Growth of the small launcher industry is slowing down

LOGAN, Utah — Growth in the small launch vehicle industry is slowing, with fewer new vehicles entering the market and more vehicles defunct, as demand for these vehicles falls below expectations.

During a presentation at the Small Satellite Conference on August 11, Carlos Niederstrasser of Northrop Grumman discussed the latest version of an annual survey of the small launcher industryfocused on vehicles capable of placing up to 1,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit and commercially available.

The survey now includes 166 launch vehicle projects, far more than the 31 from the same survey identified in 2015. However, growth in the number of such vehicles is slowing.

“There’s no longer the crazy growth that we saw in 16 or 17,” he said. In addition, the number of systems that have disappeared for technical, financial or other reasons has increased. “We are certainly seeing significant attrition. This should surprise no one.

There are 11 operational small launchers, defined as those that have made at least one successful flight with other programmed ones. However, this list includes Astra’s Rocket 3.3, which the company announced on August 4 that it was discontinuing its focus on developing its larger Rocket 4.

Other operational vehicles include Northrop Grumman’s Minotaur 1 and Pegasus XL, Rocket Lab’s Electron, Virgin Orbit’s Launcher One and six Chinese vehicles: Ceres-1, Hyperbola-1, Jielong 1, Kuaizhou-1A, Kaituozhe-2 and Long March 11.

“What’s impressive is that we’re seeing a slow but steady growth in the number of operational systems,” he said. Several more vehicles are expected to debut over the next two years, including vehicles from ABL Space Systems and Relativity Space that are slightly larger than the upper limit of launch vehicles included in this survey.

Even as new vehicles appear, questions remain about the demand there will be for them. One of the most successful small launch vehicles, Electron, has flown more than 20 times, but its launch rate has been lower than company forecasts. Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab, said in a recent interview that the company’s launch rate is “100% driven” by market demand.

In a conference keynote on August 8, Beck mentioned that preparing clients was an ongoing challenge. “The launch cadence is really governed by the readiness of our customers,” he said.

“When I think of our launch manifesto, it feels like a game of Whac-A-Mole,” he said, moving customers around according to their changing schedules. “If we didn’t do that, our launch rate would be even lower. The number one driver for us at this stage is customer readiness. »

“We’re still a long way from seeing the demand that will drive the weekly launches that many of these companies hope to see in the future,” Niederstrasser said. “That is of course the question for the smallsat community: are small launches really a viable way to have stable access to space or will things like carpooling continue to dominate?”

While these issues may have slowed the growth of the industry, they have not stopped it. Niederstrasser said later during the conference that he had just discovered another vehicle that had not previously been included in the investigation, bringing the total to 167.

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