Spanish company gets grant to develop smallsat rocket


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The competition heats up: A Spanish company has gotten a $2.4 million grant from the European Commission to develop a smallsat rocket.

The EC Horizon 2020 funds bring the Elche, Spain-based startup to more than 9 million euro raised to build the Arion 1 sounding rocket and the Arion 2 orbital rocket. PLD Space co-founder and chief business officer Raúl Verdú said in a Jan. 10 statement that the company anticipates “the closing of an A2 investment round of 8 million Euro very soon.

PLD Space anticipates a first launch of Arion 1 in 2019, followed by the Arion 2 rocket in 2021. Both debut missions have slipped by one year from the company’s previous estimates. Around 70 percent of the technology needed for Arion 1 will overlap with Arion 2, according to PLD Space. The company hopes to make both rockets reusable using a mixture of parachutes and propulsive landing.

I haven’t done a detailed survey, but I think this brings the number of smallsat rockets under development right now to at least six: Rocket Lab, Japan’s SS-520, China’s Kaituozhe-2, Vector, Interorbital and PLD Space. Russia and India have also said they plan to develop a small rocket for this market, though no details yet exist.

I have been repeatedly told by other space experts that it makes no financial sense to launch smallsats on single small rockets. Yet, we now have numerous companies and investment dollars going to develop such rockets. I think that this only illustrates how little trust everyone should place in experts (even me!).

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14 comments

  • wayne

    have not explored this deeply (at all), but this is the funding source:

    https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/horizon2020/en/what-horizon-2020

    “”Horizon 2020” is the financial instrument implementing the “Innovation Union,” a “Europe 2020″ flagship initiative aimed at securing Europe’s global competitiveness.”

    “Horizon 2020 is the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme ever with nearly €80 billion of funding available over 7 years (2014 to 2020).

  • John E Bowen

    “I have been repeatedly told by other space experts that it makes no financial sense to launch smallsats on single small rockets. Yet, we now have numerous companies and investment dollars going to develop such rockets.”

    One possibility is that those companies really do want to pursue that market as announced: small satellites on small rockets. I thought of another possibility: at least some of them secretly hope to at least survive financially through launch services, then make the transition to larger satellites on larger rockets, with more profit. In other words, they’d like to be the next SpaceX.

    I have no documentation for any of this; those companies’ plans and internal motivations are their own.

  • Edward

    I have been repeatedly told by other space experts that it makes no financial sense to launch smallsats on single small rockets.

    Small satellite companies, who feel under-served by the big launchers, disagree with those experts. They have been clamoring for small rockets at affordable prices, not the prices of the Pegasus and Athena (Athena has since withdrawn from the market, as it didn’t work financially). Small satellite companies currently depend upon piggybacking as secondary payloads on rockets taking large satellites into orbit, and they do not have much say over what orbit they can get. Only those who can piggyback to a useful orbit are currently launching their smallsats.

    Affordability is the goal of the upstart startup smallsat launch companies, and customer-specified orbits are one benefit.

    I suspect that the experts are not taking into account the growing demand for small satellites (100 kg to 500 kg) to go into their own, more useful, orbits. Small satellites are playing a greater role in space than they used to, and they allow more companies, space agencies, and universities access to space exploration and use.

    The Defense Department is becoming interested in smallsats as a solution to the vulnerability of having a small number of large satellites, seen as easy targets by enemies. Their interest in smallsats is to have large numbers do the same work, thus it becomes harder for enemies to eliminate the advantage of space assets. The Defense Department has shown interest in the ability to quickly replace any lost smallsats, too, and smallsat launchers provide that ability.

    By launching from New Zealand, Rocket Lab places emphasis on launching into sun-synchronous orbit, one usefulness is that the satellite does not need to spend as much weight on batteries. This orbit and other high-inclination orbits are not so easy to get to when piggybacking with a geostationary, or other low-inclination payload.

    As noted a few months ago, Stratolaunch may help make Pegasus more affordable.
    http://behindtheblack.com/behind-the-black/points-of-information/stratolaunch-tests-engines-on-giant-plane/

    Firefly Aerospace may be making a comeback. It is difficult to say, right now, how far along they are in developing their smallsat launcher.

    Don’t forget about Virgin Orbit’s Launcher One, which already has a defense department contract.

