Here’s a fun side-story full of reasons why I think the global commercial space industry isn’t close to mature (and why financial forecasts about it are so woefully low). The MAKE: story synopsizes a hobbyist’s efforts in developing a reusable model rocket. A link within the story goes in-depth–worth reading to those interested. The hobbyist’s rocket didn’t make it close to space, but it wasn’t meant to get that far. Instead, it seemed more like the “Grasshopper” experiments SpaceX conducted for its Falcon 9–on a far smaller scale.
As for the reasons–for starters: 1) it shows just how much we have to learn about reusable rocketry; 2) there’s an excitement out there about reusable rockets–even working models of them; 3) this hobbyist is probably the tip of an iceberg with others more likely to take on the challenge of landing a hobby rocket; 4) technology is more accessible (while it may seem expensive to the subject in the story, he still managed to do it once he involved funds from excited patrons); and 5) a hobbyist figured it out, something the legacy launch companies haven’t managed/bothered doing.
Are those too optimistic of a take? Probably, but I think they are more grounded in reality than some space entrepreneurs’ business cases. The future looks pretty cool right now…on to the analysis!
A Mission Without a Rocket?
In “Will the Ukraine war force ESA to pass on Arianespace, use SpaceX?” the article’s author points out a dilemma confronting Europe’s dark matter-focused astronomy satellite: Euclid. The problem is that the satellite will be ready for launch in early 2023, but the rocket Euclid was to be launched on, a Soyuz, is not available.
There are no European-made alternatives that can launch Euclid on schedule. The Ariane 6, which has the capability to launch Euclid, hasn’t launched yet. When it finally does (barring a big kaboom), it already must conduct a few other launches ahead of Euclid once it becomes operational. The author notes storing Euclid costs ~$100 million per year. Based on these conditions, the author suggests, maybe the European Space Agency should contract Euclid’s launch with SpaceX, a company that appears to have no difficulty adding launches to its manifest.
The author provides other reasons why selecting a Falcon 9 to launch Euclid makes sense. At the article’s end, I got the impression that the European Space Agency (ESA) would rather spend its member-contributed Euros on storage, hoping for an acceleration in the Ariane 6’s development timeline (which is unrealistic). Or worse, maybe it seeks to resume its dependency on the Russian-made Soyuz. It seems ESA would choose ANY OPTION but the prospect of paying SpaceX to complete the mission.
Soyuz Moves in With Arianespace
The foremost question on my mind was: is looking for non-European manufactured launch alternatives somehow subversive to European interests? Clearly, that wasn’t a concern in 2002 when the ESA council confirmed its interest in using the Soyuz. The justifications for interest in the Soyuz at the time were 1) “cooperation without exchange of funds on future launcher preparation” (still unsure what this means) and 2) Arianespace launches Soyuz from a new launch pad in its launch facility in Kourou.
The Russian Soyuz rocket, which has a good legacy, was supposed to fill a gap in Arianespace’s launch line-up. From ESA at the time:
“The exploitation of Soyuz would complement the offer of Ariane 5 and Vega in the medium-weight payload class for low earth orbit and would, for GTO missions, provide Arianespace with increased mission flexibility and optimise the commercial exploitation of Ariane 5.”
In other words, using a Russian rocket for European launches wasn't subversive. On the contrary, building a launch pad in Kourou and launching Soyuz from there would also almost feel like a European operation (despite sending money to Russia). It was all a part of Europe’s way to “ensure the long-term viability of its launcher sector.” At the time, ESA believed that Soyuz would start launching from Kourou, French Guiana, in 2006. Surely, fielding the existing launch system would be faster than building a similar European rocket from scratch. However, the first Soyuz to launch from Kourou would be in late 2011. The situation seemed to suit Arianespace and the Europeans fine for over ten years.
But now long-term viability of Europe’s launcher sector is under siege. The Soyuz isn’t available in the short term and likely would be considered an untouchable rocket politically. The Ariane 5 is retiring, the Vega launches small satellites, and as noted earlier, the Ariane 6 isn’t ready. But the Euclid mission will be on hold if ESA is determined to use European-only launchers (which it wasn’t doing with Soyuz in the first place). So the author is correct in suggesting an alternative for launching Euclid…one that saves ESA money.
