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Decline continues in 2018 in geosynchronous satellite industry

Capitalism in space: According to this article from Space News, 2018 saw a continuing decline in orders for the construction of new large geosynchronous communications satellites.

Last year’s poor harvest of five commercial orders for large geostationary communications satellites proved even worse than 2017’s surprise low of just seven orders. Manufacturers continue to vie for fewer such contracts as satellite operators hold off buying new spacecraft while they wait for breakthrough advances in high-throughput technology and assess the potential of small-satellite constellations. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted text provides the explanation. The decline isn’t because the use of space for communications is going away, but because the technology is shifting from a handful of large geosynchronous satellites to many tiny low orbit constellations. What this means for the launch industry is that the smallsat rocket companies (Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, Vector) are in the driver’s seat, while the big rocket companies (SpaceX, Arianespace, ULA, etc) might be left holding the bag. These big rockets won’t go away either, but will become much more dependent on government contracts, either for the military or for civilian manned space.

The article provides a very detailed overview of 2018 and is definitely worth a full read.

Conscious Choice cover

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  • fred k

    I don’t think that the larger rockets companies will have problems if the demand shifts from large GEO sats to LEO constellations. The large rockets can launch many of the smaller sats at once. I’m willing to bet that the per satellite cost for launch on the bigger rockets will be much less.

    On the otherhand, if there isn’t enough business going on, it’s going to put the squeeze on everyone. Only lower overhead cost launcher providers can win at that game.

  • Michael Puckett

    Robert, Pez don’t come packed individually and neither will these future constellations.

  • Michael Puckett: Of course there will still be mass launches of many smallsats on larger rockets. However, as the economies of scale allow the smallsat rockets (catering to one to eight smallsats at a time) to lower costs, combined with their ability to put these satellites in the precisely desired orbit while also providing the customer a primary payload position, I expect a large shift of most smallsats to the smallsat rockets.

  • Edward

    Fortunately, the geostationary orbit is not the only useful orbit for large satellites. Unfortunately, Arianespace’s launch site is optimized for geostationary launches, so they may be especially worried.

    Large satellites will continue to have their uses, and with the reduction in launch costs I think that we can expect an eventual increase in the number of large satellite launches. It is too bad that there hadn’t been a “squeeze on everyone” for the first half century of the space age, because there wasn’t much in the way of innovation and cost reduction until the commercial launchers got in on the action.

    Although fred k is right that the large rockets can launch multiple smaller satellites simultaneously for a reasonable per-satellite cost, that is mostly advantageous for launching initial satellites into each orbital plane, as was done for the recent Iridium upgrade, whereas launching individual replacement satellites would likely be best performed by the smallsat launch companies.

    However, because they are proving to be useful, I expect a tremendous increase in the use of small satellites even outside the domain of large communication constellations, often being launched individually on the smaller launch vehicles.

  • Edward wrote, “I expect a tremendous increase in the use of small satellites even outside the domain of large communication constellations, often being launched individually on the smaller launch vehicles.”

    I immediately think of the success of the MarCO cubesats sent to Mars. Imagine you want to launch a low cost planetary mission. We now know the cubesat technology can do it, and the low cost small rockets exist to launch it. The MarCOs cost $18.5 million. You can buy a Rocket Lab Electron launch for $6 million. This is pennies compared the cost in the past.

  • M Puckett

    It seems to me if the volume of payloads are there, the economy of scale favors the larger rockets. There are some operations and positions that are irreducible.

    I can see small launchers. Making sense if the volume is low but with high volume, you are into the tractor trailer vs Prius economics. At a certain volume, the tractor-trailer wins and we are talking potentially tens of thousand payloads.

    How many people and ground crew does it take for a Cessna vs a 777 in a ground/aircrew per pound per mile? I bet the 777 wins in a walk as long as you can keep it flying substantially full.

    And could not a multi-payload constellation launch deliver payloads to the same inclination and populate that almost as easily as an individual launch?

  • M Puckett

    I think just as we have small and large trucks and planes, so shall we see page and small launchers.

  • pzatchok

    The only thing holding back the launch of large stats is the cost of construction.
    The cost of launch is pretty low and going lower.

    We need a new company to come in and undercut everyone in the manufacturing area.

  • Edward

    pzatchok wrote: “We need a new company to come in and undercut everyone in the manufacturing area.

    Almost a quarter century ago, when I was getting into the commercial communication satellite manufacturing industry (previously I designed, built, and tested instruments for science satellites), I interviewed the director of the division (although I’m sure he thought he was interviewing me), and he thought that communication satellites were a commodity. He wanted us to reduce costs as well as the time from contract to launch. I had hoped that there was a technological advantage, but it was overall cost to the customer that mattered. (I helped to shave a couple of days and around 100 man-hours from the thermal vacuum test schedule.)

    Little did he know that ITAR restrictions were going to virtually kill the industry in the U.S. and move much of it to other countries.

    The point is that undercutting everyone else has been the goal for at least a quarter of a century. The initial Iridium satellites were built in a large production run, and after the first five were thoroughly tested, thermal vacuum and shake testing were eliminated from the schedules of the rest in order to save time and cost. I’m sure that they have similar as well as other cost savings for today’s constellations, too. For instance, Musk reamed his satellite managers for wanting too much design testing before mass production begins.

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