SpaceX Enters SmallSat Launch Market Offering Competitive Prices

In August 2019, SpaceX announced a new, low-cost program, targeted at the launch of small satellites into sun-synchronous orbits. The program will adopt a rideshare approach, creating the opportunity for satellite manufacturers/owners to launch payloads weighing up to 150 kg at USD 2.25 million, and USD 4.5 million for payloads of up to 300 kg. The rocket to be used for these missions will be the Falcon 9. SpaceX plans to undertake these launches at regularly scheduled intervals.


K Shanmukha, Research Analyst in the Aerospace and Defense sector at MarketsandMarkets™, shares his views.
The space launch services market is a competitive and highly saturated market. Major players, such as United Launch Alliance (US) – a joint venture between Boeing (US) and Lockheed Martin Corporation (US), Blue Origin (US), Arianespace (France), International Space Services, Inc (US), and Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) are providing most of the launch services.

SpaceX aims at serving the commercial market and capitalizing on the growth and changes in the satellite industry. According to a spokesperson from SpaceX, the company believes that it can address the needs of small satellite operators by offering reliable, cost-effective access to orbits through regularly scheduled and dedicated rideshare missions.

SpaceX made an impact when it secured multiple contracts in 2018 and 2019 to launch the US Air Force’s military satellites, undercutting ULA. On average, ULA charges approximately USD 175 million per launch, whereas SpaceX charges approximately USD 90 million for the Falcon Heavy, and approximately USD 60 million for the Falcon 9, a significant price difference.


The entry of SpaceX in the market for the launch of small satellites as a rideshare option is a game-changer. Offering rideshare opportunities for small satellite operators at rates as low as USD 2.25 million when competitors are charging approximately USD 6 million, is undercutting the competition by a large margin. Even though USD 2.25 million may seem a high price, to bring some perspective, the cheapest SpaceX launch currently costs approximately USD 57 million.
In addition, the flexibility offered by SpaceX to operators if a delay occurs will help put operators at ease and reduce the financial pressure, as any amount paid to pre-book a launch can be adjusted toward a subsequent launch. SpaceX has promised its customers that if they are ready for a launch during the scheduled launch period, it will go ahead even if there is a delay from another party.

Other space launch providers did not offer such guarantees for small customers having a secondary payload, and delays by large customers having the primary payload inevitably delayed missions of small customers, who were sharing rides with large customers. Some delays resulted in missions being rescheduled for an entire year, causing significant inconvenience to small customers.

As per projections by MarketsandMarkets™, the small satellite launch market is projected to reach USD 3 billion by 2025 at a CAGR of 18.3% between 2018 and 2025.


Article SpaceX enters the SmallSat launch market_1

Source: Secondary Research, Expert Interviews, and MarketsandMarkets™ Analysis


According to Greg Autry, director of the Southern California Commercial Spaceflight Initiative, the move by SpaceX to launch small satellites via a rideshare only mission will negatively impact payload integrators, such as Spaceflight (US). Other companies, such as Rocket Lab (US), Virgin Orbit (US), and Vector Launch, Inc (US) will remain relatively unaffected, capitalizing on their unique selling points and retaining the advantage of offering dedicated services on small rockets for dedicated orbits.

Autrey stated that a rideshare launch for much less than half of what Virgin Orbit (US), Relativity (US), or Vector Launch, Inc (US) charge is possible. Competitors of SpaceX market their services as quick access to certain orbits; however, the company aims at undertaking regular sun-synchronous launches which eliminate challenges relating to ridesharing previously faced by companies launching small satellites. Launch providers, such as Arianespace, ISRO, and various semi-commercial ventures in China have also developed programs for rideshare and dedicated launches of small satellites.

SpaceX has also said that if payloads need a delayed launch, operators will not lose the money spent on pre-booking the rocket, and adjust it to a later booking. The service provided by SpaceX has enabled small operators easier access for their satellites. This was previously difficult because launches were scheduled around 1 or 2 major customers, and smaller operators were offered the option to launch their satellites along with the larger customer orders. This did not always go as planned as delays caused by large customers meant delays for the smaller operators. The new ridesharing approach is aimed at countering this problem by allowing missions to continue even if some customers delay their launches.

If SpaceX decides to schedule launches once a month, it would have a significant impact on the industry, placing pressure on companies, such as Rocket Lab (US) to meet-or-beat its prices. SpaceX could, in that case, turn out to be the next space launch monopoly. However, since SpaceX is planning launches once a year to begin, with 3 launches scheduled for November 2020, and March 2021, Q1 2022, and Q1 2023, the impact may not be as much.


Article SpaceX enters the SmallSat launch market_2

Source: Secondary Research, Expert Interviews, and MarketsandMarkets™ Analysis


The entry of SpaceX to the space launch services market for small satellites is expected to provide even greater competition to an already saturated, highly competitive market. It acts as a direct rival to cheaper Indian and Chinese space launch providers, making players in China less attractive. However, if SpaceX decides to schedule launches only once a year, it may not have as deep an impact as it could if launches were scheduled every quarter.

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