Poll

Is the small launcher sector dying?

Yes
39 (45.3%)
No
22 (25.6%)
Maybe
25 (29.1%)

Total Members Voted: 86

Voting closes: 03/21/2024 09:29 am


Author Topic: Is the small launcher sector dying?  (Read 8388 times)

Offline Tywin

« Last Edit: 03/18/2023 09:31 am by Tywin »
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Online M.E.T.

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Re: Is the small launcher sector dying?
« Reply #1 on: 03/18/2023 11:16 am »
Only hollow satisfaction comes from “I told you so”. Rather, I remain perplexed by the fact that so many very smart people, on this site and elsewhere, could not see the self evident truth on this issue years ago.

To adapt an old adage, “It’s the business case, stupid.” In this case, it’s just not there. And never was, once SpaceX reflew a used booster.

Offline DeimosDream

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Re: Is the small launcher sector dying?
« Reply #2 on: 03/18/2023 11:49 am »
Small launch is growing, not dying. The sector has increased up to a grand total of 14 successfully launches in 2022, with more expected in 2023.

Unfortunately even a +100% increase split between Alpha/Astra/Electron/Epsilon/LauncherOne/Minotaur/Pegasus/Prime/RS1/RFA-One/Skyroa/SSLV/Spectrum/Terran-1 is an average of only 2 flights each.

The sector isn't dying, its just getting ready for a rather large pruning. This particular race has a lot of entries but not very many podium spots.

Offline spacenut

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Re: Is the small launcher sector dying?
« Reply #3 on: 03/18/2023 11:55 am »
When Starship and New Glenn get flying with full reuse.  The small launch sector will be a nich market.  Larger fully reusable rockets can have rides for satellites on their way to doing something else, and at a lower cost because it is hitching a ride.  Larger launch vehicles will open space up to larger projects and exploration and larger satellites that can do more. 

Offline Robotbeat

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Re: Is the small launcher sector dying?
« Reply #4 on: 03/18/2023 12:45 pm »
Small launch is growing, not dying. The sector has increased up to a grand total of 14 successfully launches in 2022, with more expected in 2023.

Unfortunately even a +100% increase split between Alpha/Astra/Electron/Epsilon/LauncherOne/Minotaur/Pegasus/Prime/RS1/RFA-One/Skyroa/SSLV/Spectrum/Terran-1 is an average of only 2 flights each.

The sector isn't dying, its just getting ready for a rather large pruning. This particular race has a lot of entries but not very many podium spots.
I think most of those companies which survive will do one of two things:
1) go up-market to medium or heavy launch, satellite building, or components for both. Or defense-oriented applications (hypersonics).
2) be used as flagship domestic launchers for smaller nations and so receive national support.

Full and rapid reuse would be possible (YES, even for small lift, and I wish people would stop claiming physics or whatever doesn’t allow it for small lift… in some ways there are actually more reuse mode options at the small end), but it’d take an extremely aggressive approach and would be tough to justify economically except at the very upper end of 1-2 ton.
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Offline TrevorMonty

Re: Is the small launcher sector dying?
« Reply #5 on: 03/18/2023 01:36 pm »


.

Full and rapid reuse would be possible (YES, even for small lift, and I wish people would stop claiming physics or whatever doesn’t allow it for small lift… in some ways there are actually more reuse mode options at the small end), but it’d take an extremely aggressive approach and would be tough to justify economically except at the very upper end of 1-2 ton.

RL are showing that reuse for 300kg LVs is possible and surprising themselves and everybody else in the processing. I don't think anybody thought reusing small booster after water landing was worthwhile but here they are going down that path. Not sure it will be rapid reuse.
Stoke are trying for full and rapid reuse. I think their US reentry technology will be superior to SS's tiles.


Offline chopsticks

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Re: Is the small launcher sector dying?
« Reply #6 on: 03/18/2023 03:19 pm »


.

Full and rapid reuse would be possible (YES, even for small lift, and I wish people would stop claiming physics or whatever doesn’t allow it for small lift… in some ways there are actually more reuse mode options at the small end), but it’d take an extremely aggressive approach and would be tough to justify economically except at the very upper end of 1-2 ton.

RL are showing that reuse for 300kg LVs is possible and surprising themselves and everybody else in the processing. I don't think anybody thought reusing small booster after water landing was worthwhile but here they are going down that path. Not sure it will be rapid reuse.
Stoke are trying for full and rapid reuse. I think their US reentry technology will be superior to SS's tiles.

