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The race to produce greater launch (Access to Space) capacity, to service the current and planned rapid growth in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) spacecraft, is heating up.
Once considered the bastion of institutional operators (Governments, Agencies) and billionaires, i.e. those willing and able to absorb high initial development risks and costs, up to a point where non-recurring costs diminish and recurring costs are supported through successful operations), the introduction and wide availability of more amenable materials, understood processes and disruptive business models are introducing a new breed of companies, often drawing expertise from the behemoths themselves, along with like-minded entrepreneurs and investors, with the express objective to drive the traditionally expected costs down to improve their own market presence.
Around the World, there are small launch ventures cropping up and many are taking an almighty risk: developing engines and other niche technologies, offering identical products in direct regional competition with incumbents and attracting some major investment.
In Europe, there are an estimated 12 entities planning to offer ‘low-cost access to space services’ from a swathe of launch sites (‘spaceports’), with capacities between 100kg and 350kg to LEO. These sites are located in Sweden and the UK, with other possible locations in Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Spain and Portugal. The incumbent provider, Ariane Group, operates from South America.
In the US, there are upwards of 75 such entities, many offering the same service around similar architecture, in various locations, catering for flight payloads of anything upwards from 25kg. The biggest of the ‘institutional’ incumbents, NASA, SpaceX, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Blue Origin are all resident in this region.
There are around the same number in China, with a smattering of others in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, India and other Asian centres. Many of these entities are attached to Universities as research or educational tools; some are supported by Governmental or institutional operators, either as subsidiaries or hedge ventures; while some are ‘trophy’ ventures for investors with a penchant for space and space travel. Russia remains largely reliant on larger, Government run launchers.
As in every open marketplace, in order for a new proposition to enter the market successfully, it has to offer some tangible benefit to customers, and there are a multitude of possibilities. There are, however, only so many ways to do things differently and, for a venture to survive the ride to sustainability, there needs to be a sound growth strategy, and a lot of luck.
What we do know is that the observation that ‘there are 170 others’ is simplistic and rather inaccurate, as every incumbent has beneficial alternatives; the first to market is rarely the best or the most sustainable; and the need for realistic competition has never been greater.
Primary differential parameters (those areas which affect choice of service) are:
- Price (of a standard payload kg to a desired orbit)
- Availability, reliability and responsivity.
Within each of these subjects are secondary drivers (reusability, recurring cost and logistical variations, for example). In addition, there may be other preferences from customers, such as nett environmental impact, or geopolitical considerations.
The quoted price of a product to a customer is, of course, defined by a basic set of requirements, which culminate in delivery of a known payload to the desired orbit, and include additional items required for a particular set of service conditions.
While the price of a ride depends on a number of variables, such as the payload’s mass, its delivery conditions and the orbital parameters (orbital velocity, altitude and trajectory), it is possible to estimate typical values for particular popular missions, such as LEO Polar – a circular trajectory travelling over both poles at a fixed altitude; LEO Sun Synchronous – a highly elliptical orbit just retrograde from polar, allowing identical solar lighting conditions to follow the Sun’s path throughout the day in a particular region; and elliptical or circular equatorial Mid Earth (MEO) or Geostationary (GEO) orbits. Other exotic orbits may also be possible, depending on the customers’ requirements.
However, it must be clear that a mixture of spacecraft with differing deployment requirements could cause the mission design team some headaches when it comes to management of deployment structures (dispensers, or multiple launch adaptors), or internal environments, and this can affect the take-up inside the fairing on a specific manifest (passenger list).
These prices can be quoted on a price per kg to orbit, but will also depend on capacity take-up for the launcher, being a percentage of the useable fairing volume, including deployment structures.
The simplest and most cost-effective approach is to have a single fairing volume, with single payload deployment or multiple of identical units on a dispenser, with all passengers heading for the same separation point. That alternative is the one championed by Space-X in the deployment of Starlink. Any complication or addition to that model will likely add cost, and therefore affect the ride price to the customer. The management of the volume under the fairing and the design of the deployment systems are therefore important factors in providing flexibility in delivery options.
