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Rocket companies are planning to launch small rockets

Demand for small satellite launches created a boom for small carriers to place them into calculated orbits. But how many of these microlaunchers will the market actually need?

spacex starship rocket in space
Image: SpaceX

Today, the aerospace industry is going through a boom in small satellite launches. Increased demand for small satellites has led to a boom in building small launchers to place spacecraft into calculated orbits. Plenty of companies across the globe are developing new rocket launch technologies and attracting both government and private funds. Will the small rocket companies be profitable in the long run?

Top companies developing small rockets 

A Scottish company is working on its Skylark Micro rocket with a payload capacity of up to 1 kg. German aerospace company Rocket Factory Augsburg is designing a larger carrier with up to 1000 kg payload capacity. Spanish PLD Space plans to launch from Andalusia; British rocket company Orbex Space is creating its own constellation of satellites and wants to launch them into calculated orbits with its proprietary Prime rocket. 

However, small orbital rockets building is not the only development in the European space market. The UK is planning to commission several spaceports of its own to offer a full range of launching services. Various companies are working on innovative fuels that would ensure fewer emissions into our planet’s atmosphere when the small rocket is launched. For instance, Scottish-based Skyrora has come up with a brand-new Ecosense fuel obtained from plastic waste. Maine-based bluShift Aerospace is testing a hybrid, “bio-derived” solid fuel technology for its hybrid small rocket engine. Besides, more and more companies are building small rocket components on 3D printers. 

All in all, it looks like the smallsat launch market has plenty of potential for the companies developing this tech. But what gave rise to such an increased interest in small space rockets? 

Small carriers and their advantages over big ones

Money was the original incentive for small rocket companies. Microlaunchers can be built and prepared for launch quicker than heavyweight carriers. Some of the carriers under development are so small that they can carry no more than one satellite. This, in turn, implies that missions are tailored to every particular customer. 

Unlike rideshare missions, a single satellite launch can be executed within weeks after signing a launch agreement. Lower mission costs and quick pre-launch preparation offer satellite makers the so-much needed flexibility because they no longer need to wait for months before a large carrier like SpaceX’s Falcon9 is loaded and ready to go. 

Optimistic as this all sounds, not everyone believes a small rocket market will boom. 

Latest market shifts: will small rockets fly after all? 

The launching market does not stand still, and small rocket companies are now facing a very serious challenge posed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Small carriers’ most prominent winning point was their launch flexibility. However, SpaceX literally obliterated this advantage just recently. The leading launch provider is now offering rideshare missions every couple of weeks, pretty much covering the demand for small satellite launches. Given that Falcon9 can carry 60 satellites onboard (instead of just one or two), Musk’s company can now offer not only regular launches but also a very affordable price small rocket companies simply cannot compete with. 

Does all of this rocket company news mean the small rocket market will decline? Not necessarily. However, small carrier launches will probably be less common than most aerospace companies believed. SpaceX itself points it out. Its director and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, says that there may be room for two or three micro launchers, not more. 

Besides, a lot will depend on government regulations. Australia, for example, is planning to introduce launch permit fees that would make small rocket launches economically unfeasible. The US, too, is revitalizing its Cold-War era Defense Production Act (DPA) that would give the government leeway in deciding which domestic providers stay in business. While the US’s Department of Defense claims to support private aerospace companies, it is not yet clear how much support the aerospace companies will get in practice. 

NASA, too, is joining the fray. The agency picks small rocket companies to participate in its missions. To date, the companies that landed most contracts from NASA are Virgin Orbit and Rocket Lab. Another US company handpicked by NASA, Firefly Space, lost its award after going bankrupt in 2016. A year later, this same company reemerged as Firefly Aerospace and is now working on a mid-class carrier Alpha. Still, it is too early to talk about commercial launches now. 

All in all, it looks like small rocket companies will be going through a major shift in the next few years. It is safe to assume that some of the most innovative companies will remain in business. On the other hand, we can also expect a series of mergers and acquisitions. 

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Chris has been blogging since the early days of the internet. He primarily focuses on topics related to tech, business, marketing, and pretty much anything else that revolves around tech. When he's not writing, you can find him noodling around on a guitar or cooking up a mean storm for friends and family.

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