7 Space Rocