Small Launch Is Getting Big

The market projections are rosy. There you go. All set. Thanks for stopping by!

Of course you can dive deeper. Here are a couple of high-level forecasts:

  • Allied Market Research valued the global small satellite market at $3.25 billion in 2020, and projected it to reach $13.7 billion by 2030.
  • Fortune Business Insights pegged the small satellite market at 4.08 billion in 2020, with projected growth to $10.75 billion in 2028.
  • Prophecy Market Insights figured the global small-satellite launch service market accounted for US$ 7.8 billion in 2019, and predicts it to reach $24.9 billion by 2029.
  • Frost & Sullivan predict that small-satellite launch service revenues will top $28 billion by 2030.

So in aggregate we’re looking at exponential, bordering on logarithmic, growth in just the launch of these small satellites in coming years. And this is just for launch. The design and construction of the satellites, the downlink, storage, and processing of the data they collect, and many more related sectors are poised for similar growth.

What else can we tell about this growth? According to the Nanosats Database, as of August 2021 there are nearly 1800 cubesats in orbit now, with 2500 likely to launch in the next six years. We know that some of that growth will be replenishment. Most cubesats are in a low-Earth orbit, where there is still a tiny amount of air drag from the atmosphere. This degrades low-Earth orbits over time, causing cubesats to fall into the atmosphere where they burn up harmlessly. Some constellations, for Earth imaging and telecommunications in particular, will need to have a few satellites replaced every so often as a result. This can work out for companies that want to upgrade their cubesat swarms over time, so the first big wave of replacement is coming.

Market experts predict that most satellites launched in the next ten years will operate in swarms, with their three main applications being Earth observation, telecommunications, and private networks associated with services like healthcare and smartgrids. These latter examples tie in to 5G connectivity and the Internet of Things, which refers to physical objects embedded with sensors, sometimes with processing power and sometimes linked to a central hub with processing power, and connected to larger networks internet, or a more custom private network. With satellites, and especially their launch, getting cheaper than ever before, it’s now feasible to design utilities and other services around nanosatellite satellite swarm capability.

We know that there is already a tremendous bottleneck in launch capability. Especially among nanosatellite customers, who often need just 8-9 months to build a satellite, wait times to launch are often 2-3 years. Another pain point is that today’s relatively large rockets launch hundreds or even thousands of nanosat missions at a time, restricting choice of orbit. It is likely that the majority of increase in launch capacity in this decade will come from dedicated nanolaunchers like Maine’s own bluShift Aerospace and VALT Enterprises, who will deliver small numbers of these small satellites to orbit and make up for low single-launch payload capacity with frequent launches. The rapid manufacture and refurbishment required will drive job creation in a totally new sector, and soon it will be common for rockets to have maintenance technicians in much the same way that other types of vehicles have today.

Beyond this the various think tanks and business consulting firms tend to make fairly disparate predictions. But the big picture is very consistent. The New Space Economy is emerging rapidly, and small launch has a distinct role to play in meeting the existing demand as it grows.

One thing the report summaries don’t tend to mention directly is that Earth observation, telecommunications, and navigation are all missions best suited for high-inclination orbits that pass over or near Earth’s poles, allowing for full coverage of the planet. Particularly in the case of telecommunications and navigation, the “ground stations” could be just about anywhere on or above the surface, so that coverage is key. Some of these orbits have other distinct advantages, for example Sun-Synchronous Orbits orbits pass over the same point on Earth at the exact same time each day -disregarding Daylight Savings of course.

This comes into play when considering Maine as a launch site for these burgeoning industries. Maine has a high latitude, which means fuel savings to polar orbit as rockets launched from Maine have less of Earth’s rotational velocity to cancel out than those that launch closer to the equator. Maine is unique on the Eastern seaboard with almost 2,000 miles of ocean overflight due South. If Spaceport Maine were realized, the largest competitors would be an island in Alaska and a military base in California. By moving decisively we could position the state as a regional New Space leader for years to come!