NEWTOWN, Conn. --- It is expensive to transport satellites, even SmallSats, to space. One way to reduce launch costs for SmallSats is to include them as secondary payloads on larger launch vehicles. The drawback of that method is that the primary payloads take precedence, with SmallSat operators losing flexibility when determining deployment times and orbits.
In response, new companies are jumping into the market to address the need for SmallSat launch services. SpaceFlight Industries, for example, is developing a cargo craft called the Sherpa that will launch aboard a larger rocket and then deploy satellites in space. United Launch Alliance (ULA), meanwhile, is offering rideshare arrangements on its Atlas V.
Other companies getting into this market are developing small launch vehicles. Although it is unclear if satellite operators can support a market for multiple types of launch options, the market for small satellites continues to grow rapidly. New uses and business plans continue to be developed, and all these satellites need ways to get to orbit. There will likely be a place for both rideshare options and lightweight launch vehicles as long as the SmallSat market continues to grow.
The three primary lightweight launch competitors are Rocket Lab, Firefly Space Systems, and Virgin Galactic. Rocket Lab is in a good place in the industry to be successful. The company has a number of customers booked, including NASA, Spire, and Planet. According to Rocket Lab's website Electron rockets are at least partially booked until the fourth quarter of 2020.
Rocket Lab has faced some delays. The first launch was originally expected to take place in the summer of 2016, but is now not expected to take place until early 2017. Despite that delays, Forecast International expects production to gradually ramp up throughout the forecast period until leveling off at about eight or nine launches per year by the mid- and late-2020s.