Top Commercial Enterprises for Outer Space Launch (Part One)
Many have labeled 2019 as the year of commercial space—and with good reason. There are many exciting developments in store this year, especially in the commercial space launch sector. With that in mind, I want to present a high-level overview of the top companies in this space. Using SpaceFund’s Reality Rating, I will provide a brief introduction to each of the top 17 enterprises—those that have achieved a rating of 7, 8, or 9 on the SpaceFund’s February 28, 2019 update—focused on commercial launch operations.
In this Part One, we will explore Arianespace SA, Blue Origin, LLC, Northrop Grumman Corporation, Rocket Lab USA, SpaceX Corp., and United Launch Alliance. In Part Two, we will continue with ExPace Technology Corporation, Sierra Nevada Corporation, Swedish Space Corp., Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit, and World View Enterprises. In Part Three, we will wrap up with Boeing’s Phantom Express, Firefly Aerospace, Stratolaunch Systems Corporation, Vector Launch Inc., and Zero 2 Infinity.
Headquartered in Courcouronnes, France, Arianespace SA has the distinction of being the world’s first commercial Outer Space launch enterprise. The company was founded in 1980 with three objectives: (1) ensure independent access to space for Europe, (2) become a leader in commercial space transport, and (3) develop the ability to launch satellites for all types of space-based applications.
Since then, Arianespace has become Europe’s premier launch services company with 3 vehicles currently in operation: Vega (small-lift), Soyuz (medium-lift), and Ariane 5 (heavy-lift). Looking ahead, the company is evolving its Vega launcher into the Vega Consolidated (Vega C) rocket and developing a new heavy launcher, Ariane 6. While Ariane 6 is expected to begin operations in 2020, there are challenges ahead as the French state auditor has recently expressed doubts about the competitiveness of this new launch vehicle. Arianespace’s primary launch site is the Guiana Space Center. In 2018, Arianespace achieved a launch cadence of eleven: six Ariane 5 launches, three Soyuz launches, and two Vega launches and as of February 2019, this commercial enterprise has put 593 satellites into orbit.
Blue Origin, LLC
Founded by Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin, LLC is looking to operationally launch its orbital platform, New Shepard, into “true” Outer Space (over the 100 km Karman Line) later this year. But apart from operating in the space tourism sector, the company, with its headquarters in Kent, Washington, is also competing in the commercial launch services industry. Following its motto (which is prominently displayed on its coat of arms—yes, you read that correctly) of Gradatim Ferociter—Latin for “step by step, ferociously,” Blue Origin has been carefully and rapidly developing two families of launch vehicles: the New Shepard and the New Glenn.
Named after NASA’s astronaut, Alan Shepard—the first American in Outer Space, the New Shepard is made of two components: (1) a pressurized capsule that can carry space tourists and scientific payloads and (2) a booster rocket that is powered by Blue Origin’s very own BE-3 bipropellant rocket engine. The New Shepard is designed to be fully reusable, with an early version of its booster rocket having successfully launched and landed four consecutive times. New Shepard is currently undergoing testing with the rocket just completing its tenth test flight and landing earlier this year. But the rocket has already had a track record of successes, having reached an apogee of over the current Kármán Line in several of test flights.
Blue Origin’s heavy-lift rocket, the New Glenn, takes its name from NASA’s astronaut, John Glenn—the first American to orbit the Earth. This rocket comes in two stages (with an optional third stage). The first stage is designed to be reusable and is powered by seven BE-4 engines, which combined generates 17,100 kilonewtons of thrust at sea level. Two BE-3U engines are attached to the second stage which can deliver up to 1,100 kilonewtons of thrust. Used for demanding missions to higher orbits such as MEO and GEO, the optional third stage will have one BE-3U engine. The New Glenn is also designed with a 7-meter fairing in mind, and the two-stage version has a total height of 95 meters. While New Glenn is still in testing phase, and the first launch is not expected until 2021, as of January 2019, Blue Origin has already signed up five customers and contracted at least 10 launches.
Northrop Grumman Corporation
A Fortune 500 company, Northrop Grumman is an American public company based in West Falls Church, Virginia. Formed as a result of Northrop’s acquisition of Grumman in 1994, the company is more well-known as a defense contractor, but had a critical role in the rise of the American’s space program; Grumman Aerospace, through its aerospace engineer Thomas J. Kelly, built the iconic Apollo Lunar Module that landed United States on the Moon.