Agree. The total number of launches is increasing, but it seems like the rate of growth for small launchers is less than for the medium lift vehicles. I do think that a small reusable launcher definitely has a niche though, as long as it can be cost-competitive.

Offline Tywin

Re: Is the small launcher sector dying?
« Reply #7 on: 03/18/2023 03:49 pm »
In my opinion, the US market shows the way, Virgin Orbit is almost broke, Astra is going that way, and Rocket Lab with great reliability so far is NOT making money with Electron....

Instead, we see Rocket Lab, ABL Space, Firefly and Relativity betting on semi-heavy rockets, because that's where the money is....

Even Stoke Space, I don't think you can say their rocket is Small Launcher, because I think it will put over 2 tons in LEO....

To me the market is dead between these semi heavy rockets and space tugs that drop you into precise orbit, there is no niche market for small launchers....
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Offline Tywin

Re: Is the small launcher sector dying?
« Reply #8 on: 03/18/2023 03:57 pm »
For example, TLON Space's Aventura I, rocket, with 25 kg at LEO, for me its challenge is not to make it reliable but to make it profitable, which I see as impossible, with the conditions of the world market.

https://tlon.space/aventura-i/

Unless Argentina keeps it as Italy is doing with the Vega as a strategic national asset....

We see in Spain how PLD Space, has moved the Miura V (before Arion 2) from less than 300 kg to LEO to 900 kg to LEO, but even with this improvement, for me they are very late to the market...

https://arc.aiaa.org/doi/pdf/10.2514/6.2018-2467

The small satellites of NewSpace, what they want is reliability and cheap economy of their payloads to LEO and they can get that in the rideshare of SpaceX or in the future semi-heavy ones of the companies mentioned before...
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Offline RedLineTrain

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Re: Is the small launcher sector dying?
« Reply #9 on: 03/18/2023 07:17 pm »
The small launch sector might never die because even if the business is bad, in order to make a large rocket you need first to create a Minimal Viable Product that is a small rocket.

And there's no natural bridge between a small rocket and a large rocket.  You go from $100-200 million investment for a small rocket to $3-4 billion investment for a large rocket.  That chasm will be difficult to manage, especially in this venture funding winter and SpaceX's falling marginal cost to launch.

Lastly, even in a healthy small launch sector, almost all contenders will die.  Company X, Y, or Z dying is not an indication that the sector is dying.  Therefore, you may be unable tell to that the sector is dying until it has already been dead for a while.
« Last Edit: 03/18/2023 07:32 pm by RedLineTrain »

Offline butters

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Re: Is the small launcher sector dying?
« Reply #10 on: 03/18/2023 09:01 pm »
Demand for dedicated small launch may be increasing, but the market potential will fall way short of the projections of any of the small launch providers, and that will raise questions of whether it makes sense to service this relatively niche market. There's demand, but maybe not enough to justify supply from a purely commercial perspective (national interests may dictate otherwise).

To make the obligatory aviation analogy: Nobody makes 50-seat jets anymore. There's barely any Fokker F28s left in service, and the CRJ-100/200s are declining in number every year. The only modern 50-seat airliner is the ATR-42 turboprop, which isn't a particularly big seller. Moving down into the 19-seat category, there's not many Twin Otters or Dornier 228s flying scheduled service, and only bright spot here is the popularity of the Cessna Caravan as a short-hop cargo feeder for the likes of FedEx and UPS.

It's even difficult to develop a 76-seat jet that anybody will buy nowadays, because nobody wants to invest in engines for this class. There are zero orders for the Embraer E175-E2, because the high-efficiency P&W geared turbofan engine is too heavy for the airframe to fit within MTOW limits for this class. The Honda regional jet was canceled before it entered serial production. Bombardier cracked this nut with what's now called the Airbus A220, with more fuel capacity relative to passenger capacity, defying the term "regional jet" and the US scope clauses.

Airlines are finding that the B737/A320 class is economical enough for "skinny" routes with relatively low demand. Southwest Airlines built their entire business model on idea that this class of aircraft can serve all of their needs, and that efficiencies of operating a single type outweigh the potentially lower load factors. And passenger airlines can generate extra revenue by filling spare load capacity with freight.

The launch service analogy here is that medium-class rockets are the B737/A320s of this industry. They offer the most flexibility to serve the widest spectrum of market demand. They might not be the most cost-effective solution for every mission, but they are the most cost-effective over the whole launch manifest, offering the best amortization of development costs and fixed operating costs.

