More vehicles than customers
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How many European launch startups will make it?
Europe has no shortage of launch startups. At least four of the continent’s startups are hoping to debut new vehicles next year alone, with several more following before 2030. With all this launch capacity on its way, it begs the question: will there be enough customer payloads for them to all stay in business? If you don’t have much time to read this entire report, the simple answer is no.
Megacosntellations are most often cited as reasons to be hopeful about the launch business. These constellations require the launch of thousands or even tens of thousands of satellites into orbit. However, is a launch vehicle that has a payload capacity of no more than 1,000 kg really the answer to the launch needs of megaconstellations?
In April, Amazon announced that it had concluded the most extensive series of launch contracts the industry had ever seen. The contacts include flights for its Kuplier satellites aboard 103 missions on ArianeGroup Ariane 6, Blue Origin New Glenn, and United Launch Alliance Vulcan Centaur rockets over five years. All three vehicles have one thing in common, and that is that they are not microlaunchers. Each has orders of magnitude larger payload capacities than the Rocket Factory Augsburg RFA ONE, which is the most powerful of the vehicles being developed by European launch startups.
The main reason for Amazon selecting large vehicles is the number of satellites that can be launched at one time. This bulk-style launch approach reduces launch costs and lessens logistical headaches. Kuplier satellites are expected to have a mass of between 600 and 700 kgs. This means that most vehicles being developed by European launch startups won’t even be able to carry a single Kuplier satellite. The RFA One may, at a stretch, be able to launch two. The unnamed Astraius vehicle, Isar Aerospace Spectrum, and Sirius Space Sirius 15 would be able to launch one each. The ArianeGroup-backed MaiaSpace Maia rocket would also be able to carry two at a time, but only in its expendable configuration. In its reusable configuration, Maia would not even have the capacity for a single Kuplier satellite.
Kuplier satellites are, however, larger than those that make up other megaconstellations. OneWeb’s satellites have a mass of around 150 kg, and the SpaceX first-gen Startlink satellites have a mass of between 200 and 300 kg. Satellites with that kind of mass could be launched on several other vehicles being developed across Europe including the PLD Space Miura 5, Pangea Aerospace Meso, Skyrora XL, SmallSpark Frost 1, HyImpulse SR1, Dark Launcher 1, B2Space Colibri, HyPrSpace OB1 and the Orbex Prime. The problem is that the number of satellites being launched per mission will likely not justify the price or logistical headache.
There may still be launch opportunities for deployments into very specific orbits, something that microlaunchers are uniquely suited to thanks to their comparatively small size and lower thrust upper stage engines. The RFA One could also potentially utalise its larger payload capacity and kick stage to precisely deploy several satellites into separate but precise, unique orbits. This could give the vehicle a distinct advantage over its competitors. The Dark launcher 1 and MaiaSpace Maia will also feature reignitable upper stages, giving them a similar advantage.
Megaconsellations are a tantalizing carrot with the potential of thousands of satellites needing a ride to space. They are, however, not the only kind of large satellite constellation. Many companies are planning or are already in the process of launching nanosatellites constellations. A nanosatellite is a loosely defined term that generally refers to satellites with a mass of between one and ten kilograms. These constellations are also far smaller than megaconstellations requiring hundreds rather than thousands of satellites to be launched into orbit.
The microlaunchers being developed in Europe would be an ideal fit for deploying this kind of constellation into orbit. The payload capacity is not unnecessarily restrictive, and launching aboard a dedicated flight gives satellite operators a greater deal of ownership and priority.
One of the many nanosatellite constellations being developed across Europe is the OroraTech wildfire monitoring network. The German Earth observation startup plans to launch 100 3U cubesats (which each have a mass of around 6 kg) to a 600 km sun-synchronous orbit across seven orbital planes. The satellites will offer early warning and monitoring of wildfires across the world. The relatively small size of the individual satellites makes OroraTech an ideal customer for microlaunchers. In fact, the company has already signed a multi-launch contract with Isar Aerospace to launch more than ten of its cubesats at a time aboard several Spectrum flights.
The OroraTech constellation is not an anomaly in Europe, either. Several other startups and established aerospace companies are pursuing constellations that will require a large number of satellites to be launched into orbit.