    I agree with John that smallsat launchers are an inexpensive way to get into the industry and eventually develop larger launchers. SpaceX started with a smallsat launcher, but determined that they were too early for that market and went for large payloads instead.

  • Edward: Yes, I did forget about Virgin Orbit, though that error is understandable, considering the track record of Virgin Galactic. I am hopeful that Virgin Orbit will prove itself more successful, but no one can blame me for having doubts.

    I also forgot Stratolaunch. Any others? They are becoming too many to keep track of in my brain alone.

  • Edward

    Robert asked: “Any others?

    It was once said that there are around 20 entrants in this market, but many are probably not nearly as well developed or funded as your list (with one or three modifications). I just found that Doug Messier’s Parabolic Arc is my source, from a couple of years ago:
    http://www.parabolicarc.com/2015/09/23/multiple-small-satellite-launch-vehicles-development/

  • pzatchok

    How about a few of these small sat launchers team up and develope a good cheap one they could all use?

    Right now they are just nickle and diming it to the same disapointing end.

    Its like a few engineers just get together to fish around or propose a small rocket until they get a few million then sit back and spread out the work for a few years in a feeble attempt at making a full time job for themselves.

    Out of 20 plus launch companies over the last 20 years just how many have launched a rocket, launched a rocket into orbit, launched a payload at all.
    And exactly how much cash have they all wasted/invested in this effort total?

    Every new company is just stabbing the previous companies in the back and stealing their possible investments. To what end exactly? Do they really have a better idea and a better chance at getting to orbit?

  • D. Messier

    Carlos Niederstrasser from Orbital ATK does an annual paper tracking small launchers with a colleague. I think he recently tweeted some new stats. Look him up on Twitter.

  • pzatchok

    I can’t seem to find any information on successful launches except for hints to Lockhead, Boeing, and Orbital ATK.

    And theirs looks like work built on their past military work.

    Even the Spanish company Celestia is using a mig 29 to launch sats into space but so far they don’t look like they have actually launched anything and are concentrating on building U1 cube sats and certifying them.

    So far it looks like 2 or 3 years and millions invested and so far they have not even compleated their first cube sat let alone launched it.

    And now this new Spanish company is stealing investment capital and proposing a recoverable launcher.
    2.4 million that could have been used to build and test launch a rocket for Celestia.

    90% of this industry is just a jobs program for engineers.

    All of this waste just to reinvent 50 year old tech.

  • Edward

    pzatchok asked a few questions.

    Each small launch company is already a team that is working to make a rocket that can operate inexpensively. Combining these companies would be counterproductive, as each one thinks that their solution will work out best; the tension and indecision resulting from combining companies would kill those companies. Some are right and are likely to survive; others will not survive. This is how free market capitalism works best. Many apply (their skills and talents), few are chosen (by the customers), and the ones that survive are the customers like the best.

    As can be seen at the Parabolic Arc link, above, each company has chosen a market niche to fill, some making rockets for cubesats (nano satellites 1 kg to 10 kg), some for microsatellites (10 kg to 100 kg) and others for small satellites (100 kg to 500 kg).

    Previous attempts at supplying the small satellite community failed because small satellites generally did not have the performance capabilities of the large ones, so the smallsat industry did not prosper. With the popularity of the cubesat, invented for university students, several companies have developed miniaturized parts that make smallsats easier to design for better performance and less costly to build. Thus, the popularity of smallsats has increased beyond the capacity of the available piggyback opportunities.

    With the popularity so great, there is now a demand for specific orbits, rather than the arbitrary orbits available by piggybacking on another satellite’s launch.

    Please do not confuse the smallsat launcher industry with the SLS. The SLS is Congress’s attempt to “spread out the work for a few years” to employ aerospace engineers, whose efforts would be better used by companies that have a hope of being productive, as opposed to the missionless SLS rocket and Orion capsule.

    At this point, smallsat launch companies are not stabbing each other in the back so much as they are trying to invent the most cost efficient smallsat launcher. In fact, rather than stealing available investment from each other, investors are becoming more interested in investing in space and small satellites than ever before. It is the latest big thing in the Silicon Valley, where plenty of small satellite companies and users of smallsat data are starting up in droves.

