Small launch vehicle companies see rideshare as an opportunity and a threat

Space

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Developers of small launch vehicles, who have promoted their vehicles as providing dedicated access to space for small satellites, say they’re also open to flying rideshare missions as they face competition from larger rockets.

Spaceflight, the Seattle-based company that is one of the leading aggregators of smallsats that are typically launched as secondary payloads on large vehicles, announced a launch services agreement (LSA) Feb. 6 with small launch vehicle developer Vector. Spaceflight will buy a launch of a Vector-R rocket scheduled for later this year, with “multiple priced options” for future launches.

Spaceflight will be responsible for the entire payload integration process under the agreement. The company will receive a payload fairing from Vector, within which it will integrate a collection of smallsats before shipping it back to Vector to be installed on the Vector-R.

“This unique LSA demonstrates our belief in Vector’s potential and commitment to providing customers the most variety in launch vehicle access,” Melissa Wuerl, vice president of business development at Spaceflight, said in a statement.

“We don’t see ourselves as becoming experts in the rideshare business,” said Jim Cantrell, chief executive of Vector, during a panel discussion at the SmallSat Symposium here Feb. 6. The complexity of that sector, he said, was one of the reasons why Vector decided to work with Spaceflight rather than try to aggregate payloads themselves.

Vector is the second small launch startup that Spaceflight is working with. In June, the company announced an agreement with Rocket Lab to fly payloads on three Electron launches. Those launches were scheduled for late 2018 and early 2019, but have not taken place yet.

Although a key selling point for small launch vehicles is that they provide dedicated access to space, including control over schedule and orbit, companies working on those vehicles said on the panel they’re open to working with Spaceflight and other aggregators.

“There will be times when our customers will be integrators,” said Dan Hart, president and chief executive of Virgin Orbit, the company developing the LauncherOne air-launch system.

“We’re definitely interested in working with some of the service providers, and selling off some of that business by partnering,” said Tim Ellis, chief executive of Relativity. That company is building a larger launch vehicle, Terran 1, with a payload capacity of about a metric ton, which he said offered more opportunities for rideshare payloads. “We’ll offer disruptive pricing to those customers.”

“Things that you can have other people help you with, getting good partnerships going, is very important,” said Tom Markusic, chief executive of Firefly Aerospace. “In this area, we’re definitely looking for partners like Spaceflight to help us with aggregation missions.”

Small launch vehicle developers on the panel, though, emphasized their advantage of also providing dedicated access to space for small satellites. “You don’t want to be on a massive rocket as one of many, and maybe one of the least important, customers,” said Hart. “You want to have some control over your destiny.”

That control, launch companies believe, is worth a price premium over rideshare missions on larger rockets, which offer a lower price per kilogram. “The size of a large launcher is such that the cost per kilo would theoretically be lower, except that it cannot have the same flexibility” as a small rocket, said Giulio Ranzo, chief executive of Avio, which builds the Vega rocket.

Rideshares on large launch vehicles remain attractive to many customers who are sensitive to price. Spaceflight purchased a SpaceX Falcon 9 that, in December, launched 64 satellites for a variety of customers. The success of that mission has led SpaceX to consider doing more such rideshare missions in the future.

“It’s been something that we’ve been exploring for a long time. The mission that we did last year with Spaceflight was a great pathfinder for this,” said Jonathan Hofeller, vice president of commercial sales at SpaceX, during another conference panel Feb. 6. He promised announcements “at some point” regarding additional dedicated rideshare missions. “It would be great to do this once a year, twice a year, on a regular basis.”

Many customers, he argued, are seeking to go to just a few popular orbits, like sun-synchronous ones, which addresses some of the flexibility advantages offered by small vehicles. “Whether you’re a large satellite or a small satellite, you just want to get to space as economically as possible,” he said. “What we’re seeing with smallsats is that we can do that with a much larger launch vehicle.”

SpaceX has the advantage of flying its Falcon 9 on a regular basis while, on the panel of small launch vehicle developers, only one, Avio, had an operational vehicle. Virgin Orbit’s Hart said he expects to begin commercial LauncherOne operations in the middle of this year, with launches following initially every two to three months before ramping up its launch rate.

Vector announced a year ago it expected to perform its first orbital Vector-R launch before the end of 2018, but that schedule has slipped “because of the facts that we find on the ground plus the government shutdown,” Cantrell said. A suborbital launch of the Block 1 version of Vector-R is scheduled for May, followed by an orbital launch in August. Four orbital launches are planned for 2019, he said, and those launches have been sold.

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