SpaceX announced that more than 100 small spacecraft are contracted to launch on future Falcon 9 rideshare missions less than 10 months after the company’s Smallsat Program opened its doors.
Critically, this milestone suggests that even before a single launch was completed, demand for SpaceX’s unprecedentedly affordable smallsat launch services is so strong that the program is all but guaranteed to contribute outsized revenue. Thanks to the company’s free-for-all, rapid-fire approach to rideshares on its massive Falcon 9 rocket, there could be monthly opportunities for unrelated small spacecraft to launch on Starlink missions – followed by one or two dedicated rideshares to a slightly different orbit – for the indefinite future.
After securing ~100 customers in a matter of months, SpaceX’s Smallsat Program has proven that it’s already a heavyweight to be reckoned with.
Per SpaceX’s own online portal, where customers can legitimately purchase a smallsat launch contract in a matter of minutes, the potential revenue generated from >100 contracts could be even more than $100 million. For a number of reasons, however, $50-75 million is a much more reasonable – and still extremely impressive – ceiling. Equivalent to the cost of 7-10 launches of Rocket Lab’s small Electron rocket, the ultimate price paid by any given SpaceX rideshare customer is at least several times – if not a magnitude – less.
The compromise: much like taking a bus instead of the cab, customers have to accept that they’ll likely be dropped off – at best – in the general vicinity of their optimal destination. For some small satellites, that’s likely a showstopper or major qualm. For many others, though, millions of dollars of launch cost savings could easily make up for the inconvenience. It’s even possible that companies could choose to add more capable off-the-shelf propulsion offered by a ever-growing number NewSpace suppliers to their spacecraft, effectively allowing a smallsat to head from a given rideshare ‘bus stop’ to its preferred orbit.
Down the road, space tug startup Momentus Space has already signed several contracts with SpaceX to include its Vigoride and Vigoride Extended spacecraft on future Smallsat Program launches. With Vigoride and space tugs like it, smallsat owners could feasibly contract with Momentus to have their satellites delivered to a custom orbit after launching with SpaceX. It remains to be seen if the cost of a combination rideshare-spacetug launch contract can compete with a dedicated small launch vehicle like Electron, but early signs are extremely encouraging.
Scheduled to launch no earlier than December 2020, SpaceX’s very first dedicated rideshare mission will include a Momentus Vigoride space tug that has already secured contracts worth more than $6 million for a portion of its 250 kg (~550 lb) payload capacity.
All things considered, given that the very first Smallsat Program rideshare was completed less than a week ago on June 13th, SpaceX is likely just getting started. Once the company has thoroughly proven the value of its smallsat launch offering with several launches and many happy customers, it’s possible that SpaceX’s first 100 contracts will pale in comparison to the demand it sees a year or two from now.