2023: Pointing to 2024’s Space Activities

2023: Pointing to 2024’s Space Activities

In case you didn’t see it, I did start the New Year with an article for Laura Forczyk’s Astralytical.com. It generally accounts for 2023 launch activity and satellite and mass deployments. I also provide some observations about it all, concluding that It’s a SpaceX World (Everyone Else is Playing Catch-up)

Don’t blame me…it’s in the data 😉.

To be clear, the following isn’t a comprehensive list of 2023-2024 trends. The blessing of writing about this industry is that there’s so much going on that some judicial editing must happen to keep these lists reasonable. Also, the list encompasses trends I find interesting, which helps cut the list down, too. Note–interesting trends can be positive or negative. And to be quite clear, these are all guesses, using trending data to back them up. Much of the data comes from my Astralytical article above.

Guesses for 2024

  • SpaceX continues dominating the global space industry
  • Increased space activities from China and India
  • Increases in launch customers and launch customer diversity
  • Downsizing from two U.S. “big launch” companies to one
  • Increased turmoil in the European space industry
  • Increases in satellite manufacturing

SpaceX Continues Dominating the Global Space Industry

C’mon–this is an easy call. It’s positive and negative. 

Last year, I wrote about the company’s dominance in launch in 2023, which is an industry reality. Barring a disastrous event, SpaceX will conduct more launches than in 2023. It will manufacture and deploy more satellites in 2024 than in 2023. This means it will launch more rockets and manufacture and deploy more satellites than anyone else. And that’s just with its Falcon rockets and Starlink satellites. 

Its Smallsat Rideshare Program is helping the company expand its launch customer base. But credit should also be given to the dependability, reliability, and accessibility of its rockets. Those characteristics are attractive to customers uncomfortable with legacy levels of waiting, uncertainty, and expense. 

While SpaceX’s Starshield program will lure government customers for its satellite products, that program will be just the start (and the most profitable part of satellite manufacturing). I’ll elaborate on this a little bit more later.

SpaceX will be dominant in 2024, BEFORE considering its Starship efforts. However, ugly realities are stolidly delaying Starship’s delectable possibilities. SpaceX seems to be making an earnest effort to get Starship online, but the milestone of just getting the rocket to orbit has eluded the company so far. Starship will get to orbit, maybe even in 2024. If it does, it will bolster SpaceX’s domination in operations and investments.

Especially when given the lack of any credible competitor in launch or LEO satellite internet services in 2023 (a lack which continues into 2024). SpaceX faces the uncomfortable possibility that any failure it experiences in 2024 will be solely of its own making. 

Increased Space Activities from China and India

China’s and India’s space activities will increase in 2024. 

China has a history of small and steady increases in orbital launches and spacecraft deployments. Dedicated smallsat rockets will play a greater role, as they did in 2023, making up 19 of 66 launches that year.

The many launch services in China are building various new rockets, some reusable, some with alternative propellants, some launched from water platforms, etc. Presumably, a few of those efforts will result in success.

A few rockets are being developed in anticipation of deploying large satellite constellations. That points to some satellite manufacturers in China developing a capability to manufacture satellites on a large scale.

And those are before taking into account China’s crewed missions. But it all adds up to increases in China’s space activities for 2024. However, those increases will primarily cater to the interests of other companies and organizations in China, which limits their growth.  

India’s space industry isn’t nearly as active as China’s, making for shaky ground to believe it will grow. For example, the country’s launch services have never attained ten successful orbital launches in a year. Their launch cadence has not risen smoothly over the years, either. Instead, the annual launches go up or down, depending on the year. However, India’s launch services did launch seven times in 2023, which is more than usual, so…

India has several notable space accomplishments under its belt. It’s one of the few countries that has landed a rover on the Moon. It’s sent satellites to Mars.

Also relevant are the nation’s attempts to transform from a space sector dominated by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to one in which commercial startups will thrive. It’s doing this through policy changes that affect the entire industry, not just launch. Those changes and other initiatives might result in growth in the number of India’s space startups (which were an estimated 204 by the end of 2023). 

At a guess, India’s space sector will continue to grow but also, unlike China, will involve more diverse customers (which it has already done with PSLV rideshares), growing the space operations customer base. 

Increases in Launch Customers and Launch Customer Diversity

So long as SpaceX continues offering its dedicated Transporter launches, more customers from (hopefully) more exciting and lucrative businesses will put something out in space. The per-kilogram costs are low, it launches rockets frequently, and they’re reliable. 

Based on SpaceX’s success, it would be easy to be astonished that companies such as ULA offer far fewer rideshare opportunities to get more customers. Still, this business barely makes sense for SpaceX and wouldn’t make any sense at all if its rockets weren’t reusable. Theoretically, the company could have done what the ISRO did with its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicles (PSLV) and offered rideshares to tag along with larger government spacecraft. 

The ISRO has the PSLV and conducted a successful launch of its newest rocket, the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV). As noted earlier, many customers from many nations used the ISRO’s rideshare option on its PSLV for a time. There’s no reason to believe it won’t continue to encourage more rideshare usage.  Between the ISRO’s history and the other Indian space startups' hunger, more customers will likely use their services.

Arianespace’s Vega also attracted diverse customers. However, the rocket is a little expensive for customers when compared to the Falcon 9. It doesn’t launch as often—also, the smallsat-dedicated nature of the rocket limited customer rideshare opportunities. 

SpaceX, Arianespace, and the ISRO have shown how rideshare attracts a variety of customers. Growing the potential launch customer base is healthier for the commercial launch industry and the launch services (instead of relying on one government customer) and is an advantage launch startups should consider in their business plans.

