Author Topic: The Future of the "Medium-Lift"/"ELV Class"/"Mid-Range" Launch Market  (Read 5449 times)

If there is another thread that covers this, I would appreciate some directing, but I couldn't find one.
Before I start, I'd like to narrow down what type of vehicles I'm referring to.

"A medium-lift launch vehicle - MLV a rocket orbital launch vehicle that is capable of lifting between 2,000 to 20,000 kg (4,400 to 44,100 lb) of payload into Low Earth orbit - LEO." - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medium-lift_launch_vehicle

Personally I believe that Wikipedia's range is a bit wide. I'm referring here to what I'm gonna call the "ELV Class", as apposed to EELV, or something along the lines of 3,000-7,000 kg to LEO. Rockets like the Delta II, Antares, Soyuz, and Zenit.

It seems that this market is dying out in America. After the Delta II's last two launches in the next couple years, this size of rocket will basically be extinct in the States. Even Antares seems to not even be wanted by it's own company. Basically, this thread is here to discuss why that is, and what the future of this market is.
« Last Edit: 05/19/2017 12:02 AM by JEF_300 »

Offline spacenut

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Multiple satellites can be launched by a larger class rocket.  Cost shouldn't be much more than a smaller rocket, but if a smaller rocket can only launch one satellite of say 4,000 kg and a larger rocket can launch 5 satellites at 20,000 kg for 50% more cost, it would spread over the 5 satellites a a lower cost.  Larger rockets, to a certain point, are cheaper than smaller ones.  Atlas V and F9 are both 3.7m in diameter or 12'.  Both can be road transportable.  The solids for Atlas V are road transportable.  Any diameter larger would require barge transportation.  Both have a greater capability than the Delta II and others you mentioned, yet are at the limits of being road transportable. 

Satellites are also getting larger, thus requiring greater capabilities of the rockets.  Thus the development of the Delta IV, the Falcon Heavy, Vulcan, and New Glenn.  Larger rockets have greater fuel capacity for landing like FH and New Glenn.  This is where the market is headed.  Small satellites can hitch a ride with larger ones, with larger payloads. 

Offline butters

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Payloads are either getting larger or smaller depending on whom you ask. It seems like the market is being pulled in two different directions: heavy-lift RLVs and smallsat ELVs.

Offline brickmack

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I think ultimately most payloads will move towards shared platforms, providing power/propulsion/attitude control for a number of different users. Allows for greatly reduced development cost to the end customer, allows actual per-kg launch costs to approach the theoretical value for a given rocket since you'd have as many payloads going up as once as can physically fit on the vehicle, simplifies any on-orbit servicing, and virtually eliminates new space debris. The vast majority of spacecraft currently on-orbit don't seem to have any real reason to be independent vehicles (especially true of cubesats), its just that nobody has offered this service on a large scale yet. If this does happen, I don't really see any reason for small-medium class launchers to exist anymore

Offline TakeOff

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Satellites are also getting larger, thus requiring greater capabilities of the rockets.
So I would intuitively think too. But do you have any evidence of it actually happening? Help me out here. The viral malbrain says that miniaturization is the thing. That the future is credit card satellites.


Online AncientU

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Satellites are also getting larger, thus requiring greater capabilities of the rockets.
So I would intuitively think too. But do you have any evidence of it actually happening? Help me out here. The viral malbrain says that miniaturization is the thing. That the future is credit card satellites.

Seems the formula in the comms world is small with large constellations/high degree of inter-connectedness versus large GEO platforms to optimize the limited number of slots there.  I believe the latter case will be paced by the long lifetimes of existing assets plus the growth of affordable super-heavy launch capability.  The former case is obvious with ConnX et al.

For either case, the 4-7t payload range isn't viable for a new, targeted launch vehicle, especially with SpaceX plopped squarely in the middle of that market with RTLS or ASDS-bound launches.
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Offline Coastal Ron

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Payloads are not designed in a vacuum (although they have to operate there), meaning that the owners of the payload have to balance many factors, including launch costs.  If there isn't an affordable launch vehicle for your needs, then you won't build your payload.

This is the exact situation Elon Musk was in when he wanted to send a payload to Mars, but couldn't find a launcher that met his needs - so he built his own launch company, SpaceX.

Launch companies can't exist in a vacuum either (although their rockets are built to go there), meaning that they have to offer a service that can attract enough business to hopefully not only survive in business, but thrive.

However with the advent of reusable rockets that will open up more opportunities for payload customers that have smaller payloads, since reusable rocket costs should be able to drop to the point where using a large rocket for a small payload makes economic sense.  And I don't think we have to wait too many more years before that will be the case...
If we don't continuously lower the cost to access space, how are we ever going to afford to expand humanity out into space?

