The new satellite industry, energized by freedom

Liberty enlightening the world
Liberty enlightening the world, both on it and in space.

Last week SpaceX successfully completed its 22nd launch in 2022, sending 59 smallsats into orbit with its Falcon 9 rocket.

In the past few decades, the launch of a smallsat would generally have not merited much further coverage. These satellites, almost always based on the 10-centimeter (or 4-inch) square cubesat design, had generally been short term objects built almost always by university students not so much to do space research as to simply learn how to build satellites and learn how they operated in orbit.

This has now all changed, fueled both by the immense drop in launch costs generated by the competition between the new rockets built by SpaceX and the new emerging smallsat rocket companies (Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, and Astra) and by the improved capabilities of miniaturized components. Cubesats can now do far more despite being tiny, and they can be launched for much less money.

The result has been wonderfully illustrated by the satellites launched last week on that Falcon 9. Below is a short list of the press releases in the past few days, announcing the successful activation of these satellites:
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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.