NewSpace needs more small-launch startups

Richard Nederlander

September 25, 2018

Image taken from Wallops Flight Facility

At the World Satellite Business Week, representatives of Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit argued that “five or six [small launch startups] will bubble to the top” while the other startups will falter. They reasoned that these other projects will fail due to technical or financial reasons within a few years. And, they content, those that survive will be forced out because the small industry itself can only maintain a few small launch startups.

While acknowledging that small-launch startups must have smart and financially-savvy leaders, I do not believe that the small satellite industry is on the verge of a “shakeout.” Ultimately, the launch industries that emerge at the top will be the ones that can break the threshold of offering $10,00 per pound for launch, and none of the current small-sat launch providers offer this financial option. Furthermore, until a small-sat launch startup can launch small-sats 1) affordably, 2) reliable, and 3) timely then the industry will see more and more innovative startups entering the arena. And this in itself should be seen as exciting and encouraging.

Rocket-launch technology has stagnated and needs to be revitalized. There has been too much focus on traditional means of launch that fail to break the threshold. In fact, traditional surface-launches are so unprofitable that the US Air Force must provide a billion dollars a year in subsidies to Boeing and Lockheed Martin to maintain their rocket systems. Fundamental change is needed.

Companies, like proximitE, offer the potential of taking a well-researched and feasible concept that has been demonstrated in the realm of research and bring it to the private sector. The potential of high-altitude balloon-assisted rocket launches can significantly change the calculus for the space-industry and open the doors to many more customers (both commercial and academic). We are seeing a powerful trend toward the creation of huge constellations of small-satellites with lifespans of only a few years, and launch startups that can help support these satellite companies will be the one to survive.

In short, the current small-sat launch companies that insinuate that they will emerge at the top because “the industry is probably hiring as many artists as engineers” should realize their comments are counterproductive to innovation and may belie a fear of new competition.

Space: The Final Frontier for Travel

Richard Nederlander

December 16, 2018

Bryce Space and Technology’s Pie Chart of the Global Space Economy

Who Cares About Space Travel?

Within 30 years, Morgan Stanley predicts the space industry will be worth $1.1 trillion. Bank of America believes it will be almost $3 trillion by then. Regardless, the verdict is clear: we are entering a new commercial space age.

As can be seen in figure 1, the space economy already plays an integral role in the global economy, at $339.1billion in 2016 (it spiked to $385 billion in 2017). Satellites are an essential factor in the growth of the space industry through the various services they provide: ranging from near-Earth imagery, to telecommunications, to science research. However, it is rockets (specifically the launch industry) that play a fundamental role in allowing satellites to fulfill their missions by reaching their desired orbits.

Figure 1: Bryce Space and Technology’s Pie Chart of the Global Space Economy

Without innovation in the launch industry, the exciting developments happening within the satellite industry will not be realized. For example, space startups around the world are aiming to provide futuristic services such as real-time live streaming of the Earth straight to your phone (EarthNow LLC), 3D printing of entire constellations of satellites in space (Made in Space, Inc.), and even testing of pharmaceutical products in microgravity to understand their effects in otherworldly environments (Space Tango, Inc.). A thorough-breakdown of satellites by function can be found in figure 2. Fortunately, exponentially-minded startups such asSpaceX and Stratolaunch are committed to providing reliable and affordable access into space.

Figure 2: Bryce Space and Technology’s Pie Chart on Operational Satellites by Function, as of December 31, 2016

The Future of Rocket Launch

The technology behind rockets has not changed much since the first rocket launch in 1942. Specifically, a rocket is provided with enough fuel to overcome Earth’s gravitational pull from the surface of Earth. Nothing about the rocket is expected to be reused.

Sadly, this outdated thinking and technology has made modern space travel risky. For example, a disposable SoyuzMS rocket failed its launch and forced the onboard astronauts to (safely) abort the mission on October of 2018. The failure created a sense of insecurity within the launch industry, and raised insurance costs of future launches (the insurance cost for this specific launch was at ~$73 million, according toSatellite Finance).

Therefore, to support the burgeoning space industry, there needs to be a renaissance in space launch capabilities. Fortunately, as figure 3 demonstrates, over 100 space organizations are currently developing new rocket designs. As Hoyt Davidson of investment company Near Earth LLC explains, “It’s a renaissance...I’ve never seen the interest level so high to start new businesses.”

Figure 3: Small Launch Vehicles - A 2018 State of theIndustry Survey, 2015- 2018

Consider, for instance, startups investing in research and development to make rockets reusable (to reduce costs).Specifically, SpaceX’s reusable Falcon Heavy rocket has had a 100% success rate and can put nearly 64 metric tons of payload into low-Earth orbit, which is an altitude of approximately 160 kilometers to 2,000 kilometers. They are also in development of a rocket to launch Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and a group of artists around the Moon and back to Earth in 2023.

