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It cost upwards of $160 billion to put the International Space Station in orbit. New satellite launches are going to be a whole lot cheaper. Image source: Getty Images.

Over the past several months, we've spent a lot of time running down the list of the several space companies that send satellites into orbit: Boeing (NYSE:BA) and Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT), SpaceX and Blue Origin, Arianespace in Europe, and even tiny Vector Space Systems here at home.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this industry, though, is that while all of these companies are going to the same place, and they use similar vehicles to get there, the prices they charge for the trip are very different indeed.

Why is this important? Look at it from your own perspective. Say you want to travel from Point A to Point B today. The local yellow-cab service wants to charge you $50 for the trip. Lyft offers the same ride for $25, while Uber is quoting $15. Which company would you patronize?

Taxi rides to space

That's basically the situation corporate customers face when booking rocket rides for their satellites. Granted, there are additional wrinkles. One "space taxi" service might have a better record for successful missions. Another might have a lamentable history of its taxis exploding in flames. But the basic principle is the same: The company that charges the lowest costs is going to win the game eventually.

So how do these companies shake out? Like so.

United Launch Alliance

Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the two companies that form the United Launch Alliance joint venture, send satellites into orbit aboard Delta IV and Atlas V rockets. For the most part, ULA services government customers, who place a premium on the company's record of 107 successful satellite launches in a row. But this reliability comes at a cost.

ULA says that a "lower-end mission," carrying perhaps 4.75 metric tons aboard one of its Atlas V rockets costs $164 million, while launch costs across its entire fleet average $225 million. (Maximum payload: 8.9 tons.)

Now ULA says it's working on ways to lower its costs, especially with an eye to the commercial market. A planned "dual launch system," says ULA, "would launch two spacecraft on a single launch vehicle, cutting costs by 25%-40%." 

Arianespace

Arianespace, the global leader in commercial space launches, won such pride of place in large part because it has consistently underpriced ULA. On average, Ariane launches cost $200 million, with a maximum payload to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) of 10 tons. The company's new Ariane 62 and Ariane 64 rockets promise to widen the price gap.

Ariane 62, designed to launch 5-ton scientific satellites into GTO, is targeting a launch cost of $77 million. Ariane 64, a heavy-lift rocket capable of hoisting two 5-ton satellites into space simultaneously, similar to Boeing's plan, would cost $126 million per launch -- or just $63 million per satellite delivered.

SpaceX

We covered this very recently already, so I'll just sketch it out briefly again: SpaceX advertises its new and improved Falcon 9 rocket as capable of delivering 5.5 metric tons of cargo to GTO for just $62 million, or up to 8.3 tons for a higher price. The company's Falcon Heavy rocket, due to make its first flight in November, boasts the ability to deliver 8 tons of cargo to GTO for just $90 million.

Blue Origin

So far, Blue Origin is only doing space tourism. Humans go up, take a look around, and come back down. As for satellites, ask us again in 10 years.

Price per ton

So knowing all of this, how do the "Big Three" companies of satellite launch compare on price?

Company

Cost Per Ton (Medium Rocket)

Expected Cost Per Ton (Heavy Rocket)

Year Expected

ULA

$25 million to $34.5 million

$15 million to $20.7 million*

2019 

Arianespace

$20 million

$12.6 million

Before 2020 

SpaceX

$11.3 million

$11.2 million

November 2016

*Estimated based on published capabilities for ULA's new Vulcan rocket .

Conclusions

Right now, SpaceX is offering the lowest prices for space launch of the three satellite-launch companies surveyed. Its new Falcon Heavy rocket promises to maintain this lead for years to come and appears likely to outclass even the rival rockets that its competitors are still trying to develop.

Granted, this is not a comprehensive list. It does not cover, for example, the reported space launch costs of rival launchers in Russia, in China, or in India, either. Nor does it delve into the nascent "new-space" market, where start-ups such as Vector Space Systems are promising to deliver microsatellites into low-Earth orbit for as little as $1.5 million per launch. (But for the sake of comparison, that would be $30 million per ton, assuming a 100-pound payload, but with more flexibility on launch schedule.)

Still, here you have a quick, broad brush of the market. If, over the next few years, you read more and more stories that SpaceX is stealing market share, winning commercial contracts away from Arianespace, and winning government contracts away from Boeing and Lockheed Martin -- now you'll know why.

Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of, nor is he short, any company named above. You can find him on Motley Fool CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 298 out of more than 75,000 rated members.

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