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Launch Overhaul: What New Rockets Mean for the Next Decade

Satellite companies are eagerly awaiting the arrival of new vehicles that will speed up launch and overhaul their process for creating new applications. Announcements from some heavy hitters in rocketry should provide hope for exponential progress in the next 10 years.

New programs are producing a robust amount of architecture that will effectively put multiple clusters of small satellites into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in the coming years. Companies continue to combine their operations to work in concert with new rocketry emerging that will clear the path for multiple missions that will affect growth of the smallsat industry moving forward.

However, it is not just the smallsat part of the market that is set to benefit from new rockets. New, more powerful rockets are also good news for FSS operators looking to launch huge new data driven satellites into the market. Arianespace, for example, is inching closer to its maiden voyage of the cutting-edge Ariane 6 spacecraft. The addition of its French reusable rocket engine, Prometheus, will likely come following further Research and Development (R&D) and a planned test in 2020. That puts the project on a path for reusability, with an engine that clocks in at about a tenth of the cost of the liquid-oxygen/liquid-hydrogen Vulcain 2.1 engine currently in use. In a sense, the project will become Europe's answer in the race toward progression of rapid reusability being integrated with vehicles across the market, a maneuver expected to drive down costs for launch upwards of 30 percent.

In the United States, competition remains fierce. Blue Origin, International Launch Services (ILS), Virgin Galactic and United Launch Alliance (ULA) are all busy adjusting R&D strategies for their next classes of rockets. And of course, SpaceX is readying its Falcon 9 business for payload launches at a record pace: approximately every two to three weeks, according to the company, as it continues to work toward rapid reusability and readies its novel launchpad in Florida.

Launch Operators Look Ahead

Launch services are preparing for a new, expanded role in the market as the next fleet of rockets is introduced to the marketplace. Sea Launch is planning a return to the marketplace following a nearly two-year period of systems hibernation — are now focusing R&D efforts on quality processes and restoring cadence within factories and operations personnel.

Complex 39 Launch Pads A (foreground) and B at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

"The new rockets that are entering the market have expanded the marketplace," explains Sea Launch Chief Executive Officer Serguei Gugkaev. "So our research and development has looked at launching multiple satellites from different manufacturers, launch of Non-Geosynchronous Orbit (NGSO) satellites, and expanding our addressable market to certain intergovernmental programs that will require additional mobility and flexibility of our complex."

With startup-style leanness becoming more common in the industry, Gugkaev has noticed increased capabilities and reduced prices for the launch process. The common belief over the course of the next decade, however, is that we will see a stabilization of pricing. According to Gugkaev, that will result in more providers entering the business looking to get smallsats into LEO, but a higher risk of failure and anomaly will likely be attached.

"A reduction in prices often means inferior quality of launch services provided with delays," he says, "[including] even failures — as we have seen several of those in the last 12 months. So the tradeoff should be really balanced, where both the price and quality matter."

That's where the company believes rocket and propulsion systems producers will come into play, offering key technological breakthroughs that will result in more affordable access to space for a number of different satellite companies.

Europe's Rare Bird Gears up for Inaugural Flight

In the wake of Elon Musk's advancements with the Falcon 9 program, several companies are revisiting their R&D strategies in order to see new rockets into space.

"For Ariane 6, it is mainly an evolution through new processes and techniques, like 3D printing, additive manufacturing, friction stir welding or laser surface treatment, without mentioning the new Vulcain engine," explains Arianespace CEO Stéphane Israël.

Soyuz launch pad.

The company is reportedly already looking ahead to 2030 — that's when Israël perceives rocket reusability factoring into the company's missions, with R&D already busy at work on the Ariane Next project. His researchers recently told French trade magazine L’Usine Nouvelle that the successor to the Ariane 6 will use a Prometheus engine 10 times less expensive than the Vulcain unit currently being perfected.

That trajectory, of course, will depend on the progress made by the company with Ariane 6. Arianespace projects to do 12 launches a year with the Ariane 6 program, making new launchers more flexible, modular and competitive as production costs are set to decrease by an estimated 40 percent. Right now, their order book consists of 54 launches for 31 customers worldwide, the vast majority of whom are commercial customers.

The company's demands are not unlike those levied upon launchers stateside: a cost-efficient launcher capable of handling everything from smallsats to extra-large Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) birds weighing more than 6 tons, in addition to cutting-edge High Throughput Satellites (HTS) that intend to bring new applications into play along with manufacturing processes yet to be seen.

"Unlike Ariane 5, the new launcher Ariane 6 will be modular, with a heavy version 'Ariane 64' able to launch up to 10.5 metric tons to GTO, as well as a medium version 'Ariane 62', particularly suited to institutional satellites," says Israël. "Thanks to the re-ignitable upper stage engine Vinci, Ariane 6 will be able to capture the promising market of mega-constellations, while responding to the opportunities offered by the electric propulsion of satellites. As for Vega C, it will be more flexible, more performant than Vega, and perfectly adapted to the market of small satellites."

American Launchers are Bracing for Brave New Space Economy

Back in the United States, NASA-backed ULA is busy laying out an ambitious plan for the next 10 years. The Lockheed Martin-Boeing joint venture projects all this space labor will amount to a Gross Space Product (GSP) nearing $500 billion over the course of that time.

Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

To help usher in this new era of commercial habitat, the company has put forward its Road Map to the CisLunar-1-000 Economy. ULA believes its new Vulcan Centaur will reduce the cost of reliable, on-time launch to the tune of a sub-$100 million launch service. Years of research has led to the development of the company's new Vulcan rocket and the reusable Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES) upper stage, which CEO Tory Bruno believes will drive the innovations helping to bring cost down.

"Vulcan/ACES is not just a 'new rocket,'" he says. "It is a paradigm-shattering capability that will fundamentally change what we do in space, opening the railroad to a self-sustaining CisLunar economy. ACES will introduce an ultra-long duration fleet of refuelable 'space trucks' that will form the backbone of our transportation system."

Central to the ULA's mission is a goal of 100 percent success for its currently scheduled 116 launches. The new Vulcan/ACES system, Bruno believes, will be a driving force in the realization of the company's lofty goals and its capability to deliver a launch just three months out from receiving an order. The system's booster is said to be "well underway" and Bruno expects a critical design review by the end of 2017.

"We have unique and unmatched capabilities to deliver customer payloads closer to their final desired orbit; we call this Orbit Optimization. [That] will be especially valuable for the advent of electric propulsion satellites," he says.

Joining the market alongside other heavy hitters, ILS hopes to put its two-stage Proton Variant vehicles into space by 2019. According to President Kirk Pysher, the company will soon be able to provide commercial satellite operators, in addition to government agencies, with the ability to launch any size satellite into any orbit.

Baikonur Cosmodrome launch pad.

"ILS, with the Proton Breeze M, Proton Variants and Angara 1.2 vehicle, are offering customers the best value," he explains. "The expanded ILS Proton family is well-positioned to provide customers with right-sized and right-priced launch solutions for any satellite from non-geostationary constellations to heavy HTS."

The Proton Breeze M upper stage includes a restartable capability, enabling rideshare payloads to be deployed in a variety of final orbits. Both the ILS Proton Light and Proton Medium launch vehicles are the company's answer to remain competitive in an era when the satellite industry is working to become more efficient just as launchers become more competitive in their price offerings.

Pysher's optimism for the industry's growth is prudent, however.

"It is unlikely the commercial space industry can properly sustain more launch providers as launch demand is not forecasted to increase significantly,” he says. "Furthermore, established satellite operators should be wary of launch providers that plan to launch and operate satellite constellations that will be in direct competition with those established operators." VS