    The Internet of Things is looking at needing multiple constellations of large numbers of satellites so that all the Things that move can stay connected to the Internet of Things as they travel about.

    As with SpaceX, which looks like it is stabbing previous companies in the back, less expensive and better access to space for smallsats will result in even more satellites, even more companies, and even more countries with their own space programs — programs that do not need their own launchers. Rather than back stabbing, these companies will expand the business opportunities.

    The end, exactly, is to enable more companies, countries, and universities to afford to put their now-inexpensive satellites into orbit for profit, technology development, exploration, or education.

    Do these smallsat launchers have a better chance of getting to orbit? We have seen, over the past quarter century, that when we do not have enough companies or teams trying new technologies, failure ensues. There were more than two dozen contestants for both the Ansari X Prize and the Google Lunar X Prize; for both, contestants dropped out as they experienced difficulties. There were at least three attempts at Single Stage To Orbit reusable launchers, in the 1990s, but that was too few for success to be likely. Suborbital space tourism has — or had — only three developers, and the two that remain are working on sheer ownership tenacity, faithful investors, and personal funds, without which this industry would have failed years ago. Of the several startup launch companies of the 1990s, only Blue Origin (founded in 2000) and SpaceX (founded in 2002) have survived, only because of sufficient personal funds to keep going until customers came (Musk built it and they came, we will have to see about Blue Origin — and Bigelow, for that matter).

    The point of that last paragraph’s rant is that not all of the smallsat launchers have better ideas and better chances of getting to orbit, but it only takes one or two.

  • pzatchok

    Part of my complaint is with companies like Celestia.

    They are trying to be everything in the small sat industry. From designing and building the payloads to building and launching the rockets that will put them in orbit.
    All without any proven track record in any part of the industry.

    I look at building and lauching a small sat rocket as akin to building and racing a NASCAR.
    NASCAR teams do not do everything assosiated with the car. They do not manufacture the various parts but contract out for those things.
    They contract for everything from the motors to the data transmition and sensor systems. Millions of dollars per car. Sometimes 10 million for the first car in the new configuration.
    Team owners expect to pay upwards of 50 million a year for the team and cars. And there are over 100 teams in all divisions.
    These companies could make more money and find more investors if they consentrated on making the components, modules and parts that other companies would buy off of them to complete their rockets.

    After each small company is in place assemblying and launching a rocket and payload would take less than a year total and cost WAY less.

    Space X had a billion dollar investor. None can compair especialy the small sat industry.
    Biggelow is building habitats and only habitats. No real competition for what they do. they are setting the new standard.

    And as for all those x prizes from various groups. Not a single one has ever offered a prize high enough to make it prifitable or even cost effective to go for the win. Make the prize the same as the estemated investment needed to win and you will see a huge group of investors willing to take the risk. As of now not a single one has made a dime back. Thats not called investing thats called giving gifts. They would get a better return in Vegas.
    Thats why COTTS and Darpa work better.

  • pzatchok

    Having more companies in the launch industry does not mean you will get better products or more advancement in the industry.
    All it really means is you have more companies in the industry.
    If there are so many companies that none of them can find enough funding to actually reach their goal then exactly what advancement did we get? none.

    back to the NASCAR analogy.
    If we start 100 new teams each with just enough money to make a nice car proposal and maybe build a go cart, exactly how many do you expect to actually finish the race, let alone win it?

    But if those 100 teams instead each just concentrated on designing and building 100 better parts or sub assemblies for those rockets we would very soon see a few new teams find the funding to assemble a total rocket because the investors would now see the profitable goal is reachable in a reasonable amount of time.

    So far not one single small launcher company has even proposed a cost as low as a secondary payload in a larger launcher. None are even close.
    So unless you can’t wait for a launch the cost is not worth it.
    So unless you have to have a specific launch window and inclination its just not worth the extra expence;
    The military would pay those prices but they don’t work on cost when war is being played. They just want the job done now.
    Scientists are used to waiting sometimes years in order to use the little funding they get to the best way they can.
    Industries that need a satelite plan and wait years for a launch. And are willing to keep doing it to get a cheaper product and launch. Propose a cheaper satelite and a cheaper launch and they will be all over it.

    What is the small launch industry offering thats more cost effective or different? And how many have actually done it?