Offline edkyle99

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Personally I believe that Wikipedia's range is a bit wide. I'm referring here to what I'm gonna call the "ELV Class", as apposed to EELV, or something along the lines of 3,000-7,000 kg to LEO. Rockets like the Delta II, Antares, Soyuz, and Zenit.

It seems that this market is dying out in America. After the Delta II's last two launches in the next couple years, this size of rocket will basically be extinct in the States. Even Antares seems to not even be wanted by it's own company. Basically, this thread is here to discuss why that is, and what the future of this market is.
There's a dearth of U.S. launchers in this payload class, perhaps, but Soyuz is going strong.  It accounted for nearly 20 % of all worldwide launches during 2010-2016.  It is the second-most-launched rocket so far this year.

In the U.S. a big issue is that the Pentagon had forced these former Delta 2 class payloads onto the EELVs (usually Atlas 5).  Thus you have a rocket able to boost 8 tonnes to sun synchronous orbit used to loft 1.2 tonne DMSP F19 or 2.5 tonne WorldView 4, etc.  Someone has to crack that nut if they plan to compete with a smaller rocket.

If I was in charge, I would create something like a "Falcon 3" or "Falcon 4", with 3 or 4 Merlin 1D type engines on the first stage and a Castor 30XL type second stage.  A "Falcon 3" (GLOW 215 tonnes) could boost more than 3.5 tonnes to sun synchronous orbit (Delta 2 class), while "Falcon 4" (GLOW 287 tonnes) could loft more than 5 tonnes (Soyuz/Antares class). 

 - Ed Kyle
« Last Edit: 05/19/2017 04:46 PM by edkyle99 »

Offline spacenut

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Would the Falcon 3 or 4 be able to land?  Maybe a Falcon 5 with a center engine or a Falcon 3 with a center engine.  It depends on how much the engine can throttle.  One could use the same diameter and be much shorter taking advantage of existing tooling and manufacturing.  They were once going to do the Falcon 5, but scrubbed it in favor of Falcon 9. 

Offline Space Ghost 1962

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Personally I believe that Wikipedia's range is a bit wide. I'm referring here to what I'm gonna call the "ELV Class", as apposed to EELV, or something along the lines of 3,000-7,000 kg to LEO. Rockets like the Delta II, Antares, Soyuz, and Zenit.

It seems that this market is dying out in America. After the Delta II's last two launches in the next couple years, this size of rocket will basically be extinct in the States. Even Antares seems to not even be wanted by it's own company. Basically, this thread is here to discuss why that is, and what the future of this market is.
There's a dearth of U.S. launcher in this payload class, perhaps, but Soyuz is going strong.  It accounted for nearly 20 % of all worldwide launches during 2010-2016.  It is the second-most-launched rocket so far this year.
Perhaps not forever.

It is, like Delta II, a labor intensive vehicle. If launch's increasingly are dominated by reuse and automated reflight, continuing with such might marginalize its use, because while it could be continued to be flown due to its reliability (R7 roots), costs would sap profitability to the point where cash flow alone might not be enough - a dead end spiral.

(Russian space has overused its low labor costs, carries too broad a wedge of obsolescence, and little investment in rapid change. Not good when the market makes a turn.)

Quote
In the U.S. a big issue is that the Pentagon had forced these former Delta 2 class payloads onto the EELVs (usually Atlas 5).  Thus you have a rocket able to boost 8 tonnes to sun synchronous orbit used to loft 1.2 tonne DMSP F19 or 2.5 tonne WorldView 4, etc.  Someone has to crack that nut if they plan to compete with a smaller rocket.

Like with Shuttle, the attempt was to "get all the wood behind the arrow head", drive up volume artificially to force the economics of the market. (Suggest Musk with reuse is attempting to also force the market, perhaps differently, right now.) There's nothing much similar between EELV and Delta II, might have been with Delta III if that had worked out. Namely DCUS.

Quote
If I was in charge, I would create something like a "Falcon 3" or "Falcon 4", with 3 or 4 Merlin 1D type engines on the first stage and a Castor 30XL type second stage.  A "Falcon 3" (GLOW 215 tonnes) could boost more than 3.5 tonnes to sun synchronous orbit (Delta 2 class), while "Falcon 4" (GLOW 287 tonnes) could loft more than 5 tonnes (Soyuz/Antares class).

(Note that Antares isn't flying much. woods170 makes a great point that its the first victim of market shift, favoring Atlas V over it.)

Agree that a derivative of Falcon 9 would serve well this segment, possibly much better than even Delta II did. However, suggest that the F9US limits its economic advantage to field such. You get into this conundrum of needing something more economic, but still wanting "wood behind the arrow" as before. Perhaps a reuse strategy, as I've elsewhere suggested, as absorbing excess capacity with a lower payload stage recovery vehicle (2 tonnes) to recover the US. Has its own costs, but you can refine F9US as a single stage for F9/FH/F5/F3 payloads, covering the range.

