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Falcon 9 launch
A SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off March 4 carrying the SES-9 satellite, the second of as many 18 Falcon missions this year. (credit: SpaceX)

The shifting commercial launch landscape

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When a SpaceX Falcon 9 lifted off from Cape Canaveral March 4, after several delays, most people appeared interested in the fate of the rocket’s first stage. As with three previous launches, SpaceX planned to attempt a landing of the first stage on a ship in the ocean downrange from the launch pad as part of efforts by the company to make the stage reusable.

“The Falcon Heavy is delayed, but we haven’t disappointed any customers yet on that,” Shotwell said.

But, like the previous three attempts, the stage didn’t survive the landing on the ship. Video from the “droneship” cut out just as the rocket appeared to be landing, but company CEO Elon Musk later relayed the bad news. “Rocket landed hard on the droneship,” he tweeted. “Didn’t expect this one to work (v[ery] hot reentry), but next flight has a good chance.”

That unsuccessful landing didn’t affect the rocket’s primary mission, delivering the long-delayed SES-9 communications satellite for European satellite operator SES. With a mass of about 5,300 kilograms, SES-9 was the heaviest geostationary orbit (GEO) satellite yet launched by the Falcon 9, thanks to vehicle upgrades that increased the rocket’s performance.

That launch was arguably more important than any effort to recover the first stage. By demonstrating the ability to launch heavier GEO payloads, SpaceX helps secure its position as one of the leading commercial launch providers, one that had been based more on its potential, and its promise of significantly lower launch costs, than on performance. With the Falcon Heavy now set for its debut late this year, SpaceX will soon be able to launch any commercial payload.

The introduction of the Falcon Heavy, though, has suffered extensive delays. Last fall, SpaceX said the vehicle would make its first flight from Launch Complex 39A, the former Apollo- and shuttle-era pad at the Kennedy Space Center being refurbished by SpaceX, this spring. Now that launch is planned for November, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said during a panel discussion at the Satellite 2016 conference March 9 near Washington.

“Given the issue that we had last June, with the flight to the station were we lost that mission, really as a responsible launch services provider we needed to clear the manifest for Falcon 9,” she said in explanation for the latest Falcon Heavy delay. “The Falcon Heavy is delayed, but we haven’t disappointed any customers yet on that.”

Two early Falcon Heavy customers, though, have sought alternative launch options in recent months. ViaSat, which planned to launch its ViaSat-2 broadband satellite on a Falcon Heavy, recently acquired an Ariane 5 launch for that mission, citing delays in the Falcon Heavy schedule. Last week, Inmarsat announced it purchased an option for a Proton launch as a hedge against Falcon Heavy delays.

Neither customer, though, has cancelled its Falcon Heavy launch contracts. “We’ve not lost any customers,” Shotwell said. In the case of ViaSat, the company will use the Falcon Heavy contract for a later launch of one of its proposed ViaSat-3 satellites.

That focus on Falcon 9 means SpaceX is planning an ambitious launch rate this year. “This year we’ll probably do about 18,” she said, with plans to increase that by at least 30 percent next year.

“We’ve been preparing for this moment, basically, to increase production,” Shotwell said of SpaceX’s plans to launch 16 times the remainder of this year. “I don’t anticipate a problem. We’re not seeing problems right now.”

That proposed launch rate generated plenty of surprise among those in attendance at the conference. The SES-9 launch was just the second Falcon 9 mission of 2016, after the launch of the Jason-3 ocean science satellite in January from California. With SpaceX’s next mission, of a Dragon cargo mission to the ISS, now expected no earlier than the beginning of April, SpaceX will have to carry out 16 launches in just 9 months, or nearly two a month for rest of the year. That’s a pace that SpaceX has sustained in short-term bursts, but never for a period as long as required here.

Shotwell said she doesn’t expect an issue with that increased launch rate from the standpoint of producing the rockets. “We’ve been preparing for this moment, basically, to increase production,” she said. “I don’t anticipate a problem. We’re not seeing problems right now.” She added that SpaceX is currently taking “just under” three weeks to build a Falcon 9, and expects to reduce that time to two weeks soon.

The SES-9 launch, though, illustrated one issue with actually launching the rockets: the use of “supercooled” liquid oxygen (LOX) propellant, chilled to near its freezing point to increase its density. That change, one of several to the upgraded version of the Falcon 9 to improve its performance, introduces handling challenges, including the need to wait late in the countdown to load propellant to keep it as cold as possible.

The use of supercooled liquid oxygen is linked, in part, to three of the four postponed launch attempts for the SES-9 mission. In one case, SpaceX postponed the launch before beginning that propellant loading, stating that the liquid oxygen was not sufficiently cold. On a second attempt, SpaceX scrubbed the launch in the countdown’s final minutes because of delays in loading the propellant into the rocket. On a third attempt, the liquid oxygen warmed during a hold of more than half an hour when a boat entered restricted waters offshore; that resulted in a low-thrust warning that aborted the launch as the main engines ignited.

Shotwell acknowledged SpaceX has had “learning experiences” with handing supercooled propellants. “But for ORBCOMM we did not have the same issues,” she said, referring to the December launch of an upgraded Falcon 9 that went off on the first attempt after fueling. “We were actually using a different LOX tank, and then we added additional tanks for extra capacity.”

Shotwell said that, after the first two attempts were postponed, SpaceX switched back to the original LOX tank used on the ORBCOMM mission. “There’s no question that the LOX issue, although painful for SES, was kind of a minor thing,” she said.

