Build & launch: SpaceX, Blue Origin, ILS, Boeing & SSL updates

Images courtesy of SpaceX, ILS & Blue Origin.

The CASBAA Satellite Industry Forum 2018 made its return to Singapore, bringing together experts to discuss the latest offerings in the world of satellite technology and related topics. One such related topic is the issue of launchers, and more specifically, how launch technology has been changing over the last few years.

The days where companies would fire multi-million dollar vehicles into the sky, only to dispose of the spent vehicle into the ocean once the payload had reached orbit seem to be on the way out, with companies all over the world vying for a piece of that reusable launcher action.

The most notable example is that of the SpaceX Falcon 9. Spurred by the goal of reducing the cost of manned Mars missions, it has in turn spurred a number of imitators, which has steadily been leading to greater competition and therefore a reduction in cost.

The panel, titled “The Hardware Store: Build ‘em and Launch ‘em” and moderated by Dara Panahy, Partner at Milbank, featured guests from Boeing, SpaceX, Blue Origin, SSL and ILS.

Satellites

We are not yet at the point where commercial space tourists or explorers are the main customers: satellites are and will be the main customers for rocket launches for the foreseeable future. But satellites are changing – the GEO market has largely plateaued (though demand for GEO-delivered services is still increasing), and LEO constellations are being looked at with greater interest. At the same time, advances in materials, manufacturing processes and reduced mass thanks to miniaturization of avionics systems are pushing the satellite industry, and consequently the launch industry in new directions.

Anthony J. Colucci, VP, Business Development, SSL, said: “Our business – like any other – is cyclical, and we’re at the down part of that cycle. The next phase of the demand is going to be driven by data-centric applications.”

This could be in the form of ship tracking, vegetation monitoring, climate data and so forth. All of these applications are going to generate large datasets and will require large bandwidth to perform effectively (and with large amounts of compute on the ground in order to crunch that data).

According to Colucci, the next two years will show what the recovery to the “new normal” is going to be like.

The irony, as pointed out by Dawn Harms, VP, Global Sales & Marketing at Boeing Satellite Systems, is that although the trends point to growth in this area, Boeing’s books aren’t exactly being filled with such orders at the moment. Although Boeing are still happy with the number of broadcast satellite customers. “I will reserve my prognostications, it’s a very foggy crystal ball at the moment,” she said.

The panel mentioned that the satellite industry is in a state of disruption at the moment, with companies and investors treading water to see exactly which way the wind is going to blow regarding the next big thing in satellite technology. Payloads will get increasingly soft-ware defined, with the possibility of repurposing and re-missioning a spacecraft and some ability to re-shape the coverage pattern.

“First, you’ll see flexibility within a band – say Ka and Ku – and down the road, you’ll presumably be able to switch bands as well. Right now, we’re building an ultra-high-density satellite that puts a tremendous amount of capacity in a very small geographic region – because that’s exactly what our customer wants and doesn’t care about flexibility at all,” said Colucci.

As Harms mentioned, the satellites of today aren’t the satellites of tomorrow, and the industry is playing it safe by extending use of current satellite assets until they know exactly what tomorrow’s satellites will look like. Boeing itself, for example, is not moving forward with its LEO constellation at the moment, “but we’re open to doing what makes sense for the future,” said Harms.

Rockets

Moving onto the main topic of rockets, two key points were mentioned in regards to the driving forces behind new launcher development. The first point was the issue of reduced launch costs, which is obviously of benefit to satellite manufacturers and operators. The second point was the matter of launch cadence (or the frequency at which rockets are launched). Cheaper launchers, at a higher frequency, means saving for rocket manufacturers which can be passed onto the customer.

ILS

Peter Stier, VP, Sales at ILS revealed his company’s solution to reducing cost.

Their current legacy launch vehicle, the Proton, is undergoing incremental improvements and will be reborn as the Proton Medium, whereby ILS plans to remove the 3rd stage of the rocket and optimise the remaining two stages for a different market (smaller satellites). The cost savings from the absent 3rd stage engines will be passed onto the customers.

