Tag Archives: Rocket Lab

The $62 million (and higher) question


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Which is worse? An advertised price many folks say can’t be true? Or an unavailable published price taxpayers are normally on the hook for?

The second question refers to the published prices SpaceX has on its website for launch services. The company makes it seem simple: $62 million starting for a Falcon 9 launch or $90 million for the new Falcon Heavy. It’s so simple, even people not following the industry can understand the pricing. And yet, there are many who say these prices can’t be true.

The third question refers to United Launch Alliance (ULA), a company that sits closer to the other end of that transparency spectrum for launch pricing. The company does have the “Rocketbuilder” site which seems as if it’s providing some insight. The site covers Lockheed Martin’s Atlas V rocket, but none of Boeing’s Delta line. And then ULA goes a bit car-sales technique on us, using the word “value” for a little obfuscation, with the price somehow diminishing as value is added. This situation is also unsatisfactory.

Why bring up both companies? They are great examples of one question the global rocket industry has attempted to obscure for a long time: how much does it cost to launch a rocket?

It’s a problem people following this industry have had to deal with for a while. Until SpaceX, launch costs have traditionally been guesses, wrapped in wikipedias, and veiled in press releases. Government launches in particular don’t highlight launch prices for reasons such as national security, contract secrecy, or maybe, perhaps, shame? Motivated people find examples of NASA/ULA contracts, like this one, listing launch services using the Delta IV Heavy. Why not just outright publish the pricing? Is it because it’s worse than we think? Would high prices get a government acquisitions SES in trouble? It certainly wouldn’t be because the prices are as low, or lower, than SpaceX’s offerings.

ULA and other U.S. companies aren’t the only ones keeping launch prices somewhat of a secret. Arianespace, China Great Wall, Japan, and India also keep prices in the shadows. Russia, does this too, except lately: the relatively new Glavkosmos launch service seems to list the price of Soyuz 2.1a/2.1b launches. Again, there is ambiguity. Is that 20-22 M supposed to be 20-22 million dollars? Ruples (not likely)?

Why talk about this? After all, if it weren’t for all these ambiguities, some of my work would be gone (and, honestly, I enjoy looking for this stuff).

It’s just to highlight the weirdness of people seeing a price that’s low, and saying it can’t be true. What’s weirder is the lack of unambiguous pricing data, period. How weird would it be if a car’s pricing depended on how far I intended to drive it? And how frustrating would it be if the pricing data would only be available after I started talking to the car salesperson, and only if I signed an agreement not to say how much said car would cost me?

Wouldn’t you rather have a baseline price for launches (the rocket Monroney) and then see all the add-ons itemized? Even then we would know that price is a fiction (you don’t pay full sticker, do you?)–but it puts us in the ballpark when we’re car-shopping.

Imagine a sticker with the base launch service pricing. Then imagine the add-ons. The equivalent of underbody rust protection, mission assurance=$40 million. Geosynchronous orbit=$20 million. Low Earth orbit would be a deal=$10 million.

Hey, maybe ULA is on to something…

However, these things are changing. Rocket Lab advertises its Electron launch service as $4.9 million. Of course there’s SpaceX with its prices. Glavkosmos may also be responding, if those numbers are indeed money values. This is also why ULA did put some of its inventory up with Rocketbuilder, “values” notwithstanding. A person can hope one day that all that needs to be done is to go online to a particular launch service provider, and just see the Monroney for its inventory. It won’t be CarMax, but it’s one small step.


Launching satellites is getting cheaper?

Last year was pretty good for small satellites weighing less than 10 kg (22 lbs).   46 percent of all satellites launched in 2014 weighed less than 10 kg. A LOT of satellites were launched in 2014. Heck, just one Russian Dnepr rocket deployed 37 satellites during one launch last year. Many were deployed from the International Space Station. But while small satellites seem set to grow even more this year, one of the big limiting factors to that growth is the number of rockets that can launch them, inexpensively and reliably. And little oopsies such as what happened with the Antares and Falcon rockets aren’t doing much to increase the opportunities to launch small satellites.


…there’s a company trying to join what appears to be the growing small satellite market business through providing cheaper prices for launching satellites. Rocket Lab, founded about eight years ago, is building a new rocket and is offering to launch a satellite for as low as $80,000. And that satellite has to be quite small–a 1U cubesat. 1U means 1 unit, the satellite, that is 10 cm (3.94 inches) by 10 cm by 10 cm big and weighs no more than 1.33 kg (2.93 lbs).

A person has the option to go bigger, but will need to pay more. Rocket Lab will graciously launch a 3U cubesat for $250,000. They will launch either one on their yet-to-be-launched Electron rocket. The rocket can only hold so much–8 1U cubesats and 24 3U cubesats per launch. It looks like there’s a bit of interest in the launch opportunities, which they’re projecting to start in the third quarter of 2016. Peter Beck, Rocket Lab CEO, explains some of the rationale for why their system will work in the video below.

The Electron rocket is new and full of interesting tech to make launch cheaper, and you can read about the rocket, here. But Rocket Lab is also building a commercial launch site in New Zealand. Part of the problem Rocket Lab has identified with the current active spaceports is how busy they are and how active the airspace is around those spaceports. In the U.S., certain transportation such as boats, trains, and planes are restricted from moving through spaces in which a rocket can launch and/or fail.

Rocket Lab also believe the location is perfect for launching satellites into “high inclination” orbits. Those orbits will probably be at angles of 90 degrees plus from the Earth’s equator since they’re specifically mentioning sun-synchronous orbits as the target for the satellites they’ll be launching. What, you don’t know what sun-synchronous is? You can go here to read about the sun-synchronous low earth orbit if you want to learn more.

Rocket Lab isn’t the only company focused on catering to the small satellite market. Firefly Space Systems is building their Alpha rocket, which will be able to launch at least 12 3U satellites and a bigger primary payload into sun-synchronous orbit. No advertised prices per satellite yet, but since there are less cubesats launched, and their CEO was quoting $8-9 million to launch an Alpha (vs. Electron’s $4.9 million per launch), the pricing might be slightly higher to launch a cubesat on an Alpha. And Firefly will still have to deal with the problems of current spaceports, unless they build their own (or perhaps lease from SpaceX?). But the Alpha can carry more mass.

Either way, it seems like more competition is coming to the small launcher market. I might be able to afford my small satellite fleet yet…