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The “three eras” of space launch for SmallSats

Last month we talked about different launch opportunities starting from stratospheric balloons and various platforms to orbital launches and space tugs. This diversity is a relatively new case for the space market and the number of emerging rocket companies can be truly intimidating. Will this trend continue in the future? Or should we prepare for another change? This time we will portray the evolution of the launch market from 2010 – the year when this growth started and up to 2023-2025.

As we always say, the earlier you choose the launch strategy, the more efficient your mission will be. That’s why it is so important to know what is waiting for you 3-5 years ahead. To figure it out we need to dive into the launch market’s relatively short history. Space industry is growing so fast that we can clearly define certain periods even for the tiny from the historical perspective amount of time. If not call it eras.

I — The Era of Rideshare: ?You Are Here

Our story begins in 2010 around the time when Planet Labs was founded to build commercial CubeSats in hundreds and launch them cheap as rideshare payloads. Launch vehicles like Indian PSLV, SpaceX’s Falcon 9, Russian Soyuz continue to dominate this segment today. Relatively low launch prices have opened the doors for numerous private satellite companies. As a response to the growing interest, dozens of enthusiasts decided to make a ride to space even more customer-oriented with smaller launch vehicles that would be able to launch any payload right when and where to a satellite operator needs.

II — The Era of Responsive launch: Almost There

The idea of responsive launches has totally changed the perception of rocket launch:

  • increased launch cadence becomes possible, (weekly launches sound almost like science fiction!);
  • it brings more flexibility in dates and destinations for customers;
  • as well as significantly less time for launch providers to market their capacities.

We entered this era with Rocket Lab accomplishing the first successful orbital launch with paying customers on board in 2018. It will still take 2–3 years from now to fully unfold the potential of the venture class launchers. Responsive launches are eventually going to be enabled by companies like Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, Firefly, Relativity Space and (wish them all good luck!) few others.

The only downside of this launch strategy is higher prices that might seem unacceptable for those who already got used to rideshare pricing. There are though three main business cases to justify it:

  • Initial deployment of medium-numbered smallsat constellations;
  • Eventual replenishment of constellations that have already been deployed in a timely manner;
  • Going to unpopular orbits where no rideshare is available or accomplishing precise orbit injection (with kick-stages).

Customers whose missions are not that time- or orbit-critical will continue to enjoy rideshare options. These include tech demos, university and science missions, established constellation players and individual microsats. Rideshare operators will continue improving their service and gradually decreasing the prices due to the increased competition. Which leads us to the next step. Probably the most important in history.

III — The Era of Advanced Space Logistics: We Can’t Wait

This era will start to unfold when heavy-lift partially reusable launch vehicles New Glenn and Starship start commercial operations. Besides huge fairings and aggressive pricing per launch, they will dramatically decrease the cost of launching cargo to LEO. Decrease to the level when every company is able to launch a payload to orbit. Let’s wait till 2024–2025 and see how it will boost both business and human imagination.

Low cost of launch will truly unlock the business case for space tugs (that are entering the market in 2020), in space transportation, in-orbit launchpads. Precise orbit insertion, raising orbits, changing inclinations — all of these advanced orbit scenarios become possible, helping constellations reach their optimal orbit locations.

Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?

We used photo NASA. The first pair of the 28 Planet Labs Earth Observation satellites leave the ISS.