Currently, Northrop Grumman has four active/under development space launch vehicles. Its smallest launch platform is the three-stage Pegasus rocket that is designed to lift satellites of up to 1,000 pounds into low-Earth orbit. Pegasus has a unique launch sequence such that the rocket is first deployed airborne in the undercarriage of Northrop’s Stargazer L-011 aircraft. Once the Stargazer reaches 40,000 feet, the Pegasus is released and free-falls for 5 seconds before powering up its first-stage engine to continue its launch into Outer Space. Meanwhile, coming in both a two- and three-stage variant, Northrop Grumman’s medium size launch vehicle—Antares—is capable of launching payloads over 17,600 pounds to LEO. Next, specifically designed for government-sponsored payloads, its Minotaur rockets have completed 33 successful launches and are converted from retired US Air Force’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. Finally, the company is developing a new family of rockets, OmegaATM, which when launched, will be Northrop Grumman’s largest and most capable rocket that can be used for national security missions as well as science and commercial payloads.
Rocket Lab USA
Headquartered in Huntington Beach, California, Rocket Lab USA is a privately-funded small satellite (“smallsat”) launch company. Rocket Lab’s claim to fame is its inexpensively expandable two-stage rocket, the Electron. With a normal payload capability of 150 kilograms and a maximum payload capacity of 225 kilogram, the Electron tailors itself to the CubeSat market. The rocket uses the Rutherford rocket engine: the world’s first electric-pump-fed rocket engine. Under this design, all of the propellants (kerosene and liquid oxygen) are burned in the main combustion chamber and none is actually used to power the pumps. Most components of the Rutherford engine can be 3D-printed, leading to faster manufacturing process and lower costs. Although many enterprises are trying to compete in the smallsat launch space, Rocket Lab is currently in the lead with its launches costing only about five million dollars each.
The company is currently working on the production of an optional third-stage, known as the kick stage, for its Electron rocket. This stage, with its Curie engine, is able to perform multiple precise burns to place secondary “ride-along” payloads into specific orbits before deorbiting and burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere—assisting with the space junk issue. As discussed briefly in my Spaceport posts (here and here), Rocket Lab has licensed two launch sites for its Electron operations: one in the USA and one in New Zealand.
Space Exploration Technologies Corp., better known as SpaceX, has been frequently discussed in this blog (including a dedicated post on the inaugural launch of its Falcon Heavy). With its base of operation located in Hawthorne, California, SpaceX has achieved astronomical success in the past decade: including being the first company to successfully land a rocket’s first stage on both land and sea. But before becoming the ground-breaking company it is today, SpaceX’s survival during its early years were very much in doubt.
Fast-forward to the present, SpaceX’s Falcon-family of rockets has performed numerous successful missions for both governmental and commercial customers. Looking immediately ahead for this year, SpaceX is seeking to certificate its Dragon capsule for manned missions to the International Space Station—in fact, the Crew Dragon’s first demonstration flight is currently underway and just successfully autonomously docked with the ISS–enabling NASA to once again rely solely on American launch platforms. In 2019, it’s also seeking to further develop its Starship (formerly known as BFR or Big Falcon Rocket) with this heavy-duty rocket’s engine completing its initial test-fire in early February.
United Launch Alliance
Formed in 2006 as a partnership between Lockheed Martin and the Boeing Company, United Launch Alliance (“ULA”) had dominated the U.S. military launch market for about a decade before SpaceX became an emerging competitor. Headquartered in Denver, Colorado, ULA also has facilities in Decatur, Alabama and Harlingen, Texas, with its launch operations based out of Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
ULA is known for two families of rockets: the Atlas series and the Delta series. The Atlas rocket was originally designed by Lockheed Martin and comprises of a common core booster (12.5 feet in diameter and 106.6 feet long) that can be upgraded with five solid rocket boosters and a Centaur upper stage. Measuring at approximately 42 feet tall and 10 feet in diameter, the Centaur upper stage comes in either one or two-engine variant. The cost of launch for the current version, Atlas V, starts at $109 million. Meanwhile, its Delta family of rockets is used primarily for military launches. In this family, the Delta IV rocket comes in five versions: the most basic Delta IV Medium, three versions of the Delta IV Medium+ (varying in fairing sizes and number of solid rocket boosters), and the Delta IV Heavy.
Of note, every Delta IV Heavy features a stunning visual oddity at initial launch: a massive fireball that seems dangerously close to consuming the rocket. But as explained in the link, this is intentional because the equipped RS-68 engines use a mixture of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. For safety reasons during engine start-up, the liquid hydrogen is released before the liquid oxygen. And the fireball is the result of that hydrogen, which had floated up the external surface of rocket boosters (being lighter than air), igniting upon the oxygen release.
SpaceFund Reality Rating: https://spacefund.com/launch-database/