Liftoff! Launch Forecast for the Year Ahead

As global economic activity recovers from an extended slowdown, companies across the satellite sector are returning to their normal activities. For launch vehicle operators developing new rockets, the impact of 2020 was not uniform. Many of the development plans experienced delays, but the push to first flight and market entry continues. The question for many is, what does the launch market look like going forward?

The global shutdown in 2020 had impacts across the satellite and space sector, but there were no uniform effects and there is no industry-wide blueprint for getting back on track, as customer operations and supply chains try to return activities to pre-pandemic levels.

Carissa Christensen, CEO of analytics firm BryceTech says launch providers did not face as many obstacles during the pandemic as the Geostationary Orbit (GEO) satellite business. Satellite saw impact due to the halt in cruises, reduction in maritime traffic and air traffic demand, and the drop in oil prices and production. “Launch providers generally continued operations with relatively modest disruptions,” Christensen says. “[Arianespace] shut down for a while then came back. If you had to fly in teams or payloads internationally, you may have had a problem.”

Despite the business impacts, the number of spacecraft launched in 2020 jumped to 1,085, with established manifest feeling little impact and growth in the number of small satellites contributing to the numbers. A significant driver has been launches by SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which performed 25 orbital missions in 2020, including adding to its Starlink satellite internet constellation.

SpaceX’s success shows what is possible for this new generation of vehicles in development, Christensen says. “We have been doing forecasts for a long time. About 10 years ago, I started to say that there will be a period where the Falcon 9 is the proven launch vehicle and ULA and Arianespace are introducing new, unproven vehicles. And we’re moving toward that. It’s fascinating. It’s such a reversal that it’s easy to forget how recently SpaceX was a shockingly disruptive new player.”

SpaceX’s push toward reusability, along with its efforts in resetting some government launch requirements may also have paved the way for its future competitors.

“SpaceX blazed a trail by forcing relaxation of certain restrictions around development and operation of launch vehicles that reflect military and NASA rules. SpaceX challenged those rules and that disrupted the system enough that those agencies that are customers and have some role in oversight – not regulators – think differently about launch now. You could argue that SpaceX is a trailblazer that opened the market for other companies,” Christensen said.

The impact of 2020 may ultimately be just another bump in a launch market that has always been cyclical, but for a new generation of rockets, there may be a period of high demand coming due to continued growth of small satellites projects.

Nearly 1,100 spacecraft reached orbit in 2020 amid a boom in the LEO market driven by a variety of uses. NSR’s Global Satellite Manufacturing and Launch Markets, 11th Edition report, forecasts satellite manufacturing and launch volumes will reach nearly 24,700 between 2020 and 2030, generating a cumulative opportunity in launch worth $158 billion. NSR forecasts that Non-Geostationary (NGSO) constellations will lead the way in launch volume, but more complicated GEO satellites will contribute greatly to revenues.

Christensen does not expect every launch operator to prosper, simply because there are so many currently developing new rockets, and because even with large numbers of small satellites looking for rides, it may still be cheaper to find rideshares on large rockets than using small, dedicated vehicles.

But if forecasts of a decade-long boom in launch demand are accurate, the satellite operators will have plenty of reliable and more cost-efficient paths to orbit than ever before

Here are some of the launch vehicle operators – both establish and new entrants – and the state of their new rockets heading into the second half of the year:

Firefly’s Alpha Flight 1 Stage 1 arriving at Vandenberg Air Force Base in 2020. Photo: Firefly Aerospace

Firefly Aerospace: Alpha

Firefly Aerospace felt little impact from the pandemic and remains on target for the scheduled first launch of its Alpha small launch vehicle, according to Eric Salwan, Firefly’s director of Commercial Business Development. He says Firefly was able to operate through the pandemic with minimal internal interruption by implementing COVID practices such as work from home and split shift. Some of the company’s vendors were affected by COVID, which did have some follow on impact to Firefly.

The Alpha Flight 1 vehicle is complete – except for a vendor-supplied component for the flight termination system. Firefly’s Vandenberg Space Force Base Space Launch Complex 2 (SLC-2) launch site has been used for multiple wet dress rehearsals. The first launch of Alpha is pending the vendor supplied component.

At 95 feet tall and capable of lifting 1,000 kilograms to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) and 630 kilograms to Sun-Synchronous Orbit (SSO) at 500 kilometers, Firefly Alpha is the largest of the small launch vehicles that is expected to be launching in the near term. It is available for both dedicated and rideshare missions.

