Northern Sky Research

The Keys to SmallSat Launchers

Nov 15th, 2016 by Laura Forczyk   More from this Analyst | Profile

Emerging commercial small satellite (smallsat) launch vehicles are full of promise, but reliability is key in the government sector. - Government customers prefer reliable government or traditionally government-oriented contractor launch service providers despite potential cost savings using unproven emerging commercial launchers. For many government or government-oriented smallsat launch service providers, governments are their only customers. Without government customers, many of these launchers would be unable to compete in the open market without significant cost improvements.

The Chinese smallsat launcher Long March 11 (Chang Zheng 11) demonstrated its reliability on 9 November with its second successful launch. Operated by the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CALT), the Long March series primarily launches Chinese government and research payloads in partnership with foreign governments. On its maiden voyage in September 2015, CZ-11 launched four smallsats: one technology demonstration payload and three research smallsats, all from China. Last week it launched two Chinese research smallsats as well as three commercial remote sensing smallsats by Zhejiang LiTong Electronic Technology Company. This may indicate a willingness for CALT to launch more commercial smallsat customers on future CZ launches and a willingness toward commercial companies within China to book government launches.

Pegasus smallsat launcher by American company Orbital ATK, operational since 1990, has most recently been used to launch NASA payloads with the occasional U.S. Defense or foreign government customer. NASA demonstrated recent efforts to support commercial smallsat launchers. However, for many of its own small launch needs, NASA still relies on government-oriented launchers. NASA-sponsored Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) is scheduled to launch an eight microsat constellation on Pegasus XL on December 12. NASA-sponsored Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) is expected to launch on Pegasus XL in 2017. Pegasus has an 88% launch success rate and no failures in the past two decades, which makes it attractive to risk-adverse government entities. However, the expense of Pegasus, over $50 million per launch, will likely dissuade any future commercial customers from booking.

Cheaper access to space is a large factor driving the smallsat market, and new players promise launches at great cost savings compared to traditional players. Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne, advertising less than $10 million per launch, recently announced a deal with Sky and Space Global for four launches. Vector Space Systems, advertising less than $3 million per launch, recently signed York Space Systems for an initial six launches. Emerging smallsat launchers Rocket Lab and others are seeing increased customer interest in new commercial smallsat capabilities. However, these launch vehicles are not yet operation and carry risk of business or hardware failures, such as the stalled programs by XCOR Aerospace and Firefly Space Systems.

Geopolitics plays a role in effecting the smallsat market. As the Indian Space Research Organization recently announced plans to launch 83 mostly foreign smallsats on its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle in 2017, there were renewed calls to reverse the U.S. ban on utilizing Indian launch vehicles. ISRO is bucking the trend by providing less expensive launch options on reliable launch vehicles. PSLV costs approximately $15 million and has a 95% success rate. If U.S. smallsat customers are permitted to book on ISRO vehicles, PSLV will become competitive with emerging commercial smallsat launchers.

Bottom Line

For government and government-oriented launch service providers, lowering launch costs while maintaining reliability is necessary to compete with commercial launchers to attract commercial smallsat customers. For emerging commercial smallsat launchers, demonstrating reliability is necessary to compete for government smallsat launch contracts. In the meantime, government launch service providers such as ISRO will need to find the balance between both to continue to launch a variety of smallsat payloads successfully.