Reusable Rockets: Where are They Going Next?

At the 2019 SATELLITE Show in May, which drew 16,000 or so attendees, it was impossible to miss Blue Origin’s life-size New Glenn photos plastered to the rectangular columns outside of the main ballroom in the Washington Convention Center, an enticing distraction for those who waited an hour or more to attend Vice President Mike Pence’s keynote luncheon.

In a way, the breathtaking images of New Glenn — a single configuration heavy-lift launch vehicle which features a reusable first stage built for 25 missions — were appropriate, given the buzz surrounding Jeff Bezos’ company. But for the satellite industry, the massive banner ads were a nod to something even more important: the promise of launching into space more quickly, more efficiently, and more frequently.

Until recently, the default model for launches centered on expendability — single-use rockets that would blast off only to disintegrate, leaving no trace of the multi-million dollar investment that shot them into the skies. For this reason, big players like Blue Origin, SpaceX and others are betting heavily on reusability as the next big thing.

It’s been a little more than three years since Space X launched the Falcon 9 reusable rocket booster B1021 on a mission to the International Space Station (ISS) in April 2016. When the rocket came back to Earth, it became the first to land vertically on a ship at sea, and then the first to be flown again, on a March 2017 SES-10 mission. Shortly before then, in November 2015, Blue Origin launched its suborbital New Shepard booster, and successfully achieved a powered vertical soft landing.

Such demonstrations have proven that it is possible to bring big payloads into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) — and potentially do so at a fraction of the cost of expendable launches.

“The big factor here is time,” notes Marco Caceres, an analyst with Reston, Va.-based consultancy Teal Group. “When you have an expendable launch vehicle, everything is brand new and you have to test everything. And typically, you don’t launch more than once a month. With reusability your check out time is less, because everything tends to work. As long as there are no cracks, you’re going to launch again within a couple of weeks.”

But how important is it, really, for the growing number of launch companies — and their partners — to have a plan for reusability for the near-term and long-term future? The answer, as it turns out, is not so simple.

Launch Potential

Like many other things, the idea of trading expendable for reusable rockets is a reawakened idea that never got off the ground.

“This move to develop reusable rockets has been around for at least 20 years and they all kind of failed because they didn’t have sufficient capital,” explains Caceres. “But with Space X Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches, the rest of the world is now trying to catch up.”

And, there’s good indication that competition is growing fiercer.

In February 2018, SpaceX topped its Falcon 9 success with the maiden launch of the Falcon Heavy, which carried the highest-recorded payload capacity of any currently operational launch vehicle into space, while all three booster rockets twirled back to Earth. That same year, Blue Origin, United Launch Alliance (ULA), and Northrop Grumman received a reported $2 billion (collectively) from the U.S. Air Force to develop rockets to launch military satellites.

The hot missions planned around reusability include everything from Mars tours and deep-space exploration to small-satellite launches.

And while Blue Origin has yet to embark on its maiden voyage with New Glenn, the company already has agreements in place with Telesat to build out its LEO constellation through New Glenn missions. The company also has partnerships with Eutelsat, Sky Perfect JSAT of Japan, and OneWeb, among others, for launches starting in 2020.

Outside of the United States, interest in developing reusable launch vehicles has also picked up.

In 2019, ArianeGroup announced a partnership with French Space Agency CNES called ArianeWorks to accelerate innovation, notably by developing a next-generation, low-cost and potentially reusable rocket first stage, named Themis. “We are working on the necessary technology bricks to prepare a reusable stage if we need it one day,” Jean Christophe Henoux, head of future programs at ArianeGroup, tells Via Satellite. “We want to have leading-edge technologies inside, such as self-monitoring technologies powered by artificial intelligence, and we want our technology to be scalable so we can use it as single or multi-engines configuration.”

In parallel, ArianeGroup is developing Prometheus on behalf of the European Space Agency (ESA), a low-cost reusable engine demonstrator, running on liquid oxygen and methane, ready for 2030 launches. Prometheus tests will begin in 2020. “We are obviously very attentive to what Space X and what Blue Origin is doing,” says Henoux. “But Does Ariane 6 look like New Glenn or Falcon 9? The answer is No.”

Expendability Persists

In these early days of rocket reusability, organizations may be hesitant to speak to the scalability of their own technology. Incidentally, either Blue Origin nor SpaceX responded to multiple requests by Via Satellite for comment. But even smaller players in launch business are hesitant to embrace reusability as a viable business concept.

At the SATELLITE show in Washington, D.C., Henoux emphasized that the majority of ArianeGroup customers are more concerned about functionality, reliability, and timeliness than whether a rocket is reusable. Also, the sheer cost of research and development of a reusable launch vehicle is a potential deterrent.

There are also technical challenges. Jean-Marc Astorg, Head of the CNES Launch Vehicles Directorate, said that enabling a rocket to decelerate from 10 kilometer/second to nothing is very difficult. “First stage recovery, you can do without thermal predictions, but not other stages,” he said. “But you do lose performance to do that, so you put fewer satellites into orbit.”

The business case for reusability also depends on other factors, such the mission you are targeting (e.g., Geostationary Orbit (GEO), Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), or LEO), or the goals of the launch, Henoux added.