Firefly Alpha’s commercial pricing is $15 million for a dedicated launch. Salwan says Firefly has been successful in securing multiple commercial and government contracts. Investors remain committed as well, as the company closed a $75 million funding round in May that values the small launcher company at more than $1 billion.

‘The large number of planned small launch vehicles validates the general business case for small launch vehicles,” Salwan says. “Firefly expects to capture a significant portion of the rapidly growing small launch market.”

Relativity Space removed the Terran 1 Stage 2 flight print tank out of its print cell in March 2021. Photo: Relativity Space

Relativity Space: Terran 1

Relativity Space remains on schedule for the first launch of its Terran 1 rocket later this year, says Tim Ellis, the company’s CEO and co-founder. The company’s 3D approach to manufacturing kept development moving relatively smoothly, even as the number of workers on site was kept a minimum.

Relativity’s Stargate metal 3D printer reduces the number of parts for the Terran 1 to about 1,000, down from an industry standard of around 100,000, and reduces overall manufacturing costs by about three times, Ellis says.

“As the first fully 3D printed launch vehicle, Terran 1 has already proven to be disruptive to the market as it continues to be the most pre-sold rocket in history,” Ellis says. “With each Stargate printer capable of printing 1 foot per 24 hours, Relativity can produce its Terran 1 rocket in days – compared to the two-plus year industry standard.”

The Terran 1 will use 10 Aeon engines – nine on the first stage and an Aeon Vac engine on the second stage to loft up to 1,250 kilograms to LEO. Terran 1’s price per mission will be around $12 million, and Relativity has contracts with commercial and government customers prior to its first scheduled launch, including a newly announced Department of Defense Responsive Launch Contract and a NASA Venture Class Launch Services 2 (VCLS) award. Commercial contracts include missions for Iridium, Telesat, Spaceflight, mu Space, and TriSept.

“3D printing technology makes rockets significantly cheaper and easier to build, driving down the cost of getting to space and opening up a world of possibility when it comes to aerospace manufacturing and space exploration,” Ellis says.

At the same time, Relativity is moving forward with the more powerful Terran R to expand its market reach further, and Ellis says the company has already sold the first multiple-launch contract for the rocket. “Developing a vehicle like Terran R has been in Relativity’s plan since our founding five years ago,” Ellis says. “We’ve seen immense demand in the market for a vehicle of its size, and so we accelerated its development. Combined with the ability to launch 20 times more payload than Terran 1, Terran R provides both commercial and government customers affordable access to space, in LEO and beyond. With Low-Earth Orbit, Medium-Earth Orbit [MEO], and Geosynchronous [GEO] satellite constellations representing the largest part of the growing market, Terran R helps accommodate the company’s growing pipeline of commercial interest.”

Both vehicles will have their first launch from Cape Canaveral, where Relativity is the first and only venture-backed company with a right of entry directly from the U.S. Air Force at Launch Complex 16. The company also plans to perform launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

“While there is a growing market of launch providers, we believe demand for launch continues to outstrip supply and that imbalance will remain over the years to come as constellations become a larger part of the growing market,” Ellis says.

The ULA Vulcan Centaur Pathfinder Tanking Test (PTT) rolls to the pad at Space Launch Complex-41 for integrated testing in March 2021. Photo: ULA

ULA: Vulcan Centaur

United Launch Alliance, a 50/50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, completed six missions in 2020, and continued development of the company’s Vulcan Centaur rocket.

“Vulcan Centaur development is progressing, and we are looking good for a launch this year,” says Chris Ellerhorst, ULA director of Strategy, Business Development, and Sales. “However, we can only launch when our customers are ready to launch. There is more to selecting the launch date than just ULA. We are working with our two customers for the first two Vulcan flights, Astrobotic and SNC. We are ready to launch but will fly when our customer is ready.”

The rocket will be available in four standard configurations including zero, two, four, and six solid rocket booster variants. It is designed to deliver payloads to different orbits from LEO to GEO. Its maximum lift capacity to Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO) in the heavy configuration is 14,400 kilograms.

The Vulcan Centaur’s core customers, spanning commercial, civil (NASA), and U.S. national security launch (U.S. Space Force, National Reconnaissance Organization), remain committed to the vehicle, although the first Space Force launch of the Vulcan Centaur has slipped from the second quarter of next year to 2023.

“We believe the innovative Vulcan Centaur design will be a disruptive asset to our core national security market,” says Ellerhorst. “Vulcan Centaur is purpose-built to simultaneously reduce the cost of launch while maintaining ULA’s unique ability to meet and exceed the most challenging national security space launch requirements. This is explicitly seen in that a single-core Vulcan Centaur can now deliver the equivalent performance of our heavy-class Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle, at a fraction of the cost.”