  • Edward

    pzatchok,
    I wouldn’t worry too much about Celestia. If they do not succeed, there are plenty of other companies that are willing to do the same services.

    Also, Playing in three fields is not terribly difficult when the payloads are small. Celestia’s site tells us that they are using “The Sagitarius Airborne Launch System (SALS) … A tested system that combines a military jet (MiG29UB) with a 2 or 3-stage rocket that delivers the payload either to suborbital flight or to orbit.” If this has been tested, then they are already most of the way there.

    They plan on building nanosats (also known as cubesats), which are intended to be not so terribly difficult to design or build. They were initially intended as educational spaceflight projects for university students. Their team’s experience with larger, more complex spacecraft is encouraging.

    Their third service is operations and data management. With sufficient experience, this is routine work.

    The team that they have put together has experience in a variety of areas, so they have a reasonable chance of success in any one or all three of these services. If they fail in two of the services, they still have the third to keep them going.

    Moreover, your NASCAR analogy may not be as different from Celestia as you may think. Each NASCAR team designs their car and buys off the shelf components. As I mentioned on 12 January, above, “several companies have developed miniaturized parts that make smallsats easier to design for better performance and less costly to build.” Celestia, too, can buy parts without having to reinvent them.

    An advantage to entering the smallsat launcher industry over entering the large satellite launcher industry is that smaller satellites and launchers do not take a billion dollars or a decade to develop. John E Bowen’s suggestion, above, is correct in that these companies may be starting with the smallsat route in order to work their way to the bigger league. SpaceX did that, starting with Falcon 1, skipping Falcon 5 in order to go straight to Falcon 9, then going to Falcon Heavy, and now they are working on their proposed Big Falcon Rocket.

    If you ever start your own company, my recommendation is to start small enough to not overwhelm your financing, develop a customer base, gain operational experience, then consider expansion. If you try to start too much too soon you run into serious trouble.

    Finally, you seem to have mistaken the purpose of the X-Prize or even of DARPA’s challenges. None of these was intended to produce operational hardware or to provide profits to the competitors. They were and are intended to challenge people to develop new technologies that would one day lead to profitable operations in new areas or industries. Even the Orteig Prize that the Spirit of St. Louis won was only intended to show that transatlantic flight was possible, not to open a regular route.

    It is obvious that these competitors are not in it for profit but for the challenge. As I noted, over two dozen entered competition for both the X-Prize and the Lunar X-Prize, and they all understood that most of them would necessarily walk away without winning any prize money. Both competitions have resulted in multiple companies creating a new industry for each competition, showing us that these types of competitions are much better than you give them credit for.

    Besides, those who donate the prize money get nothing back for their donations. We cannot even call these donations “investments,” as there is no intention for the donors to receive anything but the knowledge that they have contributed to the possible creation of a new industry in which other people will profit.

    You asked: “If there are so many companies that none of them can find enough funding to actually reach their goal then exactly what advancement did we get?

    That is a big IF, and you follow it with other ifs in your hypothetical analysis. In fact, you could ask that of every industry and every company in existence today. Or ever. Or in the future. Unless you can give an example of an industry that failed because of too much competition, as opposed to an industry that didn’t have enough customers for the industry to develop at all, then I reject your premise that too many companies prevent innovation or advancement.

    Through the 20th century, innovation was stifled in the space business because it was run by government agencies that had no incentive to be very innovative. Commercial space companies started up in the 1990s, because space enthusiasts were not seeing advancements in the ideas of the 1960s. Since governments were not going to do it, then We the People would have to find a way to do it.

    And look at the result two decades later: two companies providing serious competition (against deep pocket governments) for reducing the cost of access to space for large satellites, and several companies seriously competing for small satellite services; three companies working to make space habitats in the next decade; small satellites and cubesats that make it possible to inexpensively perform tasks in space; and commercial resupply missions and soon commercial manned missions to the ISS and to those other space habitats; several companies creating new tasks to perform in space (e.g. ACES space tug and MEV satellite life extension). These are realities, not hypothetical analysis.

    Finally, the reason that small satellite companies are clamoring for small satellite launchers is because they want timely access to specific orbits and cannot afford either Orbital ATK’s Pegusus or Lockheed Martin’s Athena prices. Your assumption that industries are willing to wait years for a launch is incorrect. There are industrial projects and experiments that do not fly specifically because they cannot do it in a timely, cost effective manner.* Once again, this is the reason that small satellite companies are clamoring for small satellite launchers.

