Launchers: The Race to Orbit Tomorrow’s Spacecraft
It’s no secret that every launch services provider is working on new rockets. The industry has entered a time of accelerated change, with SpaceX being a far from inconsequential reason. But more factors than just SpaceX are stirring up change. Satellites, as well as operator expectations, are evolving, and as a result, launch services must evolve too.
There was a time when satellites could be described as more “routine.” Yes, most are heavily customized beasts of machines, but the launch sector knew what operators needed and had solutions to fit the bill. Now, times are different, and the same rockets will no longer suffice.
Three main factors are changing satellite operator launch needs. The first is electric propulsion. Satellite manufacturers have touted their ability to build electrically propelled satellites for well over a decade, but only in recent years has the technology actually achieved commercial acceptance. Some manufacturers are now expecting as many as half of their satellites to be equipped with electric propulsion, either hybrid with chemical systems or fully electric. Electric propulsion requires substantially less space for fuel, and operators are using that extra volume either to pack in more payloads or dramatically lower the satellite’s total mass, the latter of which translates favorably to lower launch costs.
The second factor is the stampede to High Throughput Satellites (HTS). Multiple operators are investing aggressively in extremely powerful HTS systems, of which terabit-level spacecraft might be the new benchmark. Satellite manufacturers are pursuing this capability too, so that whether or not people think terabit spacecraft are the future, they can buy them if they want. HTS is now a decision point for the plans of every telecommunications satellite operator, which can mean very big satellites, or the third factor: going small.
Small satellites, or smallsats, have reemerged in telecommunications as a technology that could redefine what the industry is capable of. At the same time, smallsats for remote sensing — be it Earth Observation (EO), weather, ship or flight tracking, etc. — have grown amazingly popular as a low cost method of getting ideas and businesses into space. Not discounting the bevy of new dedicated small satellite launch systems being developed right now, established launch providers are also evaluating how to serve this market and if such services can in fact be rendered profitably.
Launch remains an inescapable requirement for any and all satellite operators, whether in Geostationary, Medium or Low Earth Orbits (GEO, MEO or LEO) or beyond. Even with these changes, launch companies still seek the same original goal: provide reliable access to orbit, on time and at an affordable cost. Skimp on any one (or more) of the three and competitors will soon have the upper hand. Via Satellite has surveyed the plans of the world’s top launch providers to learn how they are adapting to meet new needs while hitting these benchmarks.
Arianespace/Airbus Safran Launchers
Cutting launch costs in half is a tall order, but that’s what Arianespace is planning to do with the Ariane 6 when it enters the market in 2020. Airbus Safran Launchers (ASL), prime contractor for the Ariane 5 and future Ariane 6, is responsible for meeting this goal. Immediately after the European Space Agency (ESA) ministerial meeting in December 2014, the conglomerate called in Patrick Bonguet to make it happen.
Bonguet is head of Ariane 6 program at ASL, but he is better known for his work with the Ariane 5. During the Ariane 5’s early days in the late 1990s and early 2000s, back when the rocket had experienced four failures in 10 missions, Arianespace called him in to break the curse. Bonguet is a big part of the reason the Ariane 5 today has 75 consecutive launch successes to its name. Now, he is involved right from the start. Bonguet says ASL will apply the same rigor to the Ariane 6 as Arianespace did to make the once very troubled Ariane 5 into the flagship of reliability that it is today. Furthermore, he says ASL is going to be a “lean” organization with an approach to the Ariane 6 that is centered around production.
“We have done what we call a verticalization, that is, we have gathered all partners into an ‘extended enterprise’ and developed clusters of excellence to take advantage of European know-how,” he says. “ We are not manufacturing and developing everything in one place because we have all the countries in Europe willing to do something, but we have specialized every country and every industrial company in each country, and we work as if we were one company — not on the same site, but besides this all the principles are the same. It is like if we were one integrated company.”
Bonguet is bringing in skills and practices learned from other fields to apply to the Ariane 6. In between his career with the early Ariane 5 and today, he switched industries, working in the energy sector on turbines and generators. From there, he learned universal rules demonstrated in places like the U.S., China, Switzerland and Poland on how to reduce waste in the form of time and resources, which translates to reduced cost.
“We had the same concerns in energy. People were saying, ‘lean is for serial production; this is not for us,’ when actually it is all about removing waste,” he says.
“If you visit the [Ariane] factories, since everybody is doing a bit here and a piece there, you have huge industrial means that are used very seldom actually — one week per month sometimes. All this has a cost. We have transformed this model to work like other industrial models where the heavy tools are working 24 hours a day, five days per week,” he says.
Bonguet says ASL is now measuring productivity by “added value time” versus “total time,” and using this metric to cut the time for long lead items in half. This includes identifying difficulties at the design level and being up front about how often parts are built correctly from the first take. By building parts correctly more often on the first try, he says the company will decrease the costs and improve reliability.
“I think we will do better on Ariane 6 than Ariane 5 because we design for production, and we believe that cheaper means more reliable, to a certain extent of course,” he says.
