The surge in demand for smallsat launch raises a number of questions: What’s driving the growth? How do industries that want to get into Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) find the right partner? And how do industry stakeholders navigate challenges, like limited access to launchpads, supply chain issues, increased risks of space congestion?
Speakers on the Tuesday afternoon panel, “Expanding Launch Access to Space for Smallsats,” addressed many of these questions, and spoke about their aspirations for the market, while acknowledging challenges they’re currently navigating.
“We’re really at a departure point in the new space industry where you’re seeing a substantial growth in the number of satellites, the capability of those satellites, and the ability to get to space and many different things there,” said John Rood, Chairman and CEO of Momentus, calling his organization “the UPS of space” for its mission taking cargo from certain destinations and delivering it to a precise customer in orbit.
Tiphaine Louradour, who was recently appointed CEO of Spaceflight Inc., said the last two years have been especially busy for the rideshare provider.
“We’ve launched 20 different rideshare missions, on five different launch vehicles and across three continents,” she said. “We’ve also, in parallel, launched five Sherpas,” referencing Spaceflight’s orbital transfer vehicle (OTV) program.
Daniel Metzler, CEO of German launcher in development Isar Aerospace, said his organization is ramping up for its first flight.
“We’re building an orbital launch vehicle with 1 metric ton of field capability,” said Metzler. “Over the last three, four years we see the industry thinking much bigger, especially when it comes to constellation deployments, the number of satellites, and the number of orbital planes. The challenge for the space industry is more of an industrialization challenge much more than an engineering challenge. We look at — how can we automate manufacturing? How can we make it scalable?”
Ketil Olsen, CEO and president of Norway’s Andøya Space Center, spoke about his perspective on how smallsats are part of the future at Andøya.
“We’re preparing to facilitate three or four launch partners, so paying attention to the developments of small satellites,” Olsen said. “We’re paying close attention to this smallsat market and the development of launch vehicles for small satellites.”
When Moderator Natalia Larrea Brito, principal advisor for Euroconsult, asked about the competitive landscape, and the surge in companies offering access to space, Metzler noted that the increased competition is a positive development to ensure there isn’t dependence on a single player.
“The question, especially the satellite constellations should ask themselves, is — which launch service provider should I choose if I have big ambitions?” said Metzler. “Do you want to choose the one to give you all the access to launch services and space you need? You don’t want to get stuck with a launch provider, but do all the verticals, from load analyses and all the expert stuff et cetera, just to realize you can only get one launch every two years. The question is, how can you scale with your ambition? I think there’s different approaches from different players. I don’t think there’s going to be 100 rocket companies commercially succeeding.”
Rood said that while the number of launches is increasing, there’s a lot of pent-up demand.
“I think you’re going to see a substantial growth in the amount of launch services being provided. Last year there was a 33 percent increase in the number of launches. You’re barely scratching the surface for demand,” he said.
Rood then cited two megatrends: “One is the cost per kilogram to go to space has never been lower. It’s come down by 95 percent over the last 20 years. The second big megatrend is the amount of computing power, the amount of sensing power, the ability you can pack into a small payload has expanded exponentially.”
Louradour noted that responsible debris management is also a chief concern.
“I think it’s very good that the governments, in the U.S. and Europe as well, are putting a lot of attention on that, because that will be an important part of the market,” she said, also speaking to what the huge “access of options” means to the market. “[We’re seeing] launch sites, launch access providers, and [we’re] taking that conversation a level up and saying, let’s take a look at what your needs are and how we optimize that overall solution set so we can meet the full spectrum of requirements across all the orbits?”
Metzler added that other factors, in particular the desire for sovereignty in many countries, is driving demand to build new software and systems.
“[Nations] don’t want to necessarily be dependent on a single big player in a very specific element of their supply chain,” he said. I think the market opportunity itself is much bigger than what is available today.” VS