- Parabolic Arc
- November 29, 2023
Satellite Operators Face Limited Selection of Small Launch Vehicles as Sector Slowly Emerges
In the first installment of this series, Elon Musk Drinks Your Milkshake: The Impact of SpaceX Rideshare Missions on the Small Launch Market, we looked at the impact of SpaceX’s five Transporter missions and other rideshare and secondary payload launches on the emerging small satellite launch industry.
We laid out how larger rockets with payload capacities of 1,500 kg and above have launched more than 700 payloads since January 2021. Dedicated launches for SpaceX’s Starlink and OneWeb’s broadband constellations were not included in that figure. Smaller launch providers with payload capacities below 1,500 kg have launched 177 payloads during that same period.
In this post, we would like to take a closer look at the 14 small launch vehicles that have flown over the past two years to get a sense of what services are available to satellite operators. It turns out that the selection is, in a word, limited.
Launch Vehicles, Payload Capacity Below 1,500 kg
|Launch Vehicle||Maximum Payload Capacity||Record 2021-22||Overall Record||Notes|
|Electron||300 kg to LEO||14-1||29-3||Most frequently flown small booster in recent years|
|Pegasus||443 kg to LEO||1-0||40-3-2||Relatively high cost and low payload capacity limits launch cadence|
|Minotaur I||580 kg to 185 km LEO||1-0||12-0||Mostly restricted from launching commercial payloads|
|LauncherOne||500 kg to 230 km LEO||4-0||4-1||Limited launch history|
|Firefly Alpha||1,170 kg to 200 km LEO||0-1-1||0-1-1||Limited launch history|
|Rocket 3.3||25–150 kg to 500 km SSO||2-3||2-3||Retired due to multiple failures|
|Kuaizhou-1A||300 kg to LEO||7-1||16-2||Export restrictions limit foreign payloads|
|Long March 11||700 kg to LEO||3-0||11-0||Export restrictions limit foreign payloads|
|Long March 6||1,080 kg to 700 km SSO||6-0||10-0||Export restrictions limit foreign payloads|
|Ceres-1||350 kg to LEO||3-0||4-0||Export restrictions limit foreign payloads|
|Hyperbola-1||300 kg to LEO||0-3||1-3||Export restrictions limit foreign payloads, multiple failures|
|Small Satellite Launch Vehicle||500 kg to LEO||0-1||0-1||No successful flights, limited launch history|
|Qased||10-50 kg to 500 km LEO||1-0||2-0||Export restrictions limit foreign payloads, little launch history|
|Simorgh||800 kg to 200 km||0-2||0-4||Export restrictions limit foreign payloads, no successful launches|
Rocket Lab’s Electron is the most launched small satellite booster in recent years. The rocket has compiled a record of 29-3 since its maiden launch in May 2017. The launch vehicle can place 300 kg into Earth orbit at a cost of about $7.5 million.
Among other startups, Virgin Orbit has a record of 4-1 with its LauncherOne booster since its maiden flight in May 2020. The company charges $12 million to launch up to 500 kg into orbit.
Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha booster scored its first success in October after failing on its maiden flight in 2021. The company declared the launch to be a complete success, but others have judged it to be a partial failure because the payloads were released at in a lower-than-planned orbit and reentered the atmosphere earlier than expected.
Astra Space decided to retire its Rocket 3.3 booster after it compiled a record of two successes and three failures over the past two years. The company is now working on a more powerful Rocket 4.
As new launch vehicles have emerged to lower the cost of getting to orbit, older boosters have become increasingly uncompetitive. Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus XL air-launched rocket, which first flew in 1990, has only launched five times in the past decade due to its high cost of $40 million and relatively low payload capacity.
Northrop Grumman also launches a family of Minotaur rockets assembled from decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missile stages. Most Minotaur variants are limited to launching government payloads so that commercial companies do not compete with surplus federal assets. Minotaur rockets have launched only six orbital missions in the past decade.
Chinese Launch Vehicles
China has created a stable of launch vehicles designed to serve the small satellite market. Five boosters compiled a record of 19 successes and four failures over the past two years. They have an overall record of 42 successes and five failures. The Hyperbola-1 booster experienced three of the five failures.
Western access to Chinese launch vehicles is restricted due to export laws designed to limit technology transfer. Twenty-two of the 23 Chinese small boosters launched over the past two years carried satellites owned and operated by domestic entities. One launch carried satellites for a German company that were built by the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Iran is in a similar situation with its small satellite launch vehicles, which have been used for domestic satellites.
The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has been successful in launching small satellites on rideshare missions aboard its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). Satellite operators from all over the world have made use of the reliable and affordable launch vehicle.
India’s effort to develop a smaller booster has yet to bear fruit. The Small Satellite Launch Vehicle failed during its maiden flight in August due to an anomaly of the fourth stage.
A number of private companies are developing small satellite launchers, but none has attempted an orbital flight yet. Skyroot Aerospace made history last month when it became the first private Indian company to launch a rocket. The company’s suborbital Vikram-S rocket reached an altitude of 89.5 miles (55.6 miles) during its maiden launch.
Although more than 100 companies formed to pursue the development of launch vehicles to serve the small satellite market, very few have emerged thus far to serve that market niche. In the West, Rocket Lab’s Electron is the only booster with any significant launch history. China has fielded multiple smallsat launch vehicles, but access to them is limited by technology transfer concerns.
Additional launch vehicles will emerge in the years ahead. More competition will provide additional options for satellite operators and keep prices in check.
Increased options will also create challenges for launch providers. Launch is a high cost, low margin business, especially for companies that cannot reuse their rockets. Companies will face competition from other small satellite providers as well as from companies offering rideshare and secondary payload launches on larger rockets. It’s going to be a tough sector in which to thrive.
In a future installment, we will look at how small satellite launch providers are addressing the challenges they face.