initial contacts with China Great Wall, and with Landspace, suggest exporting their vehicles to Britain could be done without scuttling the financial viability of the business.

The temptation of Landspace and China Great Wall Industry Corp. 

Landspace has already contracted with at least one non-Chinese customer, small-satellite builder GomSpace of Denmark, for a 2018 launch. Webb said the fact that Landspace is a private company may make any export of the vehicle to the UK an easier matter for Chinese regulators.

The UK debate over a domestic launch capability is occurring without any government commitment of financial support for the undertaking beyond R&D associated with the establishment of a spaceport.

“The UK is very clear that such a launch vehicle would have to be commercially self-sustaining,” Webb said. They are supporting some grants, through small financial means, but this is for spaceports and operators to close a business plan rather than support for infrastructure and hardware. Whatever launch service establishes itself in the UK really needs to be self-sustaining.”

“We came out with a six-year time frame in which a project would break even by using a vehicle that is operational. If it was a vehicle that had to recoup its development costs, the schedule would shift to the right,” Webb said.

“We looked at what the launch price would be and the demand, and we estimated that 6-7 launches per year could be sustained by the small satellite market. To be conservative, five a year, at roughly $30,000 per kilo.”

ITAR vs MTCR

That too limits the alternatives.

Any import of U.S. launch technology would face International Trade in Arms Regulations (ITAR), whose restrictions may make such a deal impossible or subject to conditions unacceptable to a UK operator.

Ultimately the case for a Chinese rocket fell apart — likely definitively — not because of ITAR, but because of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), an agreement among 35 nations, including NATO members, in 1987. The voluntary partnership seeks to limit the traffic in missile delivery systems. China is not an MTCR signatory but has said it would abide by the agreement.

Conclusion: “We cant see any appetite in the UK, and we’re not sure about the Chinese government, for overcoming this hurdle,” Webb said.

Smallsat launchers need constellation business. Is it sustainable?

A study on the available options among small-satellite vehicles active or in development show them all to be far more expensive, per kilogram, than today’s larger rockets, said SSTL’s Alex da Silva Curiel. He said that while very small satellites, or cubesats, have received much of the small-satellite publicity, the core market for a future small-satellite launcher is in satellites weighing 100-500 kilograms.

That is where many of the mega-constellations’ satellites turn up, and where the new vehicles in development are targeting their efforts. Da Silva Curiel said some 40 new rockets are in development.

“The market needs the constellations,” he said. “This is the rationale behind all these launcher developments. The key question is whether every one of these launch companies can actually build a business out of these few systems that are going to go up over that time.

“What we are hearing repeatedly is that launches are being delayed, so there is certainly a demand from the [small-satellite] community. The question is: Will people actually pay money for that?

“The cheapest options today are the large launch vehicles, as long as you are prepared to wait. From an SSTL perspective, for example, one of the reasons we go to PSLV rather than SpaceX is that SpaceX takes a while to fill up. It’s a much bigger launcher. It’s quicker to fill up a medium-size launcher at roughly the same prices, but actually the specific price on a Falcon 9 is better than a PSLV.

“Can these new launchers actually find a market from organizations that want a dedicated launch? It is not obvious at the moment how many of these satellites that are being launched today would need a dedicated launch.”

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Peter B. de Selding
Peter B. de Selding
Peter de Selding is a Co-Founder and editor for SpaceIntelReport.com. He started SpaceIntelReport in 2017 after 26 years as the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews where he covered the commercial satellite, launch and the international space businesses. He is widely considered the preeminent reporter in the space industry and is a must read for space executives. Follow Peter @pbdes