Endurosat plan to launch a constellation of CubeSats to provide daily sea level measurements in an effort to monitor climate change.
Astrocast plans to launch a 100-cubesat constellation to establish a global network of Internet of Things (IoT) applications.
Netherlands-based Hiber is also building a cubesat-based IoT network. The constellation is expected to initially be composed of between 18 and 24 cubesats which will later expand to 50.
Scottish AAC Clyde Space and its xSPANCION constellation will initially be made up of 10 satellites and will have a wide range of applications.
Netherlands-based HEAD Aerospace is also working on an IoT constellation that will feature 48 satellites.
Hello Space is developed an IoT network powered by picosatellites, a category of satellites that generally have a mass of less than 1 kg. Hello Space plan to launch an initial 100 pico-satellites to build out its network.
ICEYE and SATLANTIS plan to develop and manufacture a four-satellite Earth observation constellation. The Tandem4EO constellation will consist of two radar and two VHR optical satellites, each capable of under 1-meter resolution imaging.
In addition to the above European examples, there are also a significant number of constellations being developed across the world that will require an affordable and accessible road to orbit.
According to Nanosats.eu, based on projections that utilize announced constellations as a basis, approximately 2,080 nanosatellites will be launched over the next six years, which equates to around 346 satellites a year. This appears to be promising. However, when you divide that by the number of startups developing small launch vehicles globally and subtract a percentage that will opt for large-vehicle rideshare missions, it starts to look a little less promising for launch startups.
One of the main advantages that US launch operators have had for decades over their European counterparts is institutional payloads. The funding given to NASA and the US military is orders of magnitude higher than those provided by European governments. This gives the country more opportunity to take risks on upstarts. It also allows launch providers to secure years of security with hundreds of millions in guaranteed government contracts that just don’t exist in Europe. ULA operated for years with almost no interest in the commercial market, being all too happy to have monopolized civil and military launches.
The far fewer civil and military contracts available to launch startups in Europe is also not the only element that they will need to contend with when bidding for institutional payloads. Many European governments have huge stakes in the Ariane and Vega vehicles, making them a natural choice for their civil and military payloads. Germany and France, two countries that have the largest share of launch startups pursuing orbital launch capabilities in Europe, are also the two largest contributors to Ariane 6 both in funding and manufacturing capacity.
ESA, however, does appear to be trying to rectify that imbalance. In a March 29 press release, ESA Director of Space Transportation Daniel Neuenschwander called on European launch startups to supply the agency with "robust technical information about the state of their developments." This information was to be used to initiate a competitive selection process for a microlauncher-serviced ESA mission targeted for launch in 2024. A decision on this programme is expected to be made at the ESA ministerial level council meeting next week. This lucrative contract could serve as an important seal of approval for the launch startup that manages to secure it. It will, hopefully, also be one of many more competitive launch provider selection processes for ESA missions.
Interestingly, the UK is noticeably absent in the funding tallies of both Ariane 6 and Vega. This means that the country does not have a financial stake in utilizing Arianespace, a fact that the country’s Ministry of Defence took full advantage of when choosing SpaceX over Arianespace in late 2021 to launch its Skynet 6A military communications satellite. The decision did, however, receive some pushback. Satellite and launch data provider Seradata published an article at the time entitled UK Ministry of Defence forgets its past loyalties and chooses SpaceX over Arianespace to launch its Skynet 6A comsat. With the country being unencumbered by funding commitments, UK launch startups may have a more direct line to securing civil and military contracts. This could be significant, especially considering how the UK is prioritizing space in its national agenda. The political landscape of Europe is, however, never that simple.
The above doesn’t represent the entirety of the potential customers for European launch startups. According to BryceTech, in 2021 94% of the 1,743 satellites deployed into orbit had a mass of less than 600 kg, all of which could have been launched aboard a wide swath of the vehicles being developed by European launch startups. This stat is, however, skewed by Starlink and OneWeb satellites that make up approximately 1,300 of the satellites under 600 kg launched in 2021. This leaves a significantly smaller pool of potential customers and that, again, has to be shared with launch operators around the world, all of which are trying to compete with the increasingly low price of SpaceX rideshare missions.