Few Options For Timely Mission Accomplishment
While Arianespace and ESA are confronting a problem of their own making, ESA still has missions that need to be accomplished. Considering and pursuing alternative launch options to get missions done (when current localized options aren’t available) is the responsible action of European officials. However, if Russian or Chinese rockets are excluded, there aren’t many launch options available for sending a 2,000 kg satellite to an L2 orbit. It may be shocking to understand just how few of these types of rockets are available globally.
India has its Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle, but it’s not launched often and has a questionable launch reliability record. The Mk-III version of it is too new to judge, but that alone is also a risk (one that OneWeb is willing to take). France has, however, previously worked with space partnerships with India. Japan has the HII (A&B), which also launches infrequently (and may cost too much). Finally, in the U.S., there’s ULA, Northrop Grumman, and SpaceX. Of those three, SpaceX is the only one with rockets available for a mission like Euclid.
As for whether considering the alternatives is subversive to European interests–it depends. If the mission for gaining knowledge of the universe around us is foremost for the Europeans, then no. But, on the other hand, if the mission is a part of a grander plan to display European dominance and excellence in the space industry, then maybe–but not if it’s using Soyuz. Then, of course, there’s the possibility that ESA thinks that Arianespace is “too big to fail” (France certainly does). But if mission success is getting a satellite into space to conduct the mission, it would make sense to consider more realistic and cheaper alternatives.
The Launch Market (with one viable offering)
Note that Europe and its companies aren’t the only ones with an optimistic view of Russian space product availability. NASA, the U.S. Department of Defense, ULA, and others all relied on Russian space offerings, primarily engines, and human spaceflight services. Some were forced to step back from that cliff. However, their decisions (and the geopolitical scene) have resulted in pushing space satellite operators into a “market” from which they genuinely have only one option. Such a scenario is incredibly impactful to those with larger satellites and constellation ambitions. They all face a similar problem the Euclid mission is facing.
Telesat, for example, mentioned the status of its Lightspeed plans in its latest quarterly call. There wasn’t anything groundbreaking from Telesat during the call (is there ever during any company’s calls–please let me know of an instance). Its management kept up its typical teasing of the possibility that perhaps someday, maybe in the future, if the wind is blowing right and the proper rubber chicken (made of Canadian-quality rubber) is sacrificed–it will deploy a LEO broadband constellation. Since those conditions haven’t been present so far, Telesat announced during the call that it moved the date for an operational constellation to 2026.
But the problem (one of many) is this for Telesat: will any launch platforms be available to launch its Lightspeed satellites (if they are ever manufactured)? Perhaps there are. If it has launched any orbital rocket by 2026, Blue Origin might fulfill its obligation to launch a few Telesat satellites. But is that enough? Soyuz won’t be available–not politically.
Earlier this year, there was a tremendous media kerfuffle about the amazing sea change to the launch industry that Amazon’s Project Kuiper would bring as it announced a series of billion-dollar contracts with any sizeable commercial launch company but SpaceX. Moreover, by 2026, at least 1,600 Kuipersats must be in orbit. Even if that goal is achieved, all three launch providers (Arianespace, Blue Origin, and ULA) might still be too busy supporting the remaining Kuipersat launches to launch for the likes of Telesat. This likely scenario places Telesat in a conundrum similar to the one facing the Euclid mission.
One company, which operates a competing constellation, already has made the obvious choice. The only choice.
OneWeb has already bitten the bullet and done the math to choose that company when Soyuz became unavailable. It’s not ideal, but the choice of SpaceX to launch its satellites allows OneWeb to conduct its broadband space business. It was forced to choose SpaceX because it is the only launch service provider with an available, operational rocket that meets OneWeb’s needs. Whether others, such as Telesat or ESA, are as clear-eyed about their choices is something for the Canadian government, ESA, investors, and others to monitor.