Sunday, September 24, 2023

Small satellite sector should prepare for Starship

SAN FRANCISCO – Small satellite manufacturers should prepare for the emergence of rideshare flights on the SpaceX Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy launch vehicle, according to panelists speaking Feb. 7 at the SmallSat Symposium here.

“If you are not preparing for how you’re going to launch your product on Starship and how you’re going to change your business model to work with Starship, you are going to be in trouble,” said Abhishek Tripathi, mission operations director at the University of California, Berkeley, Space Sciences Laboratory.

SpaceX conducted a wet dress rehearsal, a fueling test of its fully stacked Starship launch vehicle, Jan. 23, indicating the company is closing in on its first orbital launch attempt. Another key milestone will be the static-fire test of all 33 Raptor engines in the Super Heavy booster.

Tripathi, a former SpaceX Dragon flight reliability director, noted his potential bias, but advised companies to reorient their businesses to take advantage of what are expected to be relatively inexpensive rideshare flights.

“If that means that I need to partner with a space tug to get to my final orbit, okay,” Tripathi said. “Let me go and talk to a bunch of space tech companies.”

SpaceX shook up the market in 2021 when it launched the first Falcon 9 Transporter rideshare flight.

“When the first Transporter mission started going, the number of smallsats launched on small launchers just fell off the cliff,” said Fletcher Franklin, BryceTech senior program manager.

Still, it’s too soon to dismiss the small launch vehicle sector because some of the rocket builders are well funded and have excellent technology, Franklin said.  “Certainly, companies with a lot of tenacity will keep driving this small launch activity for several years,” he added.

It’s also too soon to anticipate Starship’s impact on the launch market because of questions related to pricing.

“The best defense of smallsat launch capability might be monopolist prices,” said Ward Hanson, Stanford University lecturer in economics. “If SpaceX prices Starship capacity at some constant relationship to costs, then [small launch operators] will be in a world of hurt.”

The history of pricing by companies enjoying monopolies shows, though, that prices often diverge from costs.

For example, “the IBM 360 was a jump for the computer industry like Starship is for space,” Hanson said. “Capability doesn’t mean that the customers get all the benefits. IBM didn’t pass along all benefits.”

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