Much like customers with special requirements can charter a private jet like a Gulfstream or a Citation, there is demand for dedicated small launch, but it's a niche market with relatively low volumes and premium price points, for customers that want to go wherever they want, whenever they want, without having to rub shoulders with the unwashed rideshare masses.

Private aviation did not become a mass market way of life as Cessna and Piper might have dreamed in the early 1960s. It was the Boeing 747 jumbo jet, more than any other type, that ushered in the era of affordable access to air travel. It was economies of scale. And the minimum viable scale has been increasing over the decades to the point where 90-110 seats is about as low as it makes sense to go for commercial aviation.

I don't know if or when the launch industry will get to the point where we're writing obituaries lamenting the disappearance of 50-ton rockets like we talk about 50-seat airliners today. But we're asking these questions today about 1-ton or 3-ton rockets, and even 8-ton rockets might be at the low end of minimum viable for the commercial mass market. As demand increases, as the cost of developing increasingly sophisticated rocket engines to compete with the likes of Raptor becomes more daunting, the industry will focus on the most flexible systems.

Offline DeimosDream

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Re: Is the small launcher sector dying?
« Reply #11 on: 03/19/2023 04:47 am »
I don't like the jet analogy. 'Nitch' is a bit too dismissive of the vibrant private/executive jet business. They may have more downtime (less reuse) and move only a fraction of the cargo/passengers as the big workhorses, but if you look at airframe production over 40% of new civil jet aircraft manufactured were small business jets with 5-20 seats (in 2021 approximately ~700 vs ~1000 Airbus/Boeing/Embraer deliveries in the west).

Another point against the jet analogy is that the private jet general aviation business is less consolidated than the airline/cargo commercial buisness. There are about twice as many small business jet manufacturers as there are commercial jet airline/cargo manufacturers, even if we exclude piston and turbo-props.

Using jet aviation as a template would suggest the market will eventually support more small lift rocket vendors selling personalized solutions than it will big high-efficiency rockets manufacturers.
« Last Edit: 03/19/2023 04:49 am by DeimosDream »

Offline TrevorMonty

Re: Is the small launcher sector dying?
« Reply #12 on: 03/19/2023 08:39 am »
The A380 is end of life ie SS equivalent.

Offline spacenut

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Re: Is the small launcher sector dying?
« Reply #13 on: 03/19/2023 01:32 pm »
The A380 is end of life ie SS equivalent.

The problem I read about the A380 was the lack of airports that could handle this big jet.  Only a handful in the entire world.  It was cheaper to use a slightly smaller jet that could take off and land at 90% of the airports.  A380 was created to fly between large hub airports with people changing planes to get to their destinations.  There are now more worldwide airports and now one can go straight to their destinations without changing planes using smaller planes. 

SS is just beginning, and it seems to not be that hard to build launch facilities and a landing pad anywhere.  It will grow due to orbital refueling, until large in space nuclear spacecraft are developed.  Also because of finishing the Starlink launches. 

Offline AmigaClone

Re: Is the small launcher sector dying?
« Reply #14 on: 03/19/2023 01:39 pm »
I don't like the jet analogy. 'Nitch' is a bit too dismissive of the vibrant private/executive jet business. They may have more downtime (less reuse) and move only a fraction of the cargo/passengers as the big workhorses, but if you look at airframe production over 40% of new civil jet aircraft manufactured were small business jets with 5-20 seats (in 2021 approximately ~700 vs ~1000 Airbus/Boeing/Embraer deliveries in the west).

Another point against the jet analogy is that the private jet general aviation business is less consolidated than the airline/cargo commercial buisness. There are about twice as many small business jet manufacturers as there are commercial jet airline/cargo manufacturers, even if we exclude piston and turbo-props.

Using jet aviation as a template would suggest the market will eventually support more small lift rocket vendors selling personalized solutions than it will big high-efficiency rockets manufacturers.

Personally, I'm in favor of the jet aviation analogy. Granted, in my case I would compare the private jet general aviation business to sounding (suborbital) rockets with the small orbital launchers being the equivalent to regional jets (under 100 passengers).

There is room for several launch providers in this category - although I suspect most if not all would benefit from also having a larger launch vehicle as well.

