Hitchhiking into the galaxy – rocket ridesharing in support of EO uptake

The potential of Earth Observation (EO) data is, in many areas, yet to be leveraged. One barrier to achieving this may lie within the associated costs since, although the rich data acquired by the Copernicus Sentinels is made available for free, certain applications require resolution and/or revisit times Copernicus does not offer. This gap is addressed by private EO constellations, however at quite a price, reflective of the actual costs incurred with satellite development, construction, launch, and operation.

The “NewSpace” generation of commercial EO providers typically rely on cost-efficient smallsats. Development time is shorter, some components are available off-the-shelf making them cheaper, and their reduced weight makes it possible for them to be launched as piggyback payload – multiple satellites can be onboarded together, and flight costs can be shared. Planet have launched their SkySats aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9, and so did SatRevolution with their SOWA mission and Hawkeye 360 with their RF sensing satellites. Similarly, Satellogic is planning to launch their 2022 constellation aboard the same type of rocket. Instead of hiring a rocket for one’s purposes, ridesharing can significantly reduce the costs per kilogram of payload. From its inception, the Falcon series was developed with the aim of reducing the cost of launching low-orbit satellites (such as SpaceX’ own Starlink constellation). By design, the launchers are meant to rely on reusable components and carry multiple payloads. In fact, SpaceX advertises its smallsat ridesharing programme offering options for booking flights into different orbits almost as if booking one’s all-inclusive trip to a holiday destination of choice.

Still, SpaceX is not the only available taxi ride out there. As reliable satellite internet requires large low orbit constellations and commercial EO operators seek to increase their number of satellites to ensure the desired revisit times, more stakeholders are taking an interest. Operational lifespan is yet another contributing factor – whilst geosynchronous orbit satellites have an average lifespan of about fifteen years, private EO constellations are mostly placed into lower orbit which reduces their life expectancy requiring more frequent replacement. Hence, in direct response to SpaceX offering ridesharing capabilities for low-cost access to space, Lockheed Martin joined forces with Boeing to create the United Launch Alliance. Also, Starlink’s could-be competitor, OneWeb, has recently launched 36 satellites aboard a Soyuz rocket. Further competition comes from dedicated smallsat launchers whose costs are significantly lower than those charged by the larger rocket operators such as Falcon 9. Yet, being able to lift more payload, Falcon 9 is often more cost-effective. Rocket Labs’ Electron rockets, for example, can launch 300 kilograms at about USD 7 million per launch (they have previously deployed satellites for e.g., Capella Space and Spire). Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne can carry ca. 450 kilograms at USD 12 million per launch. Whereas Astra is attempting to launch ca. 200 kilograms at a cost of USD 1 million which would be the current asking price per kilogram of SpaceX’ Falcon 9.

The general trend is to lower launch costs with NASA aiming at “tens of dollars per pound” by 2040. New Space is seeing increased competition and, provided that the market forces work, as expected, private EO constellations will most definitely benefit. Regular renewal guarantees that satellites are carrying the latest technology and therefore deliver high-quality data. Lower launch costs overall reduce the cost of satellites potentially leading to more and better data availability at competitive prices. This, in turn, may decrease the cost of higher-resolution data and associated services making them affordable to wider audiences thus contributing to expanding the pool of EO users. And this is something we should definitely keep an eye on!