At first glance, the news looks good for a new wave of small launch vehicles under development. Several ventures are planning constellations of dozens or hundreds of small satellites for communications and remote sensing, all requiring launches in the next several years. Interest in cubesats, either for constellations or standalone missions, also seems to be growing by the year.
Less clear, though, is just how big that market is, and how much of it can be captured by small launch vehicles. Different assessments give widely varying forecasts for the number of smallsats to be launched in the next few years, depending how such satellites are defined.
In a presentation at the Federal Aviation Administration’s annual commercial space transportation conference earlier this year, Phil Smith, a senior analyst with The Tauri Group, defined smallsats as those weighing less than 600 kilograms. That upper limit, he said, includes most of the smallsat constellations that companies have recently proposed.
“We’re talking about 600 very small satellites being deployed over the next four years,” he said, limiting that forecast only to those systems that have funding. If proposed systems — those announced but not yet with funding, and hence more speculative — are included, “we’re talking about 5,000 small satellites.”
Another assessment comes from SpaceWorks Enterprises, the Atlanta company that released its annual smallsat forecast in March. Its forecast is limited to smallsats weighing 1 to 50 kilograms, and thus primarily various permutations of cubesats.
Despite a drop in those satellites launched in 2015, linked to delays caused by Antares and Falcon 9 launch failures, SpaceWorks expects the number to increase in 2016 and beyond, both to clear the backlog from those delays and as demand continues to grow. That forecast projects more than 200 such satellites launching this year, growing to more than 400 in 2022.
Those numbers are even larger when SpaceWorks includes the “full market potential,” which casts a wider net of potential systems. In that scenario, the number of smallsats launched grows from more than 250 this year to 575 in 2022, for a total of about 3,000 during that period.
Either forecast appears to be good news for small launch vehicle developers: there are hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of satellites available for them to launch in the next several years. However, those new launchers will have to compete with existing ways of launching smallsats, including flying them as secondary payloads or launching many of them at one time on a larger rocket.
Industry observers widely believe most constellations will be launched on larger rockets that can deploy many satellites as a time, as Globalstar, Iridium and Orbcomm have done in the past. “Where the larger vehicles come into play is constellation deployment and constellation replenishment,” Smith said.
Small launch vehicles, Smith argued, appeared better suited for replacing individual satellites in constellations, as well as one-off missions not part of bigger systems. “Technology demo and satellite replacement are probably the areas that these new ‘nanovehicles’ are going to address,” he said.
One of the biggest smallsat ventures is following that approach. OneWeb announced last year launch contracts with Arianespace and Virgin Galactic for its constellation of 650 broadband satellites. OneWeb will deploy the system on 21 Soyuz launches, each carrying about 30 satellites. The Virgin Galactic LauncherOne missions will be used for later deployments of as few as one satellite per launch to fill gaps in the constellation.
Cubesats, too, have a growing number of launch options, from secondary payloads on a variety of launch vehicles to flying on cargo missions to the International Space Station for later deployment. Moreover, many cubesat developers, particularly in academia, have limited budgets, and secondary payloads are typically more economical than dedicated launches.
The SpaceWorks forecast, though, suggests that the growing demand for cubesats will become larger than what secondary payloads and other alternatives can accommodate, requiring the use of dedicated small launch vehicles.
“While there is a consistent number of nano/microsatellites launched and deployed from the International Space Station, there is significant growth in future dedicated launches for small satellites,” the forecast report states. SpaceWorks didn’t estimate a fraction of the overall satellites in its forecast that it expects to launch on small launchers, though.
SpaceWorks is not a completely disinterested observer in the small launch business: one venture it’s involved with is Generation Orbit, a company developing an air launch system for nanosatellites. But even companies operating large launch vehicles say they’re keeping an eye on demand for small launchers.
“We need an in-depth assessment of the market,” said Stéphane Israël, chairman and chief executive of Arianespace, during a panel session at the Satellite 2016 conference in March. That assessment, he said, needs to examine demand from government agencies and academia as well as commercial customers.
For now, he said Arianespace plans to address the smallsat market with its Vega vehicle, whose payload capacity is significantly larger than many of the small launch vehicles under development. However, he left the door open for a dedicated microsatellite launch vehicle at some later time.
“It’s too early to say whether we would go for that or not,” he said. “We are far, far away from starting development on such a project.”
Arianespace, then, seems more likely to follow the lead of companies like Generation Orbit and Virgin Galactic, as well as Firefly Space Systems, Rocket Lab, Stratolaunch and others working on small launch vehicles, provided at least some of those companies can demonstrate there’s enough demand for dedicated launches of smallsats to make their businesses viable.
For now, Tauri Group’s Smith is cautiously optimistic. “There’s a role for all types of vehicles to play,” he said, comparing proposed small launch vehicles with larger ones. “The question is, how many of these businesses will stay in business to address whatever demand starts to evolve?”