By Elizabeth Driscoll, Senior Director, Business Development
With more and more launch providers entering the market, some in the industry are beginning to increasingly view launch as a commodity. It’s natural to want to compare apples-to-apples launch costs and get the lowest price. If apples are $.99/lb at one store, and $.79/lb at another, it’s an easy choice.
But launch services aren’t produce, and the conventional way of assessing launch costs on a dollars-per-kilogram basis isn’t a good measure of the cost of launch.
Simply put, the mass of a spacecraft is just the beginning of calculating costs. Satellite manufacturers are correctly focused on their spacecraft mass, but for launch purposes, they need to also consider several other factors:
- The overall volume. Volume is just as important as mass when calculating launch costs of any satellite. For example, we can put microsats flying on a SpaceX Falcon 9 on a port of one of our Sherpa OTVs which makes them easier to fit with other satellites — which can lower the overall price. If the form factor of the satellite is unusual or precludes a satellite being integrated on an adjacent port, the price goes up. For extra large or unusual form factor satellites, we can mount them on the forward (or top) port.
- The total mass of adapter structures and hardware. Dispensers and sequencers have mass and the launch vehicle has to get those up on orbit as well. We’ve found that many first-time flyers are often surprised to discover the added mass and cost of these. For example, an 8” Motorized Light-Band (MLB) used to deploy the satellite can weigh up to 2 kg, and the cost of that mass, plus the ~$100k price of that adapter must be added.
- The use of port adapters. We utilize a Tetris approach: the more satellites we can “Tetris” on to a launch vehicle, the lower the price. If the spacecraft is small enough, we can put it on a port adapter and dramatically drop the cost. We often use a dual or multi-port adapter and can get two or more spacecraft on one port for maximum efficiency. However, if the satellite is large and needs an entire port – well, you get the idea. The basis of a rideshare model is efficiency and cost-sharing.
- The launch vehicle and opportunity for rideshare “backfill.” As many small launchers enter the market, pricing by mass becomes even more nuanced. The reality is, it is harder to “Tetris in” more than a certain number of 100kg satellites in a small launcher. Buying an entire rocket is always an option, but rideshare is about filling the maximum amount of space with the maximum amount of payloads to bring the costs down for everyone.
- Expertise with integration, transportation, and licensing: Another reason mass can’t provide the full story for launch pricing is that you’ll also need to account for integration services. If you’re quoted a price per kilogram from a launch vehicle provider, they are most likely quoting the price for the ride alone. This doesn’t include the end-to-end integration costs of flying an experienced team to the launch site to properly and safely integrate the spacecraft onto the launch vehicle. It also wouldn’t include the costs of getting the spacecraft to the launch site — transportation, shipping costs and licensing are not insignificant considerations. These are all aspects our Mission Management team can help manage — and they don’t typically scale with the size or mass of the spacecraft. And, how do you put a price on the cost of having your spacecraft handled and managed by experienced professionals who have done this many times?
- Being ready when opportunity knocks. Sometimes we have last-minute opportunities or deals we can offer if, for example, a customer drops off a launch because their spacecraft isn’t ready. This can open up extra space for someone else who is ready to go. Just as airlines offer last-minute airfare deals to fill empty seats on a plane, we’re often looking to fill up an empty slot on a launch vehicle.
So if you ask me how much it will cost to launch a 100kg satellite, my answer will be: It really depends on a whole host of factors. Price per kilogram might be a good starting point for the discussion, but it’s only the beginning. Anyone who tells you otherwise is going to give you sticker shock as you start adding on the full suite of services required to get a spacecraft on orbit.