With more than 20 launch startups hoping to service that market in Europe alone, I don’t think it comes as a surprise to anyone that it is unlikely that there will be remotely enough customers to support all of them. This may change in the coming decades, but I doubt that any of the startups currently active today will be able to hobble on long enough to take advantage of the increase.
As a result, there will have to be a thinning of the herd. Companies that get to the launchpad first will most certainly have an advantage. However, there will also be more to it than that. These companies will need to prove that their offering is reliable and unique enough to stand out from the crowd of launch startups, two lessons that Astra learned the hard way. They will also need to secure enough funding to sustain their operations until they can begin launching commercial flights, which very few European launch startups can currently claim to have secured.
With all this in mind, I really don’t see there being enough space in the market for more than two or three European microlaunchers. And this is very much dependent on the ability of the few that do make it to distinguish themselves within a very crowded global launch market.
The old timer still has some tricks - ESA announced that its Mars Express spacecraft recently conducted tests in which it relayed data gathered by NASA’s Perseverance rover back to Earth. The 19-year-old spacecraft has now relayed data for seven different Mars surface missions, which is a unique new record.
One step closer to Skynet - UK-based launch startup SmallSpark Space Systems announced it secured a UK Ministry of Defence development contract to utilize its moore.AI technology to accelerate the time it takes to develop novel solid rocket motor configurations. The contract is worth £292,565.75 (which is a very specific amount!) and will see SmallSpark double the size of its software and technology demonstration teams.
No, not the character from Lord of the Rings - UK-based launch facility SaxaVord Spaceport announced the completion of a concrete launch stool at Launchpad Fredo, one of two launch pads being developed at the facility. Launchpad Fredo is expected to host the facility's first vertical rocket launch in 2023.
We’re going to shine lasers at it - UK-based Surrey Satellite Technology has received the NASA Laser Retroreflector Array (LRA) from ESA as part of the ESA-NASA Lunar Pathfinder cooperation agreements. The LRA will be utilized aboard the Lunar Pathfinder satellite, allowing it to be pinpointed by laser ranging stations back on Earth as it orbits the Moon
Phenomenal cosmic powers. Itty bitty living space - Swiss space technology company SWISSto12 announced that Intelsat had become the first customer for the company's innovative HummingSat geostationary telecommunications satellite. The HummingSat satellite measures just one cubic metre, about one-tenth the size of traditional geostationary satellites. Its small size means that it can be launched aboard a rideshare mission, reducing launch costs. The first HummingSat is slated to be launched in 2025.
A helping hand - Space situation awareness startup ODIN Space announced that it had joined the ESA Business Incubation Centre (BIC) in the United Kingdom. According to the company, the ESA BIC will support ODIN Space in developing its sub-centimetre space debris sensor network.
Will the new students introduce themselves - Seraphim Space announced its Mission 10 accelerator programme participants, which include three European startups, two of which are space companies. SpaceDOTS is building picosats that will enable on-orbit qualification of advanced materials and small components to test products. ReOrbit is attempting to transform the idea of single-use satellites through its modular and configurable microsatellite platforms.
The Italian Job - Italian space transportation and logistics company D-Orbit announced the signing of a framework contract with Italian space tech company NPC SPACEMIND. The contract covers the launch of the NPC SPACEMIND FUTURA-SM1 and FUTURA-SM3 CubeSat dispensers aboard a D-Orbit ION space tug, with the aim of potentially using the dispensers aboard future D-Orbit missions.
Network and automate - Finish space tech company ReOrbit announced the signing of a contract with ESA for the agency's InCubed programme. The contract covers the development and demonstration of in-orbit satellite networking and autonomy, in an effort to mature the company's Muon product line. Muon is a flight software and avionics bundle that the company will offer as a product in addition to utilizing it within its own solutions.
Andrew Parsonson has been reporting on space and spaceflight for over five years. He has contributed to SpaceNews and, most recently, the daily Payload newsletter. In late 2021 he launched European Spaceflight as a way to promote the continent's excellence in space. This newsletter is an extension of that mission.
If you’d like to get in touch to discuss European space or anything really, you can connect with Andrew on Twitter or send me an email to email@example.com.