International Launch Services/Khrunichev
Arguably one of the clearest signals of the magnitude of the changes satellites are undergoing today is International Launch Services’ (ILS) decision to expand Proton — a flagship Russian launch vehicle going back to 1965 — into a family of three rockets. ILS announced the new Proton Medium and Proton Light variants in September, targeting the 3 to 5 ton mass range.
“The way these vehicles came to be is we went out and worked with the manufacturers and customers, starting in the beginning of the year and probably intensively for about four months, determining where they are going with their designs, what they see in the future and how launchers can better serve them,” says ILS President Kirk Pysher.
ILS was originally thinking of having just one new vehicle, but Pysher explains that it quickly became evident there would be a need for two. Both are simplified versions of Proton with two stages instead of three, while the Proton Light operates with four first stage engines instead of the regular six. Proton Medium is slated to be the first available variant starting in 2018, followed by Proton Light in 2019. The variants are expected to lower the cost of launch compared to Proton Breeze M by as much as 40 percent, according to Pysher.
“Clearly the cost is going to go down. Eliminating the second stage — which is the primary change to those vehicles — the second stage is a very large portion of the Proton and it includes four engines, so there is a significant cost savings just in and of itself, which allows us then to transfer that cost savings to our customers. We are looking at price points that are extremely competitive to our current competition, and are most likely under posted price points for them,” he adds.
ILS is sticking to heritage technology as a risk-reduction strategy against introducing errors. Beyond stripping out the second stage engine, manufacturer Khrunichev is basically sticking to the original design of the two-stage UR-500, which did a total of 310 flights between 1967 and 2012. Pysher says there are no new engines or no new guidance system components; the only thing that changes is the lengthening of the tanks.
“The manufacturing processes within Khrunichev currently accommodate longer tanks just by the way they are built. The tanks are built by welding two-meter sections together, so they are basically just going to add another section onto the tank. That really simplifies the manufacturing process and doesn’t cause any implications to producing these two variants along with the existing Proton. They will still move through the same processes in manufacturing,” he says. ILS is so confident that the variants are what the future launch market needs that Pysher estimates the company will one day do more missions with these rockets than the current Proton Breeze M. He projects ILS will probably have a future mission cadence of “four to six of the variants and one of the Proton M” per year.
“That is the way we see the market today,” he adds.
Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX)
The satellite industry has benefited immensely from one company’s ambition to send humanity to Mars and beyond. SpaceX believes that to perform this feat will require dramatically lower launch costs — music to the ears of satellite operators everywhere — and that to lower those costs, reusability is an absolute must.
SpaceX landed a Falcon 9 for the first time at the end of 2015, and did it again five more times between then and now. Critics have cited the U.S. Space Shuttle as evidence that reusability is not a money-saver, but with SpaceX ever closer to re-launching rockets with paying customers, that argument could very quickly fizzle out.
“Reusability will lower costs marginally in the short term and significantly in the long term as the number of reuses increases,” says Gwynne Shotwell, president and COO of SpaceX. “This may enable new business models for GEO and LEO operators.”
Shotwell adds that insurance communities have already shown support around reusability in their policies for the first few “flight proven” launches. Improvements to the Falcon 9 have given SpaceX the ability to land the rocket on land-based sites or out at sea on drone ships. Shotwell says the company is continuing to improve on the Falcon 9 to increase reliability and producibility but that, at this point, most major changes are essentially complete.
“SpaceX does not anticipate significant changes with Falcon 9 in the future, however with the successful recoveries of the first stage boosters, SpaceX now has the unique opportunity to do a post-flight inspection. Pending these inspections, SpaceX will make the modifications necessary to continue to increase reliability. We have a few upgrades for crew and National Security Space (NSS) missions, the vast majority of which should be done within the next 12 months,” she says.
SpaceX’s near-term focus is on the execution of its current manifest, Shotwell says, along with introducing the Falcon Heavy next year and further developing crew capabilities for Dragon. The loss of Spacecom’s Amos 6 due to an anomaly preceding a standard test firing has pushed back Falcon 9 launch dates and the Falcon Heavy debut. The struggle to launch on time has been a frequently levied criticism against SpaceX, though it hasn’t stopped the company’s manifest from swelling to around 70 missions worth more than $10 billion. One way the company is seeking to shorten launch times is through the creation of its own spaceport in Texas. Shotwell says reusability, along with reducing costs, should also result in faster launch times.
“The success of reusability will eventually lead to a large supply of launch vehicles essentially on standby,” she explains. “Assuming there is a satellite ready, this will enable customers to procure launches with significantly less lead-time.”
Shotwell says growing demand for LEO launches, largely through small satellite aggregators, along with NASA and newfound U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) business has offset the industry-wide decline in GEO communications satellite orders. SpaceX has performed eight launches in 2016 — more than in any previous year. The company is ready to reach a higher launch cadence, and anticipates that landing rockets will help make that possible.
“Being able to conduct a thorough post-flight inspection will be instrumental in SpaceX’s ability to further improve the reliability of its launch vehicle,” says Shotwell. “This is important as we transition to human spaceflight.”