Downsizing From Two U.S “Big Launch” Companies to One

The downsizing of U.S. launch services into a single launch provider has happened before (Boeing+Lockheed=ULA). However, the rationale for creating the ULA monopoly was based on U.S. Department of Defense fears, which drove acceptance of that monopoly. 

In 2024, the DoD has SpaceX and, for its smallsats, Rocket Lab. There are, as noted earlier, more customers than ever, too. U.S. rockets are launching more often. For the dreamers, there are even new rockets from Blue Origin and ULA that will, if not compete with SpaceX, then at least provide a backup when something goes wrong. So how can the U.S. go down to one company from two launch companies (Yes, two. Blue Origin hasn’t launched an orbital rocket yet)?

Reports of ULA being for sale assure SpaceX’s dominance in the next five years or so.  To be sure, ULA has its National Security Space Launch contracts. It also has its Kuiper contracts. Some rely on a limited number of existing Atlas V’s, while the remainder are only valuable if the company has a working rocket. Since that latter criterion is in doubt, ULA could be less attractive to most potential buyers.

There’s also the reliance on Blue Origin, a competitor, for Vulcan’s engines. Those engines have yet to prove reliable (one successful launch doesn't prove that). Other potential buyers might be put off by ULA's reliance on a competitor and potential reliability questions surrounding the engine. At the very least, it's unclear whether Blue Origin can manufacture engines quickly enough for ULA to fulfill its contracts.

The possible acquisition of ULA by Blue Origin suddenly puts it under the shadow of New Glenn development and reusability. Because it shares engines with New Glenn, Blue Origin might not see value in launching Vulcan. Also, launching the remaining Atlas V’s will distract Blue Origin, which should focus on getting New Glenn operational. These are all excellent reasons for Blue Origin not to buy ULA.

IF ULA finishes launching its Atlases and there are no other engines to power its Vulcans...well…it’s then a rocket company with no rockets.

Increased Turmoil in the European Space Industry

Again, this is good and bad, primarily because of the European launch problem (although that isn’t the root cause). Turmoil means uncertainty, but it also provides opportunity. ESA and the EU have been propping up ArianeGroup, hoping the company will finally nail down Ariane 6 production. They will continue to do so in 2024 because (in their view) what choice do they have?

At the same time, European spacecraft operators are looking for ways to get into space. In 2023, spacecraft operations companies from nearly 20 European nations chose non-European launch options because (again) what choice do they have? Vega, a decent option, is to be retired in 2024. Vega-C is unreliable. 

To expect those companies to show loyalty to European Space Sovereignty is practical only if Europe has launch capability. To ask them to do so in 2024 is to ask them to risk their companies–with no upside for embracing that risk. European space operators will continue to use non-European launch services to get to space for several other reasons, even when Ariane 6 and Vega-C come online. They can’t afford to wait. 

Barring an accident, Ariane 6 will slowly increase its launch tempo. However, most of those launches will be for the Kuiper constellation, with some government missions interspersed. It won’t be able to accommodate other customers into its launch manifest. Vega-C might be able to accommodate, but its reliability must be proven. 

Arianespace has yet to announce any rideshare program as part of its business for Ariane 6 (as it has for Vega). All will combine to force potential customers to use a different service, which is so inexpensive, reliable, and accessible that they might not even consider returning.

There are no other European orbital launch services. European launch startups have many plans, but 99% (so it seems) are focused on smallsat launch. They only have to look at the challenges in the U.S. launch market to see their future. It will still take some time for those who execute their plans and become operational. Even if ESA and the EU decide to go with ArianeGroup for an Ariane 6 successor, reaching European Space Sovereignty will still take years. During the time it takes to reach it, Europe will continue hemorrhaging its space operators to launch services from other countries.

Increases in Satellite Manufacturing

This would happen even if it were just one company building satellites: SpaceX. But there are plenty of other satellite manufacturers who, while not manufacturing as quickly as SpaceX builds Starlink, are still manufacturing faster than legacy satellite companies. 

However, various missions have motivated other companies, meaning increased satellite deployments. Remember, there were nearly 230 spacecraft operators who deployed spacecraft in 2023. While it’s too early to state that 2024 will equal or exceed that number, new space operators will come forward, requiring satellites. They even might have missions in mind that no other space operator ever thought of before.

And there are the existing missions, too. The Space Development Agency’s contracts for its constellation involve several different companies, many partnered with legacy satellite manufacturers. Europe is still talking about its in-space network constellation, which will include many other companies to manufacture the satellites for that constellation.

China’s companies have manufactured many satellites deployed in 2023, primarily smallsats. One company, China Satellite Network Group, plans to manufacture and deploy thousands of internet relay satellites in time to compete with Starlink. 

However, while that network would provide connectivity for China’s residents and interests, it’s unlikely that it will be helpful to a meaningful number of external customers, primarily because of the government of China's dubious information practices, which means that it will not be competitive with the commercial companies from other countries.

SpaceX will continue manufacturing its satellites to keep up its pace of Starlink deployments. There’s also Amazon’s Kepler constellation. The legacy and newer satellite manufacturers should worry about when those companies will offer satellite buses on the market in earnest. 

So, yes, more satellites will be manufactured in 2024. Also, satellite manufacturing doesn’t appear to be saturated yet. The great news is that these satellites encourage growth in industries supporting them, from deployment mechanisms to ground systems, and, oh, by the way, space situational awareness services.

That’s Not It…But It Is for this Article

There are sure to be other trends that will make their appearance in 2024. And I know I’ve left out flavors of the day, such as AI. Leaving out the various commercial lunar missions doesn’t mean they won’t succeed. To me, that latter topic is in the very first steps of a hype cycle. The companies committing to it will eventually become essential and profitable, but they and humanity still have far to go.

And if it isn’t, I’ll be happy to see a developing lunar economy instead of the typical Trough of Disillusionment in the next five years.

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