    That is the promise of these new rocket companies.

    But I have said most of this several times before, and you have not gotten the message, otherwise you would not have asked your last two questions, just above. I have little hope that it has sunk in today, either.

    * In the mid 1990s, I was sent with a scientist to check out the spacecraft chassis that Iridium used, because my group had heard that Iridium was building their satellites for $5 million each. The scientist thought that he could propose several experiments, if a satellite could be assembled for that price (design and launch costs would be extra). Unfortunately, the low price was due to the assembly line construction method used and especially due to the elimination of environmental testing (thermal vacuum and shake testing), except for the first five Iridiums. We could not get a satellite constructed for such a low price, so we never proposed those experiments.

    I don’t know if small satellite advancements mean that the price is right for that scientist, these days, but now it is closer to right.

  • pzatchok

    As with any industry i must ask.
    Who are the customers?
    How many of them are there?
    What are they willing to spend?
    Do you plan on selling a cube sat to every university in America? If so at what cost? And what experiments are as yet not done that those univercities will be doing?

    You seem to be arguing that if you make the supply plentiful and cheap anough and customer base will spring up to further fund it.

    I am arguing that unless you have a customer base willing to spend enough then the supply will never get built.

    Ford noticed that the few rich were buying cars and everyone wanted one. He guessed that if he could get the cost down far enough that everyone would buy one. he was correct.
    Ford was not a scientist he was a businessman. Who is the Ford of the small launch small sat industry?

    Even if the final cost is a thousand a kg I just can’t see a customer base large enough to keep a full functioning industy going.

  • Edward

    pzatchok,
    You were compelled to ask, probably because I was right about it not sinking in: “Who are the customers?

    Companies, various national space agencies, science agencies, intelligence agencies, military programs, universities, and some others.

    How many of them are there?

    I have not counted, and I don’t think anyone has. The number grows every month, week, or day.

    What are they willing to spend?

    For the companies, it is whatever their business models allow. For the government agencies, the amount seems to be high, but with launch costs coming down, combined with the availability of specific orbits, these newer launch companies are inspiring even more ideas from these government agencies.

    The price tag on Pegasus (about the same as a Falcon 9 launch) and Athena brought a few customers, but that price tag was too high for the many customers that are coming to the market — and they are coming to the market in anticipation of the lower launch price tags.

    Do you plan on selling a cube sat to every university in America?

    Not every university in America has an aerospace program, and I am not the one who sells cubesats. The purpose of a cubesat at universities is for the students to design and build the satellite, to operate the satellite, to run the ground station that collects the data, and to analyze the data.

    Ford was not a scientist he was a businessman. Who is the Ford of the small launch small sat industry?

    This may be too early to tell, but I nominate Professors Jordi Puig-Suari Bob Twiggs, the inventors of the cubesat. Making a standard size and weight for a university satellite was intended to -(and succeeded in) make it very convenient for launch companies (several of which were providing free rides to university students) to be able to deploy them and help to standardize parts for them, and these factors very quickly led to their popularity with other satellite operators.

    You seem to be arguing that if you make the supply plentiful and cheap anough and customer base will spring up to further fund it. I am arguing that unless you have a customer base willing to spend enough then the supply will never get built.

    I have explicitly stated that there is already a demand that is clamoring for small satellite launchers. My argument is that the customer base already exists. However, it may not be large enough to sustain all the proposed small satellite launchers.

    This is an excellent example of how free markets work. Several people attempt to meet the demand that they see, and those who do the best job do better at growing their companies than those who do not. SpaceX is an example of success in the large satellite market.

    Capitalism allows for groups of people or investors to take a risk on these several companies, and those who choose the right companies are rewarded. This means that those who start companies need to have better ideas and be good at business, and those who invest need to be good at determining which businesses and industries are the better investments.

    Even if the final cost is a thousand a kg I just can’t see a customer base large enough to keep a full functioning industy going.

    You don’t have to, only the launch companies and their investors have to see it, and they do, as I have explained. Two decades ago, the small satellite demand was anticipated, but it did not materialize. Now, and for the foreseeable future, it is already here in quantities that are overwhelming the piggyback paradigm.

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