Sunday, March 6, 2011

NLV Market Analysis

Garvey's Prospector 7C
In October of 2004, I attended the Space Frontier Foundation’s conference in Southern California on the Queen Mary. There, Masten Space Systems made a big splash announcing it was joining Armadillo Aerospace in developing Suborbital RLV’s.

I remember thinking at the time, how did Masten have enough market data to make that decision? Masten, Armadillo, XCOR, Virgin, Blue Origin – these guys & gals threw their hat in the ring long before there were significant studies confirming suborbital RLV’s made “market sense”. They had vision. They had guts. Or if the data did exist, at the time, I did not know how to find it.

And now, NASA is offering a prize for a Nano-satellite Launch Vehicle (NLV) – “launching very small things quite often”. And as candidate NLV teams consider throwing their hats in this ring, the market data is a little more available for an NLV service than there was for suborbital service almost a decade ago.

This post attempts to consolidate that NLV market analysis. Of course this will be incomplete, so I need your help. Add links to other NLV market data in the comments of this post to benefit the whole group. I will skip a discussion of NASA's NLV Challenge.  Here is NASA's NLV Challenge Page  for more details. 
I have broken the NLV market analysis down into the following categories:
  • NLV Market Sources
  • Market Overview
  • NLV Market Differentiators 
  • NLV Substitutes
  • Interesting NLV Market Nuggets
  • Potential Market Competitors
  • Market Demand Graph
  • NLV Pricing Discussion
  • Market Impactors

NLV Market Sources.  The authors of these study deserve your business. Buy their papers. They are doing good work. Instead of at the end of this post, I wanted these links near the top!

Market Overview.  The NLV market can be dissected in at least two ways: (1) by payload size and (2) by payload type.

Payload Size. I have heard various naming conventions for small payload launch vehicles.  For this blog post, I will use “Nano”, “Micro”, “Small” as three payload sizes to consider.  However, I will group them all together and use the name NLV most of the time.
  • Nano - Under 10kg
  • Micro - 10-100 kg
  • Small - 100-200 kg
NASA is focused on a 1kg payload for its NLV Challenge. The Army is interested in at least 20kg payloads. Even if first generation vehicles are only able to launch a few kg of payload, commercial NLV ventures would be wise to endeavor to grow to larger payload sizes over time. Current 200-400kg payloads launched currently on larger vehicles would surely be interested in "going on a diet" if an NLV launcher could carry 100-200Kg yet offer more frequent launches.

Payload Type. The second NLV market subdivision will be the option of (1) launching a functioning satellite or (2) delivering cargo to stations or depots. Of the two, cargo delivery may very well be the larger of the two sub-markets. It will take far less preparation to send the ISS an NLV-load of fresh apples than it would be to fund, develop, integrate, and launch a nanosat. Both satellite launches and cargo delivery will be sub-markets. Expect the satellite market to retain a diversified customer base. Expect the cargo delivery customer base to be dominated by station owners in the early days (ISS partners and Bigelow), but to expand to Space Station customers in the not so distant future (see: NanoRacks).

NLV Market Differentiators.  What makes an NLV unique? An NLV won’t be able to carry as much payload to orbit as its bigger cousins, why would any customers want to use an NLV?  Answer: Frequent launches, low integration time.
  • Cost: Higher Cost per LB than larger launchers but lower Cost per launch
  • Launch Frequency: Launch *much* more frequently than larger launchers (weekly? Daily?)
  • Launch Lead Time: Integrate payloads in less time to take advantage of more frequent launches
  • Payload Mass: a few kg (at first)
  • Orbit Choice: Customers can choose since not a secondary payload
  • Suborbit/LEO/GEO: Limited to LEO (at first) – Suborbital applications? Maybe.

NLV Substitutes.  Prices for NLV’s cannot be set independent of substitutes. Here’s a list of some big ones:
  • Launch as secondary payload. Spaceflight Services (Andrews Space) offers a turnkey solution for your payload to fly on the BIG rockets as a secondary payload.
  • Hosted payloads. Boeing just launched a new service to combine your payload with others on a single satellite bus thus reducing customer costs since they do not need to procure an entire satellite. Note: this would be a substitute only for satellite payloads, not for cargo payloads
  • Commercial RLV suborbital spaceflight. Masten, Armadillo, and Blue Origin are stuck at 100km for now, but not for long. Watch as future generations of their vehicles climb higher and higher giving customers a greater flight-time, frequent launches, and very low costs.
  • With COTS deliveries to ISS approaching, deliveries to station will be made by NASA several times per year with ISS partners also delivering cargo to station several times per year.

