Rideshare organize Exolaunch has announced a multi-spacecraft launch contract with SpaceX, continuing a streak of success enjoyed by the launch company’s Smallsat Program over the last several months.
While Exolaunch declined to confirm the mass of the payload or the number of satellites it manifested on a SpaceX Smallsat Program launch, the German company has likely arranged for 5-10 customer satellites to travel to orbit on Falcon 9. Known as a launch services provider, Exolaunch is effectively a middleman company tasked with connecting small satellites – typically cubesats in the 1-50 kg (1-125 lb) range – to rideshare launch opportunities on much larger rockets.
At face value, SpaceX’s Smallsat Program offers an extremely poor deal for individual cubesat owners on the market for launch services. However, through a growing number of flight-proven organizers like Exolaunch, Nanoracks, and others, markets and actual hardware are being developed to give the many hundreds or thousands of potential customers a cheap and reliable way to space. Uncertainties undoubtedly remain but SpaceX appears to be well on its way to securing a range of relatively valuable keystone customers, potentially becoming the go-to option for smallsat launches.
While it sounds deceptively simple, it’s looking more and more like SpaceX’s Smallsat Program has been an extremely strategic and forward-looking play, setting the company up to be a bit like the spaceflight equivalent of an ocean freight provider. Effectively the invisible backbone of the global economy, modern shipping is incredibly efficient and effective in large part because of the adoption of standardized shipping containers.
Just like oceanic shipping, the cost of transporting an entire shipping container is uneconomical for the vast majority of customers in search of logistics services. Instead, 3rd parties typically acquire space and then sell portions of each container’s volume inside to smaller customers. Companies like Exolaunch, Nanoracks, and more are essentially trying to become those third parties, albeit in a world where the standard shipping container has yet to be developed.
Exolaunch’s ‘Exopod’ is one of several such orbital-shipping-crates-in-waiting and will fly on SpaceX’s first dedicated rideshare mission, scheduled to launch no earlier than (NET) December 2020. Critically, providers like Exolaunch – tasked with deploying multiple customer satellites in orbit – can require an overall payload heavy enough for SpaceX’s pricing to be spectacularly competitive. Assuming an Exopod is ~50 kg and can store four 3U cubesats weighing ~10 kg each, Exolaunch would have to pay SpaceX just ~$1M to launch a full pod.
Add a 25% overhead for Exolaunch’s own costs and those four satellites could reach orbit for something like ~$300,000 apiece. In reality, it’s likely possibly for costs to be even lower, but it serves to show how 3rd-party service providers can offer prices lower than the launch company’s own catalog.
Aside from Exolaunch, SpaceX has won several smallsat launch contracts from Nanoracks (partially a services provider like Exolaunch), Momentus (a space tug company with more than a dozen of its own satellite customers), Kepler (an Internet of Things satellite constellation company), as well as several smaller orders. SpaceX’s growing relationship with Momentus is particularly interesting as the latter company’s goal is to develop cheap orbital tugs, deploying satellites at the exact orbits they want even if launched as part of a rideshare. Momentus has already bought slots for its Vigoride space tugs on five SpaceX rideshare launches, beginning as early as December 2020.
Ultimately, while the economics of rideshare launches on vehicles as large as Falcon 9 remain extremely unforgiving, SpaceX appears to be in it for the long haul and has certainly won an impressive number of launch contracts in just the last few months. SpaceX’s first Smallsat Program rideshare could happen as early as June 2020, hitching a ride on one of the two-dozen internal Starlink missions planned this year. The first dedicated rideshare is working towards its own December 2020 launch debut.