For a specific launch operator, it also pays to have a launch capacity that suits the best market for the business – a Goldilocks volume – where a smaller vehicle can only accommodate a small number of similar payloads at a lower recurring cost, and a super-large (Heavy) launcher will find it difficult to have a sufficient number of different payloads to sustain the higher launch costs. Heavy launchers are generally used for higher altitude or interplanetary missions (higher payload and launcher mass, more energy imparted, and higher expense), or guaranteed constellations of smaller satellites, but not so good for dedicated launches to LEO or MEO, with lighter, or a variety of, payloads.
Availability, reliability, responsivity
Satellite users (or manufacturers) are not generally concerned about which launch vehicle they use to deploy their products: price and performance are important, but so is availability – the promise of a launch in the shortest time from flight readiness is preferred, owing to the satellite being a dormant investment until its activated, and certain integral or critical components may have shelf-lives that demand a timely launch. There can be other time pressures too, on particular missions: for national security, or disaster monitoring, for example. In order to avoid late-stage disappointment, the satellite customer will book a number of flights at a 12-24 month advance period, and pay a deposit to secure launch. This does not guarantee a flight on a particular day at this stage, but it puts their payload on the passenger list for consideration when the manifests are determined.
The deposit does not prevent the satellite user from changing to another launch operator, but it does limit their choices, unless the launch operator declares a major delay, or other reason to prevent the mission being flown within a certain time period of that agreed at deposit placement.
The more launch options a satellite operator has, the better, so it is important that new launch operators get their products to market early, to attract new customers, to provide more options to the satellite sector, and to raise awareness of the development status of particular launch services.
A launch operator will depend on the reliability of the vehicles and launch services in their catalogue and this will include likelihood of success, demonstration of performance and deployment accuracy, along with other aspects including customer satisfaction, and after-launch services. The appeal of a launch service will also depend on other matters out of their control, such as reliability of weather and complex logistics and it is in the operator’s best interests to ensure a location is selected that can provide a high number of predictable flight days.
The benefit of a launch site between the tropics is mainly to take advantage of the ‘sling-shot’ effect of placing payloads in equatorial orbit: this uses the angular velocity of the Earth to add thrust to a launch vehicle, saving propellant cost and related mass, to achieve the orbital parameters. Sites in Southern USA and South America use this to great effect. But having flight operations in these locations also provides the benefits of predictable weather and low-complexity logistics, within stable political regions.
With polar or SSO missions, launches can be performed more or less from anywhere, but, as with all flight operations, the flight path risk must be calculated to ensure personnel, populations and property (especially critical national infrastructure) are not compromised or threatened by a flight failure. This aspect is determined under national flight licensing regulations from the respective country hosting the launch.
With many nations now hosting launch operations, additional benefits for national agency or Government payloads can be found, such as increased responsivity and this is one area where smaller, reliable launch vehicles may have a part to play.
The time it takes a heritage manufacturer (i.e. one that has all designs, materials and supply chain available to assemble and test a satellite of recurrent design) to produce a mini-satellite (of 300-500kg mass), is around 8-12 months. It may be that a partly built unit is available to shorten that lead-time (often the case with national security payloads), or a flight spare from a previous flight, may be available, in which case the time to launch readiness could be as short as 2 months.
It is therefore of benefit for a National Agency to have a launch option that can respond in a very short period of time, to enable the satellite to be launched and activated in the fastest time possible.
One additional thought for the satellite operator, especially in the case of multiple launches or a long lead-time until flight, is that of sustainability of the proposed launch operator. The potential launch customer should take care and perform deep diligence on the likelihood that the launch operator is a sustainable operation to avoid costly issues arising closer to launch day.
For an established launch service provider, this is of less importance, but a new market entrant or untested provider should be assessed for operational intelligence, approach to safety and security, development approach, and failure mitigation.
There are ‘170 others’ (or thereabouts) – it’s true. But that doesn’t mean that there are 170 better solutions. In order to compete, new entrants must bring something more: a lower price; better responsivity; a better customer experience; or greater flexibility. There are also the preferential drivers: location; environmental stewardship; societal benefits, and in situations where small differences matter, these may be enough to give a new entrant the edge.