The Market Case
The New Space Economy is increasingly utilizing small and low-cost satellites to provide space-derived services. In particular, an increasing demand is seen in Earth Observation to place such satellites in polar orbits. In addition, small satellites are constructed in a way that they have relatively limited lifetimes of approximately 1-2 years (this is to reduce the cost, but also to cope with rapid technological change cycles). This allows business models to incorporate regular upgrades and developments through satellite replacement.
The number of satellites of this type forecast to be placed in orbit shows an array of possible scenarios. Recently, Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) compiled a number of potential constellations over the next few years, as shown in Figure 1.
According to the SSTL study, some 25,000 small satellites are expected to be launched over the next few years.
History teaches us that not all planned projects will eventuate. Therefore, experienced consultancy companies such as NSR and Bryce foresee a probabilistic, more realistic number of launches which can be summarized as per Figure 2.
It has to be stressed here again that such launches are not linked to one-shot projects, as many of the constellations will need regular replacement of satellites (see, eg, the present Spire constellation).
Conservatively, a potential overall market of 30 billion USD is estimated for the next decade.
Until recently, there has been little demand for polar orbits.
Polar orbits (Figure 3) are a cheaper way to gain complete global coverage over historical satellite utilisation models that required three or more large geostationary satellites due to computer functional limitations… they had to be big satellites! Now, multiple small satellites orbiting the Earth around the poles in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), so the Earth spins on its axis ensures complete global coverage.
These LEO satellites remain in orbit for less than three years before burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere. These small satellites then need to be replaced with newer, evolved consumer grade technologies.
Due to recent technological advancements, these small satellites now have the computational capability enabling them to undertake many of the tasks the larger, traditional satellites have historically done. However, small satellites also carry many new novel capabilities such as supporting the Internet of Things and global 5G internet from space.
At least 50% of these small satellites will go into polar orbits around the North and South Poles, with the other 50% orbiting around the equator.
Southern Launch’s polar orbit launch complex is located at Whalers Way in South Australia.
The Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex delivers on the following requirements to launch small satellites into polar orbit:
Proximity to established industry infrastructure that can support rocket launches;
Good year-round weather; and
Unhindered southward direct ascent trajectories that pass across unpopulated areas with low density aeronautical and nautical traffic lanes.
The Launch Complex is located at -34.9 degrees south of the Equator, at the very tip of the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia. It will be the only commercial, multi-user site that offers a location that meets above criteria.
Typical Launchers and Launch Systems
Several launchers presently provide ride-share launch opportunities where smaller satellites share the cost of a rocket launch with a primary, large satellite. These have a number of major drawbacks to the ride-sharing small satellites:
The costs are very high relative to the cost of the satellite itself;
Change of launcher if a vehicle becomes unavailable is complex as satellites payload interfaces need to be adapted;
Orbits are predetermined by the large satellite; and
The primary payload will determine the schedule and may cause delays for any ride-sharing satellites.
As this is a major issue for NewSpace companies (such as Planet Labs, Spire, and Fleet). there is a growing demand for dedicated launch systems compatible with the increasing small satellite market.
Worldwide a large number of organizations are working to develop small satellite dedicated launchers, with the objective to have launch costs of less than 75,000 USD/Kg.
A further important aspect is launch site location. Only those launch sits at locations with very limited air and sea traffic routes are optimal to ensure a flexible lunch schedule, as is requested by the small satellite companies. Southern Launch’s Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex satisfies this requirement.
The Value Proposition
Southern Launch offers the following alternatives to, and benefits over, traditional launch providers:
Launching from the southern hemisphere in a location with suitable year-round weather;
A launch complex that is simple to transport equipment and people to, given the close proximity to the regional city of Port Lincoln;
Launching in polar orbits, either shared or with bespoke facility infrastructure and systems;
Limited interference with aviation and shipping routes and with no infrastructure, residences or human activity under the flight path, meaning:
greater launch window availability and flexibility
launch sites in a politically stable environment with tolerable export control measures, therefore:
several types of launch vehicles from various nations can be considered.
Southern Launch personnel have particular expertise in:
Launch vehicle systems;
Australian space policy; and
Launch-related licensing and regulations.
The initiative is well received by the local and national government authorities and is a respected member of the country’s space sector. Southern Launch is currently working on various projects, some including collaboration with domestic government and companies and with foreign SMEs.