Space at the Base of the Rocket Industry

The article discusses the rising competition in the New Space Race, where smaller rockets and innovative payloads are revolutionizing space technology and operations. While SpaceX and Boeing’s Starliner have been in the spotlight with successful launches, the focus is shifting towards the miniaturization of technology, which is leading to smaller, more powerful, and cheaper satellites.

The author argues that large rockets like SpaceX’s Starship, while economically scalable, are unlikely to meet the specific needs of every payload. Drawing a parallel with commercial aviation, he notes that despite the economies of scale, not every flight is operated with an A380, mainly due to the varying needs of customers. Similarly, in space launches, a variety of vehicles will continue to be developed to suit different payloads and mission requirements.

The article highlights the growing trend of smaller satellites, with over 2,300 sub-500kg class satellites launched in 2022 alone. These satellites, with short operational lifetimes, rely on off-the-shelf chips that are cheaper and higher-performance than their rad-hardened “space certified” counterparts. However, re-positioning these satellites from large launchers to their destination orbits can generate significant costs, prompting the need for small satellite operators to launch directly into optimal orbits.

The author further underscores the importance of vehicle reusability in reducing costs, mitigating environmental impact, and driving down fixed costs at launch sites. Despite the higher cost per kg, Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket, a market-leading small launcher, has found many customers due to its suitability for dedicated launch of small satellites or rideshare missions of nano/micro satellites.

New companies like US-based Stoke Space and UK-based Astron Systems are developing fully reusable small launchers from the get-go. Stoke Space’s Nova rocket, a fully reusable small launcher with a propulsively landed upper stage, and Astron Systems’ Aurora small launcher, which features a side-on re-entry with a passive thermal protection system, are seen as game changers in the industry.

In conclusion, the author views the competition among these young firms as a key driver of innovation in the space industry, underscoring the need for a variety of vehicles to suit different payloads and mission requirements.

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