“In Europe, we don’t want to invade a planet,” says Henoux. "We don’t want to engender competition with our own customers. We are driven by one unique factor, which is customer satisfaction. We design rockets for our customers, and our customers aren’t asking for reusability. We are working on the technological bricks to improve competitiveness: Prometheus, Themis and also a lighter carbon upper stage named Icarus.”

For this reason, International Launch Services (ILS) President Kirk Pysher says his company, a provider of comprehensive launch services for global satellite operators, isn’t exploring reusable launches at this time.

“In the context of the impact of reusable launch vehicles in the commercial satellite communications market, we don’t believe it is as important as it is being made out to be,” Pysher tells Via Satellite. “Today we tend to use the ‘reusability’ [term] as being synonymous with a lower-cost launch service. That is not the case. Many factors go into launch vehicle pricing. ILS’ view is that its customer base is looking for solutions that help them solve the challenges they are facing. They couldn’t care less if they fly on a used rocket. What is important to them is can they close their business case and that boils down fundamentally to price. What will it cost to put their spacecraft into its intended orbit? If an expendable rocket and a reusable rocket can do that for the same price then they will look at reliability, schedule assurance, flexibility and other value stream items that differentiate the launch service providers.”

Pysher notes that SpaceX and Blue Origin have broader ambitions then just placing a communications satellite into its intended orbit. “SpaceX is going to inhabit Mars and Blue Origin is going to put millions of people to work and play in space,” he said. “Both are planning major LEO satellite Internet constellations that ultimately will compete with their existing customer base. Reusability may be a necessary requirement to achieve those goals. Our objective is to partner with our customers and support their goals.”

Pysher suggests that for most startups, reusable launch vehicle comes at significant cost that appears disconnected from today’s lower launch rates.

“SpaceX stated in a panel last year that they may never recover the $1 billion in costs associated with implementation of reusability, while [Jeff] Bezos is willing to invest $1 billion annually to achieve his dream,” Pysher notes. “Meanwhile, most of the rest of launch industry does not directly benefit from Silicon Valley and billionaire investments … it will have to make economic sense to move forward. The purpose for launching a rocket will dictate how reusability will fit into future rocket technology. For launching communications satellites, reusability will not play a significant role unless we can find a more efficient approach to propelling the rocket from the surface of the earth other than chemicals and solid fuels.”

Wait and See

As many have noted, the space industry is in a phase of transition: The plans have been laid, and the investments are being made. For reusable rockets, it’s possible to achieve first-stage reusability goals. Over the next decade, launch engineers will also focus on achieving the second stage of reusability — although launching a reusable second stage is trickier, to say the least.

“When SpaceX succeeds in making the entire vehicle reusable, they’re able to increase the pace of the number of launches they can conduct,” says Caceres. “If you have an entirely reusable rocket that requires minimal processing … that you can reuse 10 or 20 times, you’ll have a competitive advantage.”

Therefore, what comes next will be equally dependent on funding, timing, and technology. But if attendees took away any message from the SATELLITE Show, it’s that innovation can be a game changer — and it can come from anywhere.

“For now SpaceX is the story of the industry, but things can go downhill very quickly with a couple of dramatic launch failures,” says Caceres. “If I were a competitor I would want to stick around for a few years to narrow the gap. What competitors can do is make vehicles as reusable as possible, and stay in the ballpark of cost. SpaceX can’t launch everything alone.”

How Satcoms are Tapering Launch Costs

Launching is a costly endeavor. In addition to research, development and testing, which can take years, an organization has to pay for fuel. When a launch fails, it’s millions of dollars down the drain. So naturally, cost savings is a huge selling point of reusability.

But for startups who aren’t ready to enter the reusable market — launch companies who are sending small satellites into space — finding other ways to lower costs is key.

Rocket Lab, for example, has reduced the cost of dedicated small satellite launch by streamlining production of the launch vehicle and streamlining mission operations.

“The Rutherford engines that power the Electron launch vehicle are 3D printed, to rapidly reduce production time,” according to a source at Rocket Lab. “Rocket Lab can print a Rutherford engine in just 24 hours, which saves weeks and months on traditional methods of engine manufacture.”

The company touts two other advantages: Because Rocket Lab is “vertically integrated,” the Electron vehicle and its components are manufactured in-house, which gives the company control over manufacturing schedules and costs. Also, because Rocket Lab also operates a private orbital launch site, Launch Complex One on New Zealand's Mahia Peninsula, the company to control launch operations costs and launch as frequently as every 72 hours.

Vector Launch, Inc., also focuses on developing rockets with a simple design and a reduced number of parts to scale production and lower costs, says Robert Cleave, Vector's chief revenue officer.

“Vector’s end goal is to launch more than 100 times a year by harnessing the power of assembly lines, economies of scale, and high-tech manufacturing techniques — mass producing rockets in a similar way to how Henry Ford churned out Model Ts,” explains Cleave. “The Vector-R, the smaller of our two launch vehicles, for example, is about one-tenth the amount of parts compared to similar launch vehicles” at just 55 feet tall and capable of launching 60 kilograms into orbit.

The company also cuts costs through the use of its self-contained mobile launch system and centralized remote operations, which allows the company “to launch nearly anywhere in the world, with fewer people in the field and without the need for a dedicated launch site or infrastructure,” he adds. VS

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