The next two to three years will be a time of adjustment in the space launch industry, according to panelists at Satellite Innovation 2018 here.
“People are making a lot of bets on new companies and concepts,” said Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit president and chief executive. “Some will take. Some will shakeout.”
One result will be swings in launch prices during the next two to three years, Hart said. After that, he anticipates more price stability and company profitability.
It is an interesting time in the launch business. Demand for geostationary launches is down while demand for small satellite launches particularly for low Earth orbit constellations is way up, said Steve Kaufman, partner at Hogan Lovells, an international law firm based in Washington and London.
At the same time, dozens of companies around the world are developing and testing new launch vehicles.
“We believe that the small satellites and the low Earth orbit constellations are definitely where the demand is going,” said Stella Guillen, Arianespace sales and marketing vice president.
Arianespace will serve that market with both its Vega small satellite launch vehicle and Ariane 6, a large rocket with dispensers capable of sending small satellites into various orbits, Guillen said. “In terms of pricing we have to see how this demand is going to work out. As long as we increase the frequency of launches, we can all continue to work on lowering our prices,” she added.
SpaceX also is seeking to reduce prices. “The key to lowering launch cost and increasing our cadence is being able to reuse our vehicles,” said Stephanie Bednarek, SpaceX commercial sales director. SpaceX will be able to reuse its new Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket “ten times, possibly even more,” Bednarek said. “That enables the cadence and manifest availability customers are demanding.”
Similarly, Blue Origin sees reusability as the key to reducing launch costs. “In the long term, we are aiming to reduce prices sufficiently to see an increase in demand, not just traditional satellites, but other payloads,” said Ariane Cornell, Blue Origin director for New Glenn commercial sales Americas.
Spire is one of the customers seeking both dedicated rides on small satellites and shared rides on large rockets. “Anyone offering rideshare is coming to our office,” said Jenny Barna, Spire launch director. “There is way more supply than demand today. So I think the price will go down a little bit.”
Companies developing small rockets are offering customers discounts to book rides on new vehicles. Barna said she expects that practice to end once the new launch vehicles prove themselves.
One vehicles seeking to prove itself is Rocket Lab’s Electron. Electron customers focus on price but are also concerned with cadence, schedule surety and the launch process. “Some customers will pay a lot of money if it is as simple as possible,” said Indra Heed Hornsby, Rocket Lab corporate development executive vice president. “It’s not just price. If you provide good customer service, odds are they will become repeat customers.”