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries
Business is usually considered good if demand is outpacing supply. That’s exactly what has happened to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI), a company that has had to turn away commercial opportunities because the majority of its H2A and H2B rocket missions are already prioritized for the Japanese government. Last year MHI performed its first mission for a commercial satellite operator, Telesat of Canada, launching the Telstar 12 Vantage satellite on an H2A rocket. The company also has two foreign government missions under its belt — the Korea Aerospace Research Institute’s (KARI) Kompsat 3 in 2012, and NASA's Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) in 2014 — and two future missions with the United Arab Emirates (UAE)-based Mohammed Bin Rasid Space Center for KhalifaSat in early 2018 and the Emirates Mars Mission (EMM) Hope spacecraft in 2020.
Ko Ogasawara, VP and general manager of MHI Launch Services, says the company is able to provide at least one launch slot per year for commercial customers from now until 2020; the rest of the company’s manifest is already spoken for. Today, MHI conducts an average of four to five launches per year, but after 2020, things change. For the past few years MHI has been developing the next generation H3 rocket — a launch system the company envisions will continue a story of high reliability while also driving down costs and increasing supply. If all goes as planned, MHI could double the number of launches it does annually when the H3 is active.
“MHI plans to increase the manufacturing capability of H3 to enable eight to 10 launches per year in future. On yearly average, three or four missions are expected to be for the Japanese government, while three or more will be commercial, says Ogasawara.
Japan developed the H2A rocket more than 20 years ago, and though many upgrades did come with the H2B variant in 2009, the vision for H3 is a massive leap beyond both. The new rocket gives MHI the opportunity to leverage modern manufacturing techniques like additive manufacturing (3-D printing). Ogasawara tells of some of the new practices MHI is implementing.
“For example, at the system concept level, it is possible to reduce the number of components, and hence associated costs, by simplification of the main engine from staged combustion cycle in the H2A to expander bleed cycle in H3,” he says. “It is also effective to remove gimbal actuators from Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) by incorporation of multiple main engines of H3.”
MHI wants to use more cost-effective parts and materials, borrowing ideas from the automotive sector to improve rocket production. Ogasawara says MHI is also very interested in using Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) for things like automated inspection.
“Our basic policy to attain lower prices is to simplify all aspects of our launch vehicle manufacturing, operation and related supportive processes without slightest degradation in reliability,” he says.
China Great Wall Industry Corporation
Being fenced off from most of the commercial sector has not kept China Great Wall Industry Corporation (CGWIC) from being one of the most active launch providers in the world. In 2012, China conducted 19 flights, followed by 15 in 2013, 16 in 2014 and, 19 in 2015. Along with fielding three versions of the Long March 2 and Long March 3 each, and two of the Long March 4, China debuted three new launch vehicles — the Long March 6, 7 and 11 — in less than 12 months between late 2015 and mid-2016, and has another rocket, the heavyweight Long March 5, that completed a maiden flight this November.
Fu Zhiheng, executive vice president of CGWIC, says China has a similar number of missions this year, and will probably launch an average of 20 times or more a year going forward.
“China may conduct about 110 launch activities over the next five years, including government projects and commercial projects. In fact, the current launch vehicle production capacity and the support capability of the launch sites in China can both meet the needs of more commercial launches,” he says.
China’s isolation from the global launch market is largely due to the United States International Traffic and Arms Regulations (ITAR), which bans the launch of U.S. satellites, or satellites with U.S. components, via Chinese rockets. This ban has been in place since 1999 when a Space Systems Loral (SSL)-built satellite came down in a 1996 Chinese launch failure and the U.S. government concluded that China may have obtained confidential defense technologies in the aftermath.
Before ITAR, China did provide launch services to the commercial sector, including launching 12 Iridium satellites over the course of six Long March 2D missions. China has also conducted recent launches for customers in Brazil, Laos and Belarus by combining launch deals with Chinese satellite manufacturing. Zhiheng says China has been significantly handicapped in the commercial sector with the Long March because of ITAR, but is finding some success in these combo style build-it-and-launch-it deals.
“We are actively developing the unrestricted satellite launch services market. At the same time, we also vigorously open up the market of the Chinese DFH-4 series of communications satellites, and provide a turnkey in-orbit delivery solution, combining the satellites and the Long March launch services in the market. Actually, so far we are doing quite well in the emerging markets. In addition, we are also actively developing the LEO as well as for the small and nano-satellites piggyback launch market,” he says.
Recent ITAR reform in the U.S. over the past few years has not loosened the rules as they address China, and it is difficult to say if or when that might change. What is for certain is that CGWIC sees the same trends in the market as other providers and is adapting for them. Zhiheng says HTS satellites are shaping demand for launch vehicle capacity; all-electric propulsion satellites are creating a need for direct injection into geostationary orbit; and LEO constellations are driving new requirements for rapid deployment. CGWIC, like all other launch providers, is gearing up to meet these evolving demands.
“In spite of these new dynamics, high reliability, low cost, and assured launch schedules are customers’ constant requirements,” Zhiheng adds.