Interesting NLV Market Nuggets.
  • Microcosm Inc, identified potential market-wide launch savings of more than $15B over a 12-year period, resulting from the development of a low-cost responsive launch vehicle focused on the SmallSat market (above 100Kg)
  • In a 2008 presentation, Pete Worden said there were ~80 universities with active cubesat (nanosat) programs 
  • A 2006 Futron Study identified over 30 markets in 6 principle areas for services provided by low-cost satellites in the 100-200 kilogram class
  • The US Army is interested in Nano Launch and had put a price point of $1M per launch.
  • My interview with the CEO of CubeSat component manufacturer Clyde Space revealed he thought $250K for a 3u is definitely too much for most customers.
  • My interview with Professor Jordi Puig-Suari from Cal Poly and professors from MIT, and St. Louis University who are currently active in either university satellite development or active in space research of some kind show they are targeting a price point under $50K per CubeSat with $20K being preferred. Relooking at my notes from those interviews, at a $20K price point, these professors thought the US demand for CubeSat launches would grow to 50-100 each year. Interesting they thought the low flight opps of the current “secondary payload” system a bigger problem than the high cost. Prof Michael Swartwout said in my interview with him, he waits 5-7 years to secure a spot on a rocket to launch his CubeSats. This is longer than an undergrads college career – not too inspiring for young engineers!

Potential Market Competitors.  Non-exhaustive – From the Paper: "Market Characterization: Launch of Very-Small and Nano Sized Payloads" by Christsensen, et all. 2010.

Market Demand Graph:

This graph is incomplete but should convey the significant number of different areas where an NLV could gain market share. For an explanation of these categories I would encourage you to get a copy of the wonderful papers I list under the “sources” section of this post.

NLV Pricing Discussion.  A major portion of any market analysis is not just what the needs are but what are potential customers willing to pay to meet those needs. For the NLV market you have customers at different ends of a spectrum. Government customers like the Army have stated a willingness to pay $1M to place 20kg in LEO. Universities want to keep Cubesat costs (usually 1-3 kg) to under $20K per U.

Variable Pricing seems like the right answer, where Primary customers pay a premium to fly on their schedule to their orbit and others willing to fly “standby” get a much reduced price but operate on someone else’s schedule and flies to someone else’s orbit. Rather than rewrite the variable pricing details now, here is the post I wrote on variable NLV pricing a few months ago.

If you made me guess right now, I would assume the following prices per U would be acceptable by the market:
  • Government: $50-200K per U (with discounts per U for larger payloads)
  • Academia: $20K per U
  • Commercial: ???, perhaps somewhere between

Market Impactors.  Any market has externalities to the market that can help or hurt the industry. Here are just a few:

  • Of all of the substitutes available to the NLV market, the one that has most potential to steal market share is the second or third generation of suborbital RLV’s. As mentioned earlier in this post, a subset of the NLV market could be served with the extended micro-gravity offered by suborbital RLV’s flying to 500 or 1000 km. But the opposite is also true, a delay or accident affecting the un-manned portion of the suborbital RLV industry (primarily Masten, Armadillo, and Blue Origin) could make some customers consider launching on an NLV rather than waiting for the suborbital ride. 
  • One of the two key sub-markets for NLV’s will be package delivery. More successful space stations, more package delivery. The proliferation of commercial space stations will be a major driver of this sub-market
  • How the last mile problem gets solved will directly affect the viability of micro package delivery (one of my two submarkets). We need solutions for the last mile problem – the solution will be part technology, part policy, part management. If NLV packages can’t be routinely delivered to space stations, the NLV industry will be severely hampered and space stations will miss out on an enabling method to gain just-in-time deliveries.
  • NLV’s only work as a market if they can launch frequently with low integration turnarounds. Even if low costs had to come later, the ability to launch frequently with streamlined payload integration will be the driving force behind early NLV success stories. The question operators will need to ask is, “How do I design and manage NLV operations in such a way to achieve the goals of frequent flight opps and low integration turnarounds?”
  • Although depot development is still years down the road, the potential “match made in heaven” between depots need for frequent propellant deliveries and NLV’s ability to fly frequently should not be overlooked…but I would not build a business plan around depot assumptions just yet.
That is a good dataset to start.  I will add some commentary in future posts.  Here is the spreadsheet containing the tables used in this post. 

Now I welcome your additions.  Use the comments section to your links to even more NLV market data.



    New NLV Market?

    Orbital just signed a deal with MDA for as many as 22 target missiles (launch this and MDA tries to shoot it out of the sky).

    With a price tag of $1.1B that comes to a per vehicle cost of $50M. Granted, Orbital and its subcontractors have to maintain the vehicles before launch and analyze the data after launch, but still(!).

    If you are willing to replace the NLV with each launch, NLV operators should be able to offer an order of magnitude better pricing than Orbital for target drones.


  2. 60 NanoSat Mission Ideas from 22 countries:

  3. I was reminded today of another NanoSat Market paper that came out last year by Space Works Commercial:

  4. An Overview of XCOR's Lynx-derived nanosat launcher: