14 months ago, SpaceX changed the face of spaceflight.
Announcing the creation of a new Smallsat Rideshare Program, SpaceX promised to offer "regularly scheduled, dedicated Falcon 9 rideshare missions" to space for satellites "up to 150 kg" at prices "as low as $2.25 million per mission" -- or less than $15,000 per kilogram.
Just a month later, SpaceX expanded and simplified the program by adding the option of hitching ad hoc rides aboard its own Starlink satellite launches for as little as $1 million, or $5,000 per kilogram.
So how are SpaceX's plans shaping up?
To the moon, Alice! (Or at least, to orbit)
Pretty well, actually. SpaceX's first Starlink/Rideshare took off for orbit in June 2020, carrying a trio of Earth observation satellites for U.S. company Planet, with several additional rideshares announced since. And as we just learned from our friends at SpaceNews.com, the new SpaceX service is starting to gain popularity internationally as well.
Last week, German launch aggregator Exolaunch announced that it had signed an agreement to place at least 30 third-party satellites aboard SpaceX rideshare missions in December 2020, and to launch dozens more satellites in mid-2021.
SpaceX isn't the only company offering rideshare services. Sometimes-competitor, sometimes-partner Spaceflight Inc., which is now owned by Japanese conglomerate Mitsui & Co. and industrial machinery maker Yamasa Co., has been bundling customer orders for rocket launches, and buying rideshare space on other companies' rockets (SpaceX rockets included) for years. But now it seems Spaceflight Inc. is getting some competition in Europe from a homegrown rival -- and SpaceX has found another partner.
As Exolaunch vice president of launch services Jeanne Medvedeva explained in a statement: The "SpaceX program is a game-changer for the rideshare launch industry giving new impetus for numerous constellations of small satellites," being both "cost-effective" and "reliable."
This record of reliability (SpaceX hasn't suffered a single launch mishap in more than four years), when combined with the ultra-low prices that SpaceX is charging, seems to be growing the market for bundled rideshare launches far outside U.S. borders. According to the SpaceNews story, Exolaunch's customers on these rideshare missions hail from all over the world -- including Canada, France, Germany, Lithuania, and the UK.
What it means for investors
So, bully for Exolaunch -- but Exolaunch doesn't trade on U.S. stock exchanges. Exolaunch isn't a publicly traded company at all, so why is any of this important to investors?
First and foremost, Exolaunch's entry into the rideshare market in cooperation with SpaceX means that the latter's rideshare business is gaining momentum. It's becoming more popular, and part of that popularity, one imagines, is because of the extremely low prices that SpaceX is able to charge -- as little as $1 million to launch a 200-kilogram satellite, versus the roughly-$6 million that privately-held Rocket Lab charges, for example, or the $12 million that Virgin Orbit is said to be asking.
To my mind, this poses a risk to the business models of both Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit -- the more so because both of those companies are based outside of the U.S., in the very markets that Exolaunch is targeting. By the time either or both of these companies gets around to IPO'ing, their potential market size may be greatly diminished.
And second, because SpaceX is piggybacking the majority of these rideshare missions onto launches of its own Starlink satellites, every paying customer hitching a ride helps to defray the cost of building SpaceX's Starlink broadband satellite internet service a little bit more. Each rideshare makes building Starlink a bit cheaper, and a bit more profitable.