In the space business, now there’s SpaceX and the others. The Californian group ended 2022 with 61 launches on the clock, historic performance, double the 2021 record (31 launches). The competition? She looks more than ever dropped. Arianespace has performed just 5 launches, including three Ariane 5s and two Vega-Cs (the latter ended in failure on 20 December). ULA, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, carried out 8 launches, including 1 of the Delta IV and 7 of the Atlas 5. Only Chinese players support the comparison with Elon Musk’s group: they carried out 61 launches in 2022, including fifty with the Long March range of launchers.
Will 2023 be the same? True to its principles, SpaceX continues to accelerate at full speed: the group anticipates a hundred launches, the first of which took place on January 3, with 114 satellites on board. The news is that the pack is already on his trail. If the deadlines are met, 2023 should see an impressive series of maiden flights of new heavy launchers. The first launch of ULA’s Vulcan Centaur, which will replace the Delta IV and Atlas 5 rockets, is scheduled for before the end of March 2023. The maiden flight of Ariane 6 is announced, eagerly awaited by a Europe that no longer has a launcher available in the last quarter. Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ space group, is also preparing the first flight of its New Glenn heavy launch vehicle. This is planned for 2023-2024. In the lower segment, there is also a traffic jam, with the first planned flights of the Japanese H3 (Mitsubishi), of the mini-launcher Terran 1 Relativity Space, and which, already carried out (and as a result of failure) of the RS1 launcher of the American ABL .
SpaceX Virtual Monopoly
This frenzy of new launchers, mainly in the heavy segment, owes nothing to chance. “All these projects are a response to the rise of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 since 2012-2013, which is now in a virtual monopoly position, summarizes Maxime Puteaux, associate consultant at Euroconsult, space specialist. All of these shows have suffered development delays, which explains why they arrive at more or less the same time.”
The arrival of these new players is good news for satellite operators. They are hardly satisfied with the de facto monopoly of SpaceX which, with the Starlink telecommunications constellation, has also become one of their competitors. “Access to space is extremely important to Eutelsat, which is why we try to have multiple launch providers,” underlined Eutelsat General Manager Eva Berneke during the Paris Air Forum last June. ‘a competitive market’.
We will still have to wait a little longer for this competition to materialize. Firstly, further delays, in particular on Ariane 6 and New Glenn, are not excluded. Inaugural flights could be pushed back to 2024, or even later for New Glenn. Above all, the increase in production rates, and therefore releases, will not happen in a few weeks. “By the time new launchers reach their target rate, launch supply shortages are likely to persist into 2025-2026,” said Maxime Puteaux.
2,500 satellites to be launched per year
And then? The arrival of several high-capacity launchers on the market could completely reverse the situation. “We could go, at the end of the decade, from a situation of shortage of available launchers to an excess of supply”, stresses Maxime Puteaux. It is true that, in a report published last December, Euroconsult predicts that an average of 2,500 satellites will be launched per year in the period 2022-2031, a theoretical market of 111 billion dollars for launching companies. But two-thirds of these launches would benefit major telecommunications constellations (Starlink, Amazon Kuiper, OneWeb, Chinese GuoWang, etc.) and therefore not necessarily open to competition.
Why? Because vertically integrated players, i.e. those who own launchers and manufacture their own satellites, are likely to launch their own satellites. SpaceX will launch its Starlinks, China will do the same with its constellations. Amazon might also be tempted to favor Blue Origin’s New Glenn, another company in Bezos’ galaxy, to get its Kuiper satellites into orbit.
The economic equation of the new launchers will be all the more complex as SpaceX, already dominant with the Falcon 9, is already preparing the next step, with its giant Starship/Super Heavy launcher. This monumental 100% reusable launcher, with a payload of 21 tons in geostationary orbit and 100 tons in low orbit, is undergoing testing at SpaceX’s Texas site in Boca Chica. It will be able to meet, guarantees Elon Musk, all the needs of the launch. Calibrated for space exploration, it has already been selected by NASA as the landing module that will allow astronauts to step back on the lunar soil by 2025 (Artemis program). It is also optimized to launch the second generation of Starlink satellites. Starship will also launch conventional telecommunications satellites. A first contract of this type was signed in August 2022 with the Japanese operator SkyPerfect JSAT, which will launch its Superbird-9 satellite on Starship in 2024.
complete order books
What sucks in the market and pulls the competition rug out? Not necessarily. At the moment, the new launchers that will attack SpaceX have a full order book. ULA’s Vulcan Centaur claims more than 70 launches to complete, including 38 for Amazon’s Kuiper constellation. Ariane 6 has 29 shots to run, including 18 to Kuiper. New Glenn (Blue Origin) also has work ahead of him: Amazon has entrusted him with 12 launches for Kuiper, plus 15 as options, in addition to contracts already signed (Eutelsat, Sky Perfect JSAT, etc.). The priority for SpaceX’s pack of competitors is clearly launching on time, rather than signing new contracts.