Despite setback, SpaceX still shaking up LSP market
The space industry is growing – and becoming more crowded with launch service providers ready to deliver payloads into orbit. Older launch systems are being replaced by newer vehicles, with increasing capabilities and power. The most important factor is that the one astronomical cost to send payloads into orbit is diminishing. This has been made possible predominantly by a small handful of companies – with one among them helping to prompt dynamic change within the industry.
The last couple of years has born witness to player burgeoning on the space launch market. The California-based company SpaceX has introduced its two-stage Falcon 9 rocket family of rockets. In so doing, they almost immediately became a serious rival for long-established launch service providers both domestically and globally.
SpaceX made history in 2012 when it delivered one of the firm’s Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS), becoming the first commercial company ever to visit the orbiting lab.
By 2013, the Falcon 9 was the lowest-costing launch vehicle in the industry as it offered flights to low-Earth orbit (LEO) for approximately $56.5 million.
This rival offer came as a blow to European space giant Arianespace, which holds the leading position of approximately 60 percent market share for commercial satellite launches. SpaceX’s more competitive offer forced Arianespace to re-think its pricing policy and lower their launch costs, which, at that time, were established at about $140 million per flight.
“I am looking at our pricing policy and if we must adapt it to the competition, we will,” Stéphane Israël, Chairman and CEO of Arianespace said in November of 2013. “We’ll look at the overall efficiency of the Ariane business with a view to optimizing it.”
Arianespace’s Ariane 5 heavy launch vehicle currently flies in two configurations, the ECA and ES. It is capable of delivering 21 metric tons to LEO and up to 10 metric tons to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO). By comparison, the Falcon 9 v1.1, which is now the only active booster of the Falcon 9 family, can deliver 13 metric tons to LEO and nearly 5 metric tons to GTO, making it more competitive than the Ariane 5 in terms of cost.
The European firm is not taking these events lying down, however.
After increasingly losing customers to SpaceX for satellite launches, the European company is planning to lower the cost per flight to about $96 million. This new price range could be implemented when the new Ariane 6 launcher is developed, which could deliver 11 metric tons to GTO, making Arianespace’s offer more affordable. The first flight of the Ariane 6 is currently slated to take place in 2020.
“Unless the other rocket makers improve their technology rapidly, they will lose significant market share to the Falcon 9,” said Elon Musk, SpaceX’s CEO and chief designer.
SpaceX is also expanding its portfolio by developing a heavier version of the Falcon booster. The Falcon Heavy should allow the company to send a record-breaking payload of 53 metric tons to LEO and slightly more than 21 metric tons to GTO – with a starting price of $90 million for up to 6.4 metric tons. When one considers SpaceX is currently working to field the new v1.2 Falcon 9, the launch service market is set to undergo further changes.
SpaceX and Arianespace aren’t the only players aspiring for their share of the launch market. International Launch Services (ILS), a U.S.-Russian joint venture, is planning to use the Angara booster being developed by Russia’s Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center to help them compete in this lucrative market.
ILS already employs the Russian-built Proton booster, and has added the Angara as the newest addition to its commercial fleet.
The Angara 5 is a heavy-lift version of the booster that should have a payload capacity of hoisting some 24.5 metric tons to LEO and 7.5 metric tons to GTO. The smaller Angara 1.2 will be able to deliver much less – only 3.8 metric tons to LEO. Though the exact price of the launches is still not known, ILS aims to be competitive with SpaceX and Arianespace in terms of cost.
“In order not to lose the commercial space market altogether, Russia should start developing a rocket that would cost about $50 million per launch, so as not to leave this segment of the market to SpaceX,” said Andrei Ionin, a member of the Tsiolkovsky Russian Academy of Cosmonautics.
ILS believes the Angara family of launch vehicles will attract customers thanks in part to their ability to support virtually all spacecraft to all orbits, altitudes, and inclinations for the low, medium, and heavy-lift range.
Angara 1.2 commercial launches could start as soon as 2017. The heavier version could begin delivering satellites into orbit a few years later, perhaps as early as 2021.
However, the real revolution in the space launch market could come from the development of a genuinely reusable launch system. SpaceX is currently working on its own program and has made progress toward having the first stage of the Falcon 9 on its Automated Spaceport Drone Ship placed out in the Atlantic Ocean some 300 miles off the Coast of Florida.
The company began its attempts to retrieve the first stage, and the nine Merlin 1D rocket engines incorporated therein in 2013.
SpaceX has said that if they are successful in developing the reusable technology, launch prices of around $5 to 7 million for a reusable Falcon 9 are possible. This technology would be a giant leap towards making spaceflight more affordable.
These efforts encountered a delay on June 28, 2015, when a SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1, with the Dragon spacecraft, was tasked with carrying out the seventh operational Commercial Resupply Services flight to the International Space Station on behalf of NASA. It was not to be. One hundred and 39 seconds into the flight, an over-pressure event – instigated by a failure in a strut in the booster’s stage – resulted in a complete loss of both the launch vehicle, the Dragon spacecraft, and the (roughly) 4,000 lbs of cargo it had carried.
As SpaceX’s COO and President Gwynne Shotwell noted during a press conference held a few hours after the accident, all aerospace firms operate with the understanding that such incidents are a part of the business. The mishap has not slowed the NewSpace firm’s efforts with the next flight of a Falcon 9 slated to take to the skies later this year.
Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.