Spaceflight is currently undergoing a major transformation. Until about 10 years ago, satellites were designed to be large and heavy, to carry as many different payloads as possible. The orders for such satellites mostly came from government clients. Today, satellites are becoming much smaller, either because the instruments they carry are becoming much smaller, but also because missions are becoming increasingly specific, requiring less different instruments to be carried on board. Most of these small satellites, often known as ‘cubesats’, or micro or even nano-satellites, are now built by private companies.
These small satellites are traditionally launched as ‘co-passengers’ together with other, larger satellites whose operators define the launch conditions. But a distinct class of small launchers have now established themselves as a means to deliver small satellites into their target orbits as a primary payload – the ‘micro launcher’. In the USA and China, the market for these small launch vehicles is growing very rapidly, but also in Europe there are now several private companies developing small launchers.
Is there a market for small launchers?
The satellite market in 2022 is booming, with the highest number of satellites launched ever. But how sustainable is this trend? Orbits are getting ‘full’ with risks of satellite collisions and the amount of space debris rising sharply. Will there even be a market at all for these new small launchers, that are so specifically adapted to large amounts of small satellites?
Recently at Space Tech Expo 2022 in Bremen we asked Pablo Gallego, the SVP of Sales and Customers for Spanish small launcher company PLD Space this question:
About PLD Space
PLD Space is one of the private companies in Europe that is developing small launchers. Based in Spain, it is at the forefront of development, and it is one of the few companies in Europe to perform successful engine and subsystem tests, just prior to launching the first test missions.
Among its key products are the MIURA 1 suborbital and MIURA 5 orbital rockets. PLD Space plans to launch its MIURA 1 prototype very soon and tackle its first real space transport mission with MIURA 5 in 2024. The firm, based in Elche (Alicante) and with technical facilities in Teruel, Huelva and French Guiana, has already received more than $50 million of investment towards its development.
European Launcher Alliance
Feeling the competition of private launch companies and a need to regulate the market, the European Union last year proposed a “launcher alliance”, involving both private companies and governments to develop the next generation of European launch vehicles.
In a June 22 speech highlighting the EU’s space programs, including the signing of a Financial Framework Partnership Agreement with the European Space Agency, the EU commissioner responsible for space highlighted the launcher alliance as part of a “ambitious and disruptive space agenda.”
Some industry analysts see this initiative as a way to protect the existing largely government-funded launcher industry that is dominated by ArianeGroup and its partners, and supported by the European Space Agency and several national space agencies. This conglomerate produces the highly successful Ariane-5 and Vega launchers, which are currently being succeeded by the Ariane-6 heavy and Vega-C medium heavy launchers.
Notably, not much was published about this initiative since its launch by European Commissioner Thierry Breton in June 2021…
Small Launcher Companies in Europe
On the small launcher side we see a different trend. Well over a dozen private companies are receiving government and private investor funds for the development of several small launchers. Some of these companies, like Spanish PLD Space are close to their first serious launch attempts. Competitors like Scottish Skyrora, German Isar Aerospace and British Orbex are at similar stages of development.
Currently there are over a 100 companies that can be classed as a launcher company in the world, in various development stages. A very interesting ranking of these companies is kept by space investment company SpaceFund. They not only maintain an up-to-date database of launcher companies, but add their ‘SpaceFund Reality’ rating to this list. You can find the latest version of the complete list here.
To compare specifically the European launcher companies, we made a small extract from this database, filtering out all launcher companies in Europe that are working on LEO-orbital launchers, with a ‘reality rating’ of 2 and up. A reality rating of 0 or 1 basically means that this is not much more than an idea and the company has not received any significant amount of funding. See the detailed explanation of this ‘reality rating’ on the SpaceFund website here.
Of the 23 companies in this list, 10 are British, 4 German, 3 Spanish, 3 French, 1 Norwegian and 1 Dutch. Perhaps surprising, ArianeSpace is listed as Italian, probably because it is co-listed with Italian Avio, courtesy of the original makers of this list. It should also be noted that only 9 companies have a reality rating of 5 or higher, with well-established ArianeSpace of course leading the ranks.
Isar Aerospace (Germany), Dawn Aerospace (Netherlands), PLD Space (Spain), and Skyrora (UK) score a 6, leading the list of private small launcher companies in Europe, with HyImpulse (Germany), Rocket Factory Augsburg (Germany), Orbex (UK) and Reaction Engines (UK) very closely following behind. The other 14 companies score 4 or lower, meaning they are still further behind in their development.
What about demand for small launchers?
In an interesting webinar on this topic by Space Tech Expo Europe in October 2021, several micro launcher executives were invited to share their opinion on the market for their products.
Rocket Factory Augsburg COO Jörn Spurmann explained: “The sellers’ market is transforming into a buyers’ market currently. As discussed on the panel, there will soon be more supply than demand. New emerging start-ups are inducing a heavy price competition for launch service. Only a few launch service providers will be able to establish themselves on the market, and what will be decisive here is a high launch cadence at competitive low prices like the ones offered by RFA.”