ULA is also automating production capability and modernizing its launch site infrastructure, which it believes will make Vulcan Centaur competitive across all markets. “We are very confident that Vulcan Centaur is competitively positioned for the future market. Vulcan Centaur is based on the reliable Atlas and Delta vehicles but at a more competitive price point. We built our new rocket to meet our customers’ growing requirements for commercial, civil and military communities,” Ellerhorst says.

Astra's December 15, 2020 rocket launch. Photo: Astra


Astra’s mass-produced, portable small satellite launch system is designed to go from payload delivery to Low-Earth Orbit launch within days, and the quick tempo is the company’s edge in the market, Astra CEO Chris Kemp tells Via Satellite in a recent interview.

The company reached space, but fell just shy of orbit on its second attempt at an orbital launch with Rocket 3.2 in December from the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Kodiak, Alaska. Astra plans to be capable of performing one launch per month by the fourth quarter of this year, and as operations mature, to produce about a dozen rockets each month, Kemp says.

The current iteration of the rocket is designed to carry 50 kilograms to LEO. The material cost of the launch vehicle for Astra was just over $1 million in June, and the entire cost of the rocket with labor, range, and fuel costs was less than $2 million. Kemp forecasts that to drop as production scales.

“Our stated goal is $500,000 of cost for 500 kilograms — $1,000 a kilogram,” he says. “It gives us pricing flexibility, so if we have a customer that is doing a megaconstellation, we can do it for less than the price of Falcon 9 and still make money. That’s the key. If you’re not competitive against Falcon 9, then why wouldn’t SpaceX take all the business?”

Astra has 50 launches in its backlog including a multi-launch deal with Planet, and more than $150 million in contracted revenue. The company also recently became the first publicly traded space launch company on the Nasdaq, valued at approximately $2.1 billion. Kemp says the deal will give Astra the capital to reach its production goals and secure its position in the market.

The first Ariane 6 fairing at the Spaceport in French Guiana in May 2021. Photo: ESA/CNES/Arianespace

Arianespace: Ariane 6

Arianespace’s Guiana Space Center in French Guiana was shut down for almost three months during the pandemic in 2020, and the shutdown pushed the first launch of the new Ariane 6 vehicle to the second quarter of 2022.

“We did lose several months to the pandemic, both in engineering and AIT [Assembly, Integration, and Testing] activities, at the ArianeGroup, our industrial prime, and throughout the industrial supply chain. But we’ve recovered since then and are optimistic about an inaugural flight next year,” CEO Stephane Israel says. “Since the end of the pandemic we’ve hit important milestones and completed all our engine tests, including the auxiliary power unit of the Vinci upper stage.”

The next scheduled milestones will be the hot firing tests of the upper stage – a critical piece to improve Ariane’s competitiveness in the market – and the delivery of the launch complex and then the start of the combined tests.

Ariane 6 will have improved performance and a larger fairing to carry more satellites per launch than the operator’s Ariane 5. For example, it will be able to launch more than 70 OneWeb satellites per mission – compared to 34 to 36 for a Soyuz upper-stage – as well as inject them into multiple orbits using the re-ignition capabilities of the upper stage. Launch campaigns will be reduced from 31 days with Ariane 5 to just nine days, enabling a higher launch tempo.

The improvements, along with the reliability established by Ariane 5’s years of performance, will provide Arianespace an advantage, Israel says. “The Ariane 6 will bring online proven heritage systems in tandem with a 40 percent reduction in launch costs for our customers. It will be a much more versatile vehicle than our Ariane 5. Our new dispensers, increased available volume under the fairing, and re-ignitable upper stage will allow us to address segments of the market, in LEO but also in GEO and in LTO [Lunar Transfer Orbit], that in the past we couldn’t touch with our heavy lift vehicle,” he says.

The ability to serve a diverse range of customers will be needed, because there aren’t enough satellites to justify the number of planned vehicles, Israel says.

“There will hopefully not be a race to the bottom on launch prices with the introduction of so many new systems. We’ve seen this scenario play out in the past when there was an excess of launch capacity,” Israel says.

“It often resulted in lower quality launches among our competitors due to the fact that corners were cut in order to save costs. Our launch costs will be extremely competitive – without sacrificing any quality. Our long tradition of high reliability, schedule assurance, and transparency will most certainly give us an edge in the new launcher landscape.” VS

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