“By introducing this vehicle, it’s a simple change relatively speaking, and it’s incremental, but it still offers tremendous value to our customers,” said Stier. “It really allows us to address a different market that Proton has been able to do in the past by managing our dropzones with a two-stage vehicle instead of a three-stage, we can now launch into high inclination flight trajectories such as Baikonur and participate in some of the LEO and MEO type constellations”.

ILS also has rights to market the new Angara vehicle to be launched out of the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia. The Angara is based on new technologies and features a modular design and will be capable to launch GTO missions around the year 2021. “Angara will have 4-5 more test flights between now and the early 2020s, and practically speaking, the Vostochny Cosmodrome is yet to be built. So there is plenty of time for the Proton vehicle to transition to Angara for the Russian Federation,” he said.

Blue Origin

Blue Origin are relative newcomers to the game, and like SpaceX, they are focused on reusability and increased payload mass and volume.

With 13 metric tons to GTO, Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket will potentially be able to fit two large satellites into its payload fairing as well as being reusable, making the cost savings immediately obvious.

Because, like a civil airliner, the operator is going to make more money from a fully occupied vehicle than a half-occupied vehicle. Besides, the ability to fit two satellites into the fairing will also go some way towards easing scheduling conflicts, according to Ariane Cornell, Commercial Sales Director, Blue Origin.

“For the end of 2020, we’re marching towards that for our maiden launch of New Glenn…and things are continuing to go well,” revealed Cornell. “We have been testing the BE-4 engine…there are 7 engines on the base of New Glenn…so that’s really at the centre of development of the rocket, and so far, it has gone very, very well.”

SpaceX

SpaceX are targeting full and rapid reusability, and these are their main drivers behind their development strategy. Having recovered 25 boosters to date, they are the de-facto leaders of reusable rocket tech on the planet. Presumably responding to Cornell’s point of GTO capability, Johnathan Hofeller VP, Commercial Sales at SpaceX, said: “Not that it’s a measuring contest, but we’re 15 tons to GTO”.

He also made the point that the insurance industry has now fully embraced the concept of flight proven vehicles, which is essential to reusable vehicle operations because satellite owners won’t launch a vehicle if they can’t get insurance on one of these vehicles. And there is no point building a reusable rocket if nobody will pay to use it.

“Similar to when you get onto an aircraft, you’re not concerned whether it’s the first flight, or the tenth flight or the thousandth flight” mused Hofeller. “You’re getting on a vehicle that’s going to take you from point A to point B…and we’ve proven that to be the case.”

SpaceX are also capitalizing on the increased volume capacity of both Falcon 9 and the coming BFR rocket. “In the coming years, both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy will employ reusability of the first stages,” he said. SpaceX will be conducting its “Grasshopper” test for its BFR from Brownsville in South Texas in 2019.

Towards resolving scheduling conflicts, Hofeller said, “Our approach is: one satellite, one launch [for GEOs and GTOs]; keep it simple, keep it plain – get the price right and your customers will be happy. Playing schedule chicken or matchmaker is not great…ultimately, we’re taking a fresh look at how to do contracting, how to be super customer-friendly. We’re getting down the cadence to the point where we can get a lot more predictability, and that will allow for us to be a lot more flexible with our business model as well.”

Final Thoughts

A wise man called Yoda once said “difficult to see…always in motion is the future”.

That seems to be the case for the satellite industry right now. Satellite companies are hedging their bets for the moment to see how satellite of the future will manifest (bigger/smaller/more/less?), and launch companies are following a number of different strategies to ensure that they are ready to provide to their main customers (the satellite industry) with whatever they require.

Rocket manufacturers are repurposing old vehicles to address new markets and are developing new vehicles in expectation of shifting demands. It really is just a case of investors and application providers to take the next step and show that the real demand matches the predicted trends.

In any case, the rocket industry appears to be ready for any market.

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