Small Launch Vehicle Updates

Credit JAXA

Korea has announced that the upcoming launch of its Nar0-3 rocket will be further delayed while it awaits the arrival of a new fuel coupler from Russia. The Korean Space Agency (KARI) had hoped to reschedule the launch of the two stage rocket to sometime around November 17, but has yet to receive a firm delivery date on the replacement component, leading to a new target of November 24th. In any event, it will the rocket’s third and final launch, as it will be followed by the all Korean KSLV.

In other small launch vehicle development news, the Japanese Space Agency  (JAXA)  announced late last month that it is anticipating launching its new Epsilon rocket next summer.  The Epsilon is a three stage solid rocket with a small liquid propulsion system on the upper stage  for precise orbital insertion.  The first stage is directly adapted from the SRB-A strap-on solid rocket boosters used on Japan’s much larger HIIA, and HIIB  launch vehicles, the latter of which serves as the nation’s flagship rocket  launching the Kounotori HTV cargo carrier to the International Space Station. The second and third stages are adapted from the M-5 rocket which it is replacing.

The Epsilon features a new automated  launch system with offers reduced personnel costs,  and a price tag significantly less than that of the previous M-5 rocket,  $48 versus $70 million respectively, albeit at reduction in payload capacity from 4,000 to 2,600 lbs to LEO.  The Epsilon will  join the recently introduced European Vega, which made its maiden flight on February 13, 2012, as new entrants in a moribund small vehicle market which the FAA expects to average only 2 commercial launches per year for the remainder of the decade.

The space launch industry is perpetually characterised by a classic chicken and egg debate between high costs and low demand, but nowhere is it more evident than in the struggling small vehicle launch market, where prices are at their most ridiculous.  According to recent reports, Lockheed Martin is re-considering its plans to re-introduce the Athena small launch vehicle, which would cost nearly $70 million per launch for a payload capacity of under 5,000 lb.  By contrast, the SpaceX Falcon 9, with a capacity nearly 6 times that the Athena, is offered on the commercial market for $54 million.  Nevertheless, Lockheed Martin still describes its rocket as “affordable.”

After SpaceX apparently withdrew the low cost Falcon 1 from the market, electing instead to combine a number of planned Orbcomm launches onto the much larger Falcon 9,  hopes for renewed progress in the under 5,000 lb small launch vehicle category moved to Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne,  which will come in on the small side of the market with an LEO capacity of 500 lbs.  Unfortunately, with a reported launch price of approximately $10 million, Richard Branson’s rocket, which Virgin Galactic says has “dozens” of deposits,  may be even a worse bargain than the Athena, at least in terms of a sometimes meaningless cost per pound comparison. Generally however, the “per launch” costs is the more relevant metric, as the Virgin Galactic project suggests.

Although there are certain economies of scale which are always going to benefit larger launch vehicles,  it seems difficult to believe that there is not room for  more progress in reducing costs in the small vehicle launch category.  Air launch may very well be a step in the right direction, but the next and more important step clearly requires some form of first stage recovery.   While SpaceX has moved on from efforts at water based parachute landings to a program of powered landing research with the Grasshopper, the former method has hardly been exhausted, and one suspects it may yet hold potential, particularly if LauncherOne, or anyone,   is successful in re-ingorating the overall small satellite market.

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2 Comments on "Small Launch Vehicle Updates"

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  1. Coastal Ron says:

    Once someone perfects some degree of reusability, the low end of the market will suddenly become more cost effective.

    However, keep in mind that markets move slowly, mainly because it takes so long to get new products defined, funded, developed and launched. The Falcon 9 does have a healthy backlog of orders, but they are for the current generation of products, not necessarily lower-cost business approaches, which means the market has not started adjusting to the new lower “floor” of launch costs.

    Of course only having one company offering the lower launch costs isn’t a perfect situation either, since no company wants to be dependent on a monopoly, even if it is perceived as a benign one (if there is such a thing).

    At some point, SpaceX may have to “franchise” their rocket technology so that the market as a whole will whole heartedly accept that lower prices for launches are here to stay.

  2. Fred Willett says:

    Up until now the trend in space vehicles has been to squeeze as much performance as possible out of the hardware and cost has been a secondary issue.
    SpaceX has been the first rocket company ever to put costs first in an attempt to bring down prices. That they can undercut everybody elses launch costs shows they’ve done well.
    But that doesn’t mean other companies can’t do as well or even better. There is nothing to say SpaceX has the lowest possible launch prices. The door is open to others to compete. And learning from the success of SpaceX who’s to say they can not surpass the teacher?
    And this is without even considering reusability.
    The next few years should be instructive..

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