PARIS: The boom in demand for placing small satellites into orbit has boosted interest in small rockets, but industry players do not think the niche will become a business segment of its own.
“This time last year, we were able to count over 120 startups for micro-launchers, small rockets that would carry a single small satellite. As we look today, there is a significantly smaller number of those,” said Tory Bruno, CEO of Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture United Launch Alliance (ULA), said at a recent industry gathering.
The frenzy of proposals for small rockets, or microlaunchers, comes as new satellite-based phone and internet networks are shifting away from a few satellites in high, geostationary orbits.
Instead they use constellations of many, small satellites placed in low earth orbits (LEO).
In the past decade 1,805 small satellites have been placed in orbit and the advisory firm Euroconsult expects that number to rise to 10,000 by 2030.
This year, 95 of the 1,079 satellites launched as of November 1 were small satellites. Of those, three-quarters were part of the Starlink network of SpaceX chief Elon Musk.
Many startups and small companies believed this would create “a market for microlaunchers that are cheap to build and much cheaper to exploit than a big launcher”, such as the Ariane or SpaceX’s Falcon 9, said Xavier Pasco, a space industry specialist and head of French think tank the Foundation for Strategic Research.
Only two small rockets are operational for the moment, according to Euroconsult. One is China’s Kuaizhou-1 and the other is the Electron by New Zealand-based US firm Rocket Lab.
The Virgin Orbit company of British mogul Richard Branson tested its LauncherOne in May, but because of a technical failure the plane-launched rocket failed to reach space. The latest test by US firm Astra in September also failed.
India’s space agency has a maiden launch of its SSLV planned for December.
A number of European firms are also in the competition.
Spanish firm PLD Space is designing a rocket it plans to launch from Andalusia. British firm Orbex plans to launch its Prime rocket from northern Scotland.
Italy’s Avio and Germany’s OHB, which both work on the Ariane, each have their own microlauncher projets. Avio plans a light version of the Vega while OHB’s Rocket Factory Augsburg unit is designing the RFA One.