Other startups are looking into methods to avoid launching rockets from Earth’s surface. As it turns out, launching rockets from the surface is very fuel-inefficient because 1) the rocket needs to push through all of Earth’s atmosphere, and 2) the gravitational pull on the rocket is heaviest from the surface.

Therefore, space startups such as Stratolaunch and Virgin Orbit are launching rockets from high-speed airplanes. InOctober of 2018, Statolaunch’s aircraft reached 90 mph at its latest testing. And in November of 2018, Virgin Orbit flew a modified Boeing 747-400 aircraft with a 21-meter rocket strapped underneath its wing for the first time.

These types of rocket startups would only be able to provide services for small satellites due to weight constraints. Fortunately, the trend is moving towards satellite startups building small satellites (1 kg to 50 kg), as can be seen in figure 4.

Figure 4: 2018 Nano/Microsatellite Market Forecast, 8th Edition, Number of small satellite launches with an emphasis on Planet Inc., a small satellite manufacturing startup

Market Factors Behind Rocket Launches

With revolutionizing rocket designs comes revolutionizing launch prices. However, let us first consider the current price ranges of rocket launches.

Many factors must be considered when determining the costs of launching a satellite into orbit (i.e. weight of satellite, reusability of rocket, size of rocket, etc.). Companies such as Spaceflight “assist in identifying, booking and managing rideshare launches...[so that] ... entities [can] achieve their mission goals – on time and on budget.” Figure 5 provides detailed information on expected price ranges for satellite launches relative to their weight and orbital destination.

Figure 5: Spaceflight's Launch Schedule for 2019

As a point of comparison, consider the top six promising small-satellite rockets in figure 6. Once in commission, they promise to offer prices that would revolutionize the established costs offered by companies such as Spaceflight.

Figure 6: SpaceWorks Enterprises’s 2018 Nano/Microsatellite Market Forecast; Only five are expected to fly customer payloads by 2020

What Should We Expect in the Next Thirty Years?

A recent space program report by Frost & Sullivan predicted a launch demand for over 11,600 small satellites over the next twelve years. As mentioned, they will be providing a litany of services that will dramatically change the way people live on Earth, and in Outer Space.

Already, there are space startups preparing for this future market. Companies such as Deep SpaceIndustries are creating the technology for a future where asteroids can be turned into “fuel-stations” for rockets to land upon and refuel, before heading deeper into space. With this level of innovation and progress, we can confidently assume that soon rockets be transporting people and supplies fromEarth to small communities on the Moon and Mars, while returning raw materials from asteroids to Earth.

Sources 

1.    “Elon Musk Says SpaceX Will Reuse a Rocket Within 24 Hours in 2019”; https://www.space.com/40581-spacex-reusable-rocket-goal-elon-musk.html

2.    “Massive Stratolaunch aircrafts hits 90 mph on road to maiden flight”; https://newatlas.com/stratolaunch-worlds-largest-plane-runway-testing/56883/

3.    “SpaceX’s Moon Trip is the Ultimate Artist Residency”; https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/09/spacex-moon-artists-maezawa/570694/

4.    “Russia probes ISS rocket failure”; https://phys.org/news/2018-10-russia-probes-iss-rocket-failure.html

5.    “Rocket Lab to Launch Kleos Satellites in mid-2019”; https://www.satellitetoday.com/launch/2018/09/20/rocket-lab-to-launch-kleos-satellites-in-mid-2019/

6.    “This Company Wants to Send You to the Stratosphere in a Balloon”; https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2018-07-26/world-view-wants-to-send-you-to-the-stratosphere-in-a-balloon

7.    “Just a Smallsat World, with Big Primes Squeezing In”; https://www.satellitetoday.com/business/2018/10/22/just-a-smallsat-world-with-big-primes-squeezing-in/

8.    “Soyuz failure ensnares satellite insurers as market counts wider cost”; https://www.satellitefinance.com/

9.    “The New Rockets Racing to Make Space Affordable”; https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2018-rocket-cost/

10.  “3D Printing, Virtual Reality,Simulated Stardust and More Headed to Orbiting Lab”; https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/news/ng-10_research_highlights

11.  “Rocket Lab Performs FirstCommercial Launch”; https://spacenews.com/rocket-lab-performs-first-commercial-launch/

12.  “Rocket Lab Just Launched itsFirst Commercial Rocket Into Orbit”; https://www.forbes.com/sites/jonathanocallaghan/2018/11/11/rocket-lab-just-launched-its-first-commercial-rocket-into-orbit/#3b0f0209e91d

13.  “Spaceflight”; http://spaceflight.com/about/

14.  “SpaceX Statistics”; https://spacexnow.com/stats.php

15.  “The Space Economy: An IndustryTakes Off”; https://www.uschamber.com/series/above-the-fold/the-space-economy-industry-takes

16.  “Future of Space”; https://ww2.frost.com/research/industry/aerospace-defense-n/future-space/