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SpaceX Expands and Simplifies Small Satellite Rideshare Program

By Rich Smith - Sep 14, 2019 at 7:33AM

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More frequent launches at lower prices could be a winning combination for SpaceX.

The market for small satellites -- and the small rockets to launch them -- is hot, hot, hot!

Hardly a month goes by without some new development in this space, whether it's Rocket Lab reaching a new milestone in small rockets launched, or one of Sir Richard Branson's "Virgin" companies announcing some new twist to the rockets story. Last month, though, it was SpaceX -- better known for launching large rockets than small -- that made waves in the new space industry when it announced an upcoming series of "regularly scheduled, dedicated Falcon 9 rideshare missions" that would carry exclusively satellites massing up to 150 kilograms and put them in orbit for "as low as $2.25 million per mission."

At the time, I suggested SpaceX was attempting to disrupt the market for small rockets before it reaches critical mass, pre-empting a move to smaller rockets by offering similar services for cheaper prices. But there was still just one problem with SpaceX's plan:

Even scheduling regular trips to orbit, SpaceX was only planning to launch dedicated rideshare missions once per year. For any small satellite operator needing to travel to space sooner, that wait might prove too long, opening up a niche for small rocket makers: rocket launches on demand.

Now SpaceX is moving to close that gap in service and eliminate that niche.

Time lapse photo shows trails of a rocket launching and landing to form an X in the sky

SpaceX is making its mark, and claiming all of space launch as its own. Image source: SpaceX.

Monthly rocket rides to space

In a quick tweak to its Smallsat Rideshare Program announced last month, SpaceX has confirmed that in addition to its annual mass satellite bus-rides to orbit, it will now also be offering "monthly missions." It will do this by allowing small satellite operators to hop aboard the monthly launches SpaceX itself will be running as it puts its own Starlink satellites in orbit.

Now, we've already run down the details of SpaceX's original flight plan: Beginning sometime between late 2020 and late 2021, the company will offer customers the chance to book a slot on one of its "Dedicated ESPA Class" Falcon 9 launches to sun-synchronous orbit. Subsequent missions will launch roughly once per year, in the first quarter of every year, and will fly regardless of whether the rocket has booked enough reservations to max out its capacity -- meaning there are guaranteed launch dates.

The big change is that in addition to these guaranteed, annual departures, SpaceX will now be offering monthly launch opportunities. Because SpaceX is planning to rapidly accelerate the launch tempo of its Starlink missions so as to get its satellite broadband constellation in operation sooner, it's now able to use these additional monthly launches to also carry third parties' satellites. In so doing, SpaceX can offer customers the best of both worlds -- guaranteed launch dates once per year for folks who can wait that long, and more flexible, once-per-month launch slots available to those who simply cannot wait.

Adding to the attractiveness of the program, SpaceX has simplified (and lowered) the rideshare program's pricing, while raising its capacity. Previously, the plan was to charge customers $2.25 million to launch a payload massing up to 150 kilograms. But that price may have been just a bit too close to what competitors such as New Zealand's Rocket Lab were offering.

To make the difference much more stark, SpaceX will now advertise launch prices "as low as $1 million." And it will carry payloads up to 200 kilograms in mass for that price, with an excess baggage fee of $5,000 for every 1 kg a customer goes over the weight limit. Basically, what that works out to is a launch cost of $5000 per kilo no matter how big a customer's satellite is, with a $1 million minimum ticket price.

What it means for the competition

So what's the upshot of all this?

At last report, Rocket Lab -- the only small rocket maker that wants to compete in the market for launching small satellites and has proven its ability to launch its rockets successfully -- was charging about $1 million to put a 12U "cube" satellite (which would mass about 16 kilograms) into orbit. For an equivalent price, SpaceX is now offering to orbit a satellite 12.5 times as large -- or perhaps to orbit 12.5 satellites for that same low price.

Got a bigger satellite you want to launch? An entire Electron rocket mission, carrying a maximum payload of perhaps 225 kilograms, would cost about $6.5 million at Rocket Lab, whereas SpaceX will launch a similar-size satellite for just $1 million and change. And SpaceX is offering to launch these satellites about as often as Rocket Lab is already doing so today -- once per month.

I don't know about you, but it sure looks to me like SpaceX is trying to smother the small rocket market in its cradle. At prices like these, it just might succeed.

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