SpaceX has a good reason to get back on the launch pad as soon as possible. At least 10 rocket companies are fighting for satellite customers — and more could be on the way.
Hawthorne-based SpaceX said this week that it hoped to resume launches in November, even as it continues to investigate the cause of the Sept. 1 explosion of its Falcon 9 rocket and a communications satellite on a Cape Canaveral, Fla., launch pad.
Analysts say there should be enough business to go around, if even a fraction of the planned constellations of hundreds or even thousands of private-industry satellites become a reality.
SpaceX has 70 missions on its launch manifest, worth more than $10 billion.
"Because it's going to be so many companies trying to launch so many satellites, I think most of these companies will take what they can get," said Marco Caceres, senior space analyst at the Teal Group, an aerospace and defense market research firm. "The bigger issue is going to be who can launch sooner."
To drive that point home, United Launch Alliance on Tuesday announced a new RapidLaunch service that lets customers blast a payload into space about three months after they place an order.
The Boeing Co.-Lockheed Martin Corp. joint venture said it added "additional hardware" to its Decatur, Ala., rocket-production line to accommodate new customers and now will make customer-specific changes to rocket orders in the last few months of production so buyers can come to ULA with a shorter lead time. The company said it has availability on its 2017 Atlas V launch schedule.
Until the 1980s, satellites were launched by U.S., Soviet and other national space agencies. A French company, Arianespace, established the private-launch business in 1980, seizing on the potential for both government and commercial-launch contracts.
Today, the industry has mushroomed behind billions of dollars invested by legacy aerospace giants, some angel investors and venture capital, as well as billionaires Elon Musk (SpaceX), Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin) and Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic).
Depending on the size of the payload and where it's going, commercial companies have a few options for getting to space.
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket can take satellites weighing up to 50,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit, as well as the higher geosynchronous transfer orbit. That places it in the middle of the market between small launch vehicles like Orbital ATK's Antares, which can take payloads of up to 17,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit, and heavy-lift rockets like the Delta IV Heavy, which can carry up to 62,000 pounds.
Falcon 9 is in the same category as the Atlas V, manufactured by ULA, and the Japanese H-IIA rocket, the main rocket for the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency that has launched 30 times since its first flight 15 years ago.
SpaceX's main competitor in the commercial-launch market is Arianespace, whose Ariane 5 heavy-lift vehicle can hoist two satellites at a time. That rocket has launched 87 times with four failures, the most recent in 2002, according to the company.
Last week, Arianespace said it may add an additional Ariane 5 launch to its schedule "to help the customers that may be in difficulty." The new addition would not affect the launch dates of current customers and will "depend on market needs," the company said in an emailed statement. Arianespace would not elaborate on the "customers in difficulty" to which it was referring.
SpaceX elbowed aside a Russian launch provider a few years ago as the main commercial competitor to Arianespace. Workmanship issues with the Proton, considered the main Russian commercial-launch vehicle, led to concerns about reliability, said Bill Ostrove, aerospace and defense analyst at Forecast International.
But a new international competitor is looming on the horizon.
The Indian Space Research Organization has developed the PSLV, a smaller rocket that took its first flight in 1993 and generally ferries satellites to low-Earth orbit. Though it has mainly carried Indian government satellites, the PSLV recently launched a number of foreign commercial satellites from countries such as Britain, Singapore and the U.S.
Analysts say the Indian national space agency could be a major commercial player. Early on, it set up Antrix Corp., a commercial arm intended to promote and market the program's products and launch services. The agency's launch prices are considered low cost, Ostrove said.
It has yet to establish a regular launch rhythm, however. This year, the PSLV has launched four times — the same number of missions it had in all of last year. The Indian agency also has developed the GSLV, a larger launch vehicle, which has launched once a year since 2014.
"It's proven to be pretty reliable over the last few years, and it's been gaining some attention on the commercial market," Ostrove said of the PSLV. "I think it would be a price competitor depending on what happens with SpaceX reusability."
Domestic rocket launch providers also are beefing up their commercial offerings.
Bezos-led Blue Origin unveiled details Monday of its New Glenn, a rocket that will be 23 feet in diameter and lift off with 3.85 million pounds of thrust. In an email to followers, Bezos said the rocket will come in two variants — a two-stage, 270-foot-tall launch vehicle, and a three-stage, 313-foot-tall vehicle that will be capable of taking payloads beyond low-earth orbit.
New Glenn is intended to launch commercial satellites as well as flying humans into space, Bezos said.
The ULA venture is now under pressure to ramp up its commercial business after losing its lucrative and longtime monopoly on U.S. national security launches. Last year, the U.S. Air Force certified SpaceX to compete for military launches, and in April, the company won its first contract to launch a government GPS satellite.
"Clearly, Lockheed and Boeing understand the importance now that they can no longer rely only on U.S. government business," said Caceres of the Teal Group, "that they have to diversify and increase their volume and be more competitive with SpaceX on pricing."
The move is also a response to the growing number of small satellites set to be launched to support services ranging from low-cost Internet access to high-resolution earth imaging.
A smattering of small rocket makers are dedicated to giving these tiny satellites a ride to space, such as Long Beach-based Virgin Galactic's LauncherOne and Los Angeles firm Rocket Lab. Their ranks are likely to grow.
"If you were to line up all the vehicles currently available worldwide … and those that are about to be introduced in the next few years, there's about 70 of them," said Phil Smith, senior space analyst at the Tauri Group.
SpaceX probably will continue to lead the market on low prices, especially if it is able to make good on its plans for reusability by turning around and re-launching its landed rockets, Ostrove said.
SpaceX's current starting list price for the Falcon 9 rocket is $62 million. Company President Gwynne Shotwell has said a reusable rocket eventually could cut that by 30%.
But in the future, price might not be the only factor, Caceres said.
"It's who has a reliable vehicle that's ready to go up as soon as possible," he said.
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