Online lightleviathan

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Re: Is the small launcher sector dying?
« Reply #15 on: 03/21/2023 12:14 pm »
I don't think it's dying per say, but the oversaturated market is having bankruptcies, (which we all knew was going to happen) so only Rocket Lab, Relativity, Firefly, ABL, and maybe Astra will survive. But these companies might consolidate further, with ABL going to Lockheed (speculation) and Firefly going to Northrop. (more speculation)

Offline Zed_Noir

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Re: Is the small launcher sector dying?
« Reply #16 on: 03/21/2023 05:34 pm »
I don't think it's dying per say, but the oversaturated market is having bankruptcies, (which we all knew was going to happen) so only Rocket Lab, Relativity, Firefly, ABL, and maybe Astra will survive. But these companies might consolidate further, with ABL going to Lockheed (speculation) and Firefly going to Northrop. (more speculation)
Doesn't matter the future status of Rocket Lab, Relativity, Firefly, ABL or Astra. They are all moving toward a medium class launcher.

None of the current US SmallSat launchers will be around in 3 to 5 years, IMO.

There isn't too many future viable uses for a SmallSat launcher that makes economic sense. When "Raidshare" rides is available frequently with more than adequate payload capacity.
 

Offline TrevorMonty

Re: Is the small launcher sector dying?
« Reply #17 on: 03/21/2023 06:34 pm »
I don't think it's dying per say, but the oversaturated market is having bankruptcies, (which we all knew was going to happen) so only Rocket Lab, Relativity, Firefly, ABL, and maybe Astra will survive. But these companies might consolidate further, with ABL going to Lockheed (speculation) and Firefly going to Northrop. (more speculation)
Doesn't matter the future status of Rocket Lab, Relativity, Firefly, ABL or Astra. They are all moving toward a medium class launcher.

None of the current US SmallSat launchers will be around in 3 to 5 years, IMO.

There isn't too many future viable uses for a SmallSat launcher that makes economic sense. When "Raidshare" rides is available frequently with more than adequate payload capacity.
Rideshares are a compromise, satellites still need to get to target orbit from dropoff orbit. That requires extra DV via tug or additional fuel and maybe propulsion, none of which is free. Not every rideshare will get you in range of target orbit which means more time on ground waiting for right ride. Satellites don't earn money sitting around waiting for rides to space in mean time salaries and bills need to be paid.

With dedicated launch satellite only needs enough DV for station keeping, reducing build cost. Satellite owner controls launch dates, if there are delays getting satellite ready for launch not problem. They still have option of rideshare but will need to pay extra for space tug.

Which ever path satellite operator chooses there are compromises.

Offline Robotbeat

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Re: Is the small launcher sector dying?
« Reply #18 on: 03/21/2023 06:41 pm »
I bet Electron will still be around in 3 years and probably 5, too. When you have a launcher that actually exists and has an okay track record (not great, not terrible in the case of Electron) at a price per launch lower than medium/heavy launchers, it can stick around for quite a while. Heck, I don’t think Pegasus or Minotaur is quite dead yet, is it? (EDIT: Pegasus isn’t officially dead yet and there’s at least one more Minotaur IV launch, I think this year.) Electron is significantly cheaper that those and with booster reuse could last for well over 5 more years or longer as there is a lot of inertia in the launch realm.

RocketLab’s primary revenue will have hopefully long since transitioned to satellite hardware and Neutron, but reusable boosters could allow Rocket Lab to launch Electron for quite a while after having freed up the vast majority of the factory space for other projects.

The same could’ve happened with Falcon 1/1e if parachute recovery had worked and if F9 had gone directly to full thrust capability instead of v1.0.

Falcon 1 never launched successfully very many times and only ever from a logistically challenging island. The gap in capacity between F1 and F9 v1.0 is smaller than Electron and Neutron, plus Neutron is probably 2 years from launch, maybe more, whereas there was only 9 months from F1’s last flight until F9’s first flight.

Electron also has a third stage capability which works well for the niche of tiny deep space missions, which is a boon to NASA planetary exploration (where launch windows can be narrow and not well suited to rideshare… although it’d be in NASA’s interest to find a solution to that).

F9v1.0/(F1) payload to LEO ratio is about 15:1. neutron/electron to LEO ratio is about 50. SpaceX decided to just fly F1 payloads on Falcon 9, whereas the gap in capability and early cost is greater for Rocket Lab, plus Electron has a decent cadence already and Neutron doesn’t have any big NASA space station cargo contracts that are pulling for it to be completed.
« Last Edit: 03/21/2023 07:01 pm by Robotbeat »
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Offline Robotbeat

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Re: Is the small launcher sector dying?
« Reply #19 on: 03/21/2023 07:03 pm »
The history of Minotaur and Pegasus show that stuff can stick around for a lot longer than you might think makes any sense, especially with defense missions.
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To the maximum extent practicable, the Federal Government shall plan missions to accommodate the space transportation services capabilities of United States commercial providers. US law http://goo.gl/YZYNt0

 

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