That high launch rate this year—if SpaceX is able to maintain it—means there will be a number of opportunities for SpaceX to attempt landings of first stages as it seeks to make the Falcon 9 partially reusable. “The plan is obviously to try and recover every one. We won’t recover every one,” she said. She estimated that SpaceX will be able to recover 75 to 80 percent of first stages launched on low Earth orbit (LEO) missions, and 50 to 60 percent of those launched on GEO missions.

Shotwell was optimistic about reflying a first stage later this year. The first stage that SpaceX landed back at Cape Canaveral on the ORBCOMM mission, she said, was in remarkably good condition after landing. “It was extraordinary how great that was,” she said of that stage, adding that her goal was not to have to refurbish the stage at all, but simple move it back to the launch pad for another mission.

ILS’s Pysher said Angara’s commercial debut will likely be delayed beyond 2025. “That means Proton needs be viable for the next 10 to 15 years.”

“Personally, I’d rather be on an airplane that’s flown a couple times, instead of its first flight, so hopefully our customers get comfortable flying the third or fourth time” on the same first stage, she said. While joking that a launch on a reused Falcon 9 should cost a customer more money than its first flight, for those reasons, she said she anticipated a rather modest 30 percent reduction in prices for reused Falcon 9 launches.

Reusability is just the latest effort by SpaceX to lower launch costs, putting pressure on other companies in the commercial launch market to take steps to remain competitive. In the case of Arianespace, this means pressing ahead with development of the Ariane 6, which is designed to be significantly less expensive the current Ariane 5.

“The target is very ambitious,” acknowledged Arianespace chairman and CEO Stéphane Israël on the Satellite 2016 panel. “We’re confident that, at the end of the day in 2020, we will come with a brand-new rocket 40 to 50 percent cheaper than Ariane 5.”

International Launch Services (ILS) is also seeking to remain competitive in the market with the half-century-old Proton. Company president Kirk Pysher said they have had some help from exchange rates, in the form of the weaker ruble, but is taking other steps as well. “We are currently working with [Proton manufacturer] Khrunichev to reduce the overhead of the cost of the vehicle, streamlining the operations, streamlining the manufacturing process,” he said.

The Proton will eventually be phased out in favor of heavier versions of the Angara launch vehicle. However, Pysher said that would take longer that previously planned. “We’ve been saying that Angara commercially won’t be available until around the 2025 timeframe. Most likely we’re going to see that push out to the right,” he said. “That means Proton needs be viable for the next 10 to 15 years.”

Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI), which has been trying in recent years to play a bigger role in the commercial launch market, hopes to become more competitive with a new launch vehicle of its own. MHI plans to phase out its existing H-2A rocket by the early 2020s, having replaced it with the new, and less expensive, H-3 around 2020. MHI vice president Ko Ogasawara said at the panel that the company hopes to do three or four commercial launches a year starting in 2022.

Such discussions, as they do nearly every year at this conference, raise the question of how many launch providers the commercial satellite industry can support. Demand for GEO satellites has not changed significantly despite SpaceX-led reductions in launch costs, with about 25 or so such satellites ordered every year.

One difference is the surge in interest in LEO satellite constellations, like OneWeb, which plans to launch more than 600 satellites primarily on Soyuz rockets ordered from Arianespace and Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne dedicated smallsat launch system. A number of other LEO systems are in various phases of study, but even launch companies are not optimistic about them contributing to a sustained increase in launch demand.

“There’s not room for too many of those,” said SpaceX’s Shotwell of LEO constellations. “You do need to be very cautious about that particular market. First of all, at this point it’s speculative still.” SpaceX, ironically, is studying its own LEO satellite constellation; Shotwell said it’s still in the “technology development phase” to see if it’s feasible.

Asked about oversupply in the launch market, Shotwell did not sound concerned. “It tends to play out the way it needs to play out,” she said. “I don’t think more than three providers in any vehicle class makes a lot of sense.” For that launch panel, there were four providers on stage.

ILS’s Pysher concurred. “History has demonstrated that three launch services providers is probably the sweet spot,” he said. There may be room, though, he said for “niche providers” that can fill a special need for customers that major launch providers, for whatever reason, cannot.

That’s the hope of Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services, which markets the Atlas 5 commercially. In an interview after the Satellite 2016 panel, LMCLS president Steve Skladanek said there is one aspect of the market where people are driven by cost. “There’s also a need for those missions that absolutely cannot fail,” he said. “That is by no means the bulk of the market, but there is still a significant and regular need for a highly dependable, highly accurate, very reliable, very date-certain launch service.”

The Atlas 5, he said, won’t be cost competitive, but can target those customers who are willing to pay a premium for reliability and schedule assurance. In 2016, that includes the launch of the WorldView-4 remote sensing satellite in September and the EchoStar 19 satellite in November. Going forward, he said, “we continue to target one to two launches a year.”

“There’s also a need for those missions that absolutely cannot fail,” LMCLS’s Skladanek said. “That is by no means the bulk of the market, but there is still a significant and regular need for a highly dependable, highly accurate, very reliable, very date-certain launch service.”

Traditionally, the commercial satellite industry has not placed a particular emphasis on cost, since launch is a fraction of the overall cost of a satellite system. That has helped companies like Arianespace, who have demonstrated high reliability—the last Ariane 5 launch failure was in late 2002—while working against SpaceX, which has seen its launch schedules slip and its number of launches each year fall short of goals.

However, some at the conference noted that the commercial satellite industry is changing, with a greater emphasis on reduced costs. “We understand the customers’ needs. They’re being constant under attack by terrestrial systems that are driving them to seek lower-cost launch services,” Pysher said.

SpaceX, with its current launch costs and drive to further reduce them through reusability, is perhaps better positioned than any other commercial launch provider to capture that shift in demand—provided it can carry out its growing backlog of missions successfully, and on schedule.