The side benefit might be that for high C3/other missions with small payloads, you'd have more on-orbit capability on expendable F9US missions absent the recovery vehicle.

Offline Lars-J

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If I was in charge, I would create something like a "Falcon 3" or "Falcon 4", with 3 or 4 Merlin 1D type engines on the first stage and a Castor 30XL type second stage.  A "Falcon 3" (GLOW 215 tonnes) could boost more than 3.5 tonnes to sun synchronous orbit (Delta 2 class), while "Falcon 4" (GLOW 287 tonnes) could loft more than 5 tonnes (Soyuz/Antares class).

It makes more sense IMO to use F9, but with a fully reusable upper stage. Such an LV should be handle 3-5 tons territory. And if SpaceX can lower the refurbish time/cost as much as they hope, it should be pretty affordable.

Online AncientU

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If I was in charge, I would create something like a "Falcon 3" or "Falcon 4", with 3 or 4 Merlin 1D type engines on the first stage and a Castor 30XL type second stage.  A "Falcon 3" (GLOW 215 tonnes) could boost more than 3.5 tonnes to sun synchronous orbit (Delta 2 class), while "Falcon 4" (GLOW 287 tonnes) could loft more than 5 tonnes (Soyuz/Antares class).

It makes more sense IMO to use F9, but with a fully reusable upper stage. Such an LV should be handle 3-5 tons territory. And if SpaceX can lower the refurbish time/cost as much as they hope, it should be pretty affordable.


Nice idea.  A RTLS F9 launch with a full reusable second stage would hit the sweet spot and be really economical -- taking advantage of the high cadence and existing multiple pads/TELs.  F9 already taking business away from small launchers (TESS competition) -- this would seal the deal from one tonne (or smaller) on up.

This is actually a version of dial-a-rocket... just adjusting the reuse knob instead of the lift-off thrust one.
« Last Edit: 05/19/2017 11:21 PM by AncientU »
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Offline envy887

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Personally I believe that Wikipedia's range is a bit wide. I'm referring here to what I'm gonna call the "ELV Class", as apposed to EELV, or something along the lines of 3,000-7,000 kg to LEO. Rockets like the Delta II, Antares, Soyuz, and Zenit.

It seems that this market is dying out in America. After the Delta II's last two launches in the next couple years, this size of rocket will basically be extinct in the States. Even Antares seems to not even be wanted by it's own company. Basically, this thread is here to discuss why that is, and what the future of this market is.
There's a dearth of U.S. launchers in this payload class, perhaps, but Soyuz is going strong.  It accounted for nearly 20 % of all worldwide launches during 2010-2016.  It is the second-most-launched rocket so far this year.

In the U.S. a big issue is that the Pentagon had forced these former Delta 2 class payloads onto the EELVs (usually Atlas 5).  Thus you have a rocket able to boost 8 tonnes to sun synchronous orbit used to loft 1.2 tonne DMSP F19 or 2.5 tonne WorldView 4, etc.  Someone has to crack that nut if they plan to compete with a smaller rocket.

If I was in charge, I would create something like a "Falcon 3" or "Falcon 4", with 3 or 4 Merlin 1D type engines on the first stage and a Castor 30XL type second stage.  A "Falcon 3" (GLOW 215 tonnes) could boost more than 3.5 tonnes to sun synchronous orbit (Delta 2 class), while "Falcon 4" (GLOW 287 tonnes) could loft more than 5 tonnes (Soyuz/Antares class). 

 - Ed Kyle

A single Raptor vehicle around 285 t GLOW with a single Broadsword upper stage could put at least 5500 kg to SSO, using tanks with the same total volume and mass as F9 v1.0. A pair or two of Broadswords could be a landing engines for the booster as well.

Offline Patchouli

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I think this payload class could be served by a small VTOL LV along the lines of the Delta Clipper.

http://www.astronautix.com/d/deltaclipper.html

Maybe a one SSMEs combined with  some low expansion RL-10s for landing.

I'm not sure if a cluster of BE-3s have enough ISP to reach orbit with a meaningful payload but a aerospike J2 also could work.


« Last Edit: 05/20/2017 12:56 AM by Patchouli »

Offline Stan-1967

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A single Raptor vehicle around 285 t GLOW with a single Broadsword upper stage could put at least 5500 kg to SSO, using tanks with the same total volume and mass as F9 v1.0. A pair or two of Broadswords could be a landing engines for the booster as well.

