Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Worldwide Small Satellite Launcher Picture

In this week's Ars Technica Rocket Report update, I learned of an interesting resource.  The brief overview is that there are more small launch vehicles being developed than one, experienced, engineer can track

The chart is a bit cluttered but shows a total number of small launch vehicles, defined as less than 1000 kg to Low Earth Orbit, of around 150.  As they say on the infomercials; but wait - there's more.  His source materials for these numbers are US Government reports on rockets offered for sale to the US.  Because of that, rockets from nations like Iran that the US won't trade with, and rockets from nations that don't want to sell to the US don't show up.  The true picture is bigger than this.  Further, due to the 1000 kg (2205 pound) cutoff, that cuts out Relativity Space, who's targeting a vehicle over that class, and others.  Consider it a limited sample of what's really going on!

The guy gathering the data is Carlos Niederstrasser, a Northrop Grumman master systems engineer.  Niederstrasser doesn't attempt to judge technical or business viability of the projects, he just reports development programs and a watch list of others trying to raise capital.
The problem for Niederstrasser and anyone trying to keep up with the market is that the list continues to grow. “Every time I kill off one [launch vehicle], two more show up,” he said.
Of the 148 vehicles Niederstrasser has been tracking, eight have flown, including three U.S. and five Chinese launch vehicles, and 41 are active development programs.

Another 58 are on a list of projects that Niederstrasser considers worth watching even though they do not meet all the criteria to be considered active. For example, the companies may not be developing entire space launch vehicles or they may not be sharing information publicly through websites, social media campaigns, news reports or conference papers.
It sounds like a messy situation to try to get a handle on, so you can bet that plot is wrong.  Some of these companies trying to get funded are actually “a couple of grad students with a web site” while others are a bit farther along.  Whether all the numbers are too high, too low or possibly both, we can't know.  As others have said, the big milestone is actually testing working hardware on the ground.  Still, as Niederstrasser says, “the ultimate proof is if the pointy end goes up, fire goes out the other side and you get a satellite into orbit.”

One thing that stood out to me about that plot is the lightest blue bar, on the right.  That shows the number of defunct booster programs.  The number that went defunct and closed up shop for the 2019 survey is over twice the number that closed in 2018.  I can almost hear them saying, ”gee, this rocket science stuff is kinda hard, isn't it?”

Another interesting piece of news I've been watching for showed up in the Rocket Report.
Busy times ahead for commercial crew. During NASA's Advisory Council meeting this week, the agency's manager for commercial crew, Kathy Lueders, provided some updated mission dates. During the week of November 4, both SpaceX (Dragon static fire thruster test) and Boeing (pad abort test) have critical milestones scheduled for their vehicle developments.

And if those tests are successful ... It sets up a busy December. At this time, SpaceX is planning an in-flight abort test of its Crew Dragon vehicle on top of a Falcon 9 rocket early in the month. And Boeing is planning its first orbital flight test of Starliner, an uncrewed mission, on Dec. 17. That test is contingent on rolling Starliner out to United Launch Alliance's integration facilities at Cape Canaveral in mid-November to stack Starliner on top of an Atlas V rocket.
Could get interesting around here.


  1. Every time you do a post like this, and considering where you live, the Ray Bradbury story "Rocket Summer" comes to mind.

    We could usually see night launches from Vandenberg AFB, but day launches were hardly more than a smoke squiggle in the sky.

    Must be nice to see them rising up into the sky.

    1. Must be nice to see them rising up into the sky.

      It is! Once the rocket gets high enough to clear trees and other visual obstacles, we get as good a view as if we had driven the half hour up to the cape. Night launches are special. On good nights, we can watch them almost until they get back down to the horizon. See upper stage cutoffs. Things like that. I think my favorites are those right around sunset or sunrise, where the sun is still "out" at higher altitudes but below the horizon as seen from the ground.

    2. All but two of the launches I've seen 'up close and personal' have been out at sea, with no points of reference. Seeing one on it's way up from a distance, with things I recognize in the background, hasn't ever happened.

      How well can you hear the sound?

    3. The sound varies over quite a range from day to day with weather, but it's never the visceral, shakes you to your core feeling that you get when you're close. The time delay varies as well as the duration. On "good rumble" launches, usually early morning/dark-30, we'll get a prolonged rumble maybe a minute long. The other extreme is sometimes we get short rumbles that come later after launch than our straight line distance to the pad would suggest. (just over two minutes)

      I've been on the KSC for only two launches; a Delta and then a shuttle night launch, one or two launches before Challenger. The experience at night was surreal, I could see the shock wave coming across the lagoon, and when the sound got to me, I could feel my pants legs moving from the air pressure. Nothing else is like that experience.

  2. The first launch I saw in person was an Atlas/Centaur lofting a Block-I GPS bird from VAFB. It was the sound that really got my attention. One long, barely controlled, explosion was all I could think of.

    We were parked 5km away from the launch ship at Sea Launch, and on four of the launches I went on, I had post-launch inspection duty of the pad, so I was out on-deck for the entire launch. The sound of 1.8 million pounds of thrust overcoming gravity is just incredible. If it was a day launch, and the lighting was right, we could see the 1-2 staging, which was pretty cool. One time the photo guys got clear shots of the fairing separation, but it was one of those times when everything was "just right", and the photo guys said it would probably never happen again.

  3. Hi SiG, this is completely off the topic here but I thought you would probably get a kick out of this one. An Aussie hobby machinist that I subscribe to on Youtube built a funky double piston Stirling engine using the heat sink fro a CPU for some of the parts It actually runs quite well. If you anted to dig back, there is a bit of a series on it but this video shows it actually running.
    Naturally, I thought of you.

    1. Thanks for the link. Yeah, it does run well. I've never done a Stirling engine, skipped over my flame eater to an internal combustion engine that's in process - and that I haven't done much work on thanks to the lightning recovery.

      I'd still like to build one that's big enough to do some useful work, like 1 HP. 750W output will charge a lot of batteries.