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Too many smallsat rockets to count

Capitalism in space: According to a report by a Northrop Grumman engineer who has been trying to list these things, the number of companies trying to develop small rockets for the burgeoning smallsat market has grown so large that it is now difficult to track.

Of the 148 small launch vehicles on a popular industry watch list, about 40 efforts “are likely dead but the watch list continues to grow,” Carlos Niederstrasser, a Northrop Grumman master systems engineer, said at the 2019 International Astronautical Congress here.

The problem for Niederstrasser and anyone trying to keep up with the market is that the list continues to grow. “Every time I kill off one [launch vehicle], two more show up,” he said.

…U.S. companies are responsible for 21 of the vehicles Niederstrasser considers active development programs. Seven are from China, four from Spain and three from the United Kingdom. Germany, India and Japan each have two small rocket development programs. Many other countries have a single effort underway.

We should see the shake-out in this new market take place during the next five years. By then at least four rockets should be operational, and the smallsat technology more mature and capable of many things now done by larger satellites.

Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit. And if you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.


  • Dick Eagleson

    I suspect many of these alleged smallsat launcher efforts, even in industrialized countries, are about as real as nearly all the original Ansari X-Prize “teams” proved to be.

    With Vector seemingly defunct, there are only four such U.S.-based efforts I now expect to see reach first flight – Firefly, Relativity, ABL and Aevum. The date of notional first launch and the probability of each managing to get to first launch will, I think, occur and diminish, respectively, in the same order.

  • “Of the 148 small launch vehicles on a popular industry watch list . . ”

    Jimmy Durante was right.

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “By then at least four rockets should be operational, and the smallsat technology more mature and capable of many things now done by larger satellites.

    I hope that these are the first four of several companies that survive the shakeout. The launchers that are least expensive are likely to do well, but I also expect some companies to specialize in certain orbits. For example, Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit seem well suited for launch into the popular sun-synchronous orbits.

    Now that NASA and the Chinese have used CubeSats at Mars and the Moon, we should see smallsats used for lunar and planetary missions, and the smallsat Launch companies seem to be adapting to this emerging market:


    It is easy to get excited about the potential for manned space, now that two commercial companies are poised to take the place of NASA to send people to low Earth orbit to the ISS, but small satellites are already changing the way companies see space and its uses. Several companies are actively working on smallsat constellations for communications, especially internet access for remote locations and for the Internet of Things. A byproduct of these constellations may be additional data for weather forecasting.

    Most people don’t care about how water gets to their tap or electricity gets to their outlet, although this may be changing in California, but smallsats are becoming yet another infrastructure that makes living easier, and I find that exciting, too.

  • Lee S

    @ Edward,
    I can only agree…. The smallsat revolution is a pretty unexpected explosion in the space race
    Within our lifetime I can forsee swarms of cubesats exploring the moon and Mars… And hopefully beyond
    Bring it on!!!

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