Similar ideas were kicked around on other threads back in 2016 after the Raptor performance specs. were announced.  I like the idea of Raptor getting some flight heritage before trying to light 42 of them on the first ITS mission, and medium Delta II class vehicle looked like the best starting point.  The best arguments against this idea came from Jim ( big surprise)  saying that such a proposal didn't fit within SpaceX MO, & until something fit within a necessary SpaceX mission, it would not be built.  I agree with that take.  There was also the issue of re-use & the cannibalization of the lower end of F9's manifest.

The political winds of HSF might be changing, but it's still a head scratcher to explain how cooperation with Masten on an upper stage helps SpaceX with its Mars goals.  Luna might be an interesting market for SpaceX to fund its Mars efforts, and Masten's Broadsword is much better suited for lunar descent vs. Dragons superdraco's.   Would Collaborating on a MLV make more money than collaborating on a way to get your lunar tourist down the lunar surface?

There's a dearth of U.S. launchers in this payload class, perhaps, but Soyuz is going strong.  It accounted for nearly 20 % of all worldwide launches during 2010-2016.  It is the second-most-launched rocket so far this year.

That's what I noticed too. It seems the Soyuz and, to a lesser extent, ISRO rockets have taken over this market. This seems to be mostly because of the cheaper labor they can use in Russia and India. The Shuttle showed us how much ground-time effects a rocket's end price.

I wonder if perhaps a new rocket that didn't focus on technological advancement, but was designed from the ground up to be produced and built cheaply spending as little time on the ground as possible would be able to make it into this market.

Also Soyuz is well up there in years, and the PSLV isn't exactly the most advanced vehicle. I wonder if a straight up modern rocket of this size would be able to get some of the launches in this range.

Offline Patchouli

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There's a dearth of U.S. launchers in this payload class, perhaps, but Soyuz is going strong.  It accounted for nearly 20 % of all worldwide launches during 2010-2016.  It is the second-most-launched rocket so far this year.

That's what I noticed too. It seems the Soyuz and, to a lesser extent, ISRO rockets have taken over this market. This seems to be mostly because of the cheaper labor they can use in Russia and India. The Shuttle showed us how much ground-time effects a rocket's end price.

I wonder if perhaps a new rocket that didn't focus on technological advancement, but was designed from the ground up to be produced and built cheaply spending as little time on the ground as possible would be able to make it into this market.

Also Soyuz is well up there in years, and the PSLV isn't exactly the most advanced vehicle. I wonder if a straight up modern rocket of this size would be able to get some of the launches in this range.

I think a simple LV with a single BE-4,Raptor,AR-1,or SSME in it's first stage could compete if you can at least get the first stage engines back.

I'm not sure if any of them are cheap enough to actually throw away on payloads of that class.

The second stage can be something along the lines a liquid stage using a single BE-3 "though it is over sized" AJ-10,Chase-10 or a cut down Castor 30.

I think the most optimal combination that could be assembled near term would be single BE-4 first stage with one or two Chase-10s in the second stage as this would allow common propellants and a good split in stage sizes.

« Last Edit: 05/20/2017 09:47 PM by Patchouli »

Offline Lar

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I am not seeing SpaceX investing in anything less powerful than the current F9. Rather, I expect the current F9 to handle this market. It may be that this market is where we first see reusable S2s
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Offline edkyle99

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I am not seeing SpaceX investing in anything less powerful than the current F9. Rather, I expect the current F9 to handle this market. It may be that this market is where we first see reusable S2s
The news that Orbital ATK's CRS-2 contract is for less money than that of SpaceX offers a counter point.  It turned out that the smaller expendable rocket beat the bigger, partially recoverable rocket in that case.  Makes me wonder if Antares really might be the answer to this question.  The 231 model can lift 3 tonnes to sun synchronous orbit from the launch pad that already exists at Wallops.  The 331 model, which will unleash Antares RD-181 engine's real potential, will lift more.

 - Ed Kyle
« Last Edit: 05/20/2017 11:55 PM by edkyle99 »

Offline Patchouli

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I am not seeing SpaceX investing in anything less powerful than the current F9. Rather, I expect the current F9 to handle this market. It may be that this market is where we first see reusable S2s
The news that Orbital ATK's CRS-2 contract is for less money than that of SpaceX offers a counter point.  It turned out that the smaller expendable rocket beat the bigger, partially recoverable rocket in that case.  Makes me wonder if Antares really might be the answer to this question.  The 231 model can lift 3 tonnes to sun synchronous orbit from the launch pad that already exists at Wallops.  The 331 model, which will unleash Antares RD-181 engine's real potential, will lift more.

 - Ed Kyle

Keep in mind CRS requires both a rocket and a spacecraft so even if F9 is the cheaper to operate Cygnus is probably considerably cheaper than Dragon since it doesn't need EDL hardware.

As far as I know Spacex is required to use a new Dragon for each mission.
« Last Edit: 05/21/2017 12:14 AM by Patchouli »

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