SpaceX continues its push to change the economics around the space launch market. The company announced today that it will run dedicated ridesharing launches for smaller satellite customers, with fixed costs and launch timelines, without needing to secure a “prime” satellite customer. The first launch is slated for late 2020 or early 2021, with others to follow in 2022 and 2023.
When booked in advance the price drops as low as $2.25 million to launch a satellite up to 150kg into sun-synchronous orbit. This is a very low price point for the service. Combined with the fixed launch schedule plans, the program is likely to appeal to imaging and weather satellites, among other potential use cases.
Some 20-30 of the Small Sat spacecraft should be able to launch within the space and weight constraints of these missions. The company is also reserving space atop the small sat stack for a larger satellite to orbit. This would typically be the “primary” that the other small sat customers are waiting on but the new SpaceX approach guarantees the launch, even if the primary never books.
SpaceX is also offering its ride share customers the opportunity to change to a later launch date if they hit production troubles. The full value of their paid contract will be applied to the future launch, though change fees may apply. Given the once per year launch cycle such a delay would be unfortunate, but having a known future option rather than missing the opportunity entirely is a nice consolation.
This new offering covers only one launch per year, at least for now. Unless demand drives a significant boost in the number of missions the program will not massively alter the launch company’s operating economics.
And plenty of questions remain as to just how many launches are truly in demand on an annual basis, especially given the cost structure the company carries for development of the offerings. But the price is definitely right for customers looking at such services.
Arianespace goes bigger with “GO-1”
For small sat operators looking to go a bit higher, Arianespace is planning to carry 4,500kg worth into geostationary/geosynchronous orbit (GEO). The mission is slated for the first half of 2022 on an Ariane 6 rocket in the 64 configuration. Of particular note, the mission will deliver the satellites directly to GEO orbit rather than to a GEO transfer orbit. The latter is more commonly used for large telecommunications satellites based on the payload weight and available launcher capacity. Getting from the transfer orbit to active in GEO is typically a multi-month ordeal that consumes fuel, reducing the overall lifespan of the satellite in orbit. This is particularly challenging for small sat operators where carrying the additional fuel is a deal-breaker. Instead of several months the satellites will reach GEO orbit in about 6-8 hours.
Pricing for the new offering was not disclosed.
“This is a new day for small satellites: until now, there has been no convenient, predictable, affordable path to GEO for small satellites. But with the Ariane 64 coming online and the GO-1 mission, we’ve engineered a solution that will pave the way for a smallsat revolution in geostationary orbit,” commented Arianespace CEO Stéphane Israël.
While SpaceX will require cube sat customers to pool together and combine their payloads on a 15″ or 24″ launch port, the Arianespace GO missions promise to “accommodate a full range of small-sized satellites, from cubesats to microsats or larger.”
Much like the SpaceX program Arianespace plans to run the launch without requiring a primary satellite commitment to ensure the mission. The company also plans to run “GO” launches on a regular basis, though details on the timing were not disclosed. “While most of such launches depend on a lead customer who could delay the flight, the GO-1 mission will follow a specific schedule – offering to each customer and to each satellite a ‘place of honor’ aboard this flight, which will lift off once the targeted payload capacity is booked,” Israël continued.
The IFE/C connection
Will any of these satellites affect the inflight connectivity experience? Almost certainly not directly. Much like the news last week from Kymeta and Kepler these projects cover the wrong satellites for broadband connectivity on planes. But the potential impact is still significant. The future of inflight connectivity depends on getting more satellites into orbit faster and at lower costs. Everything the launch operators do to realize that goal will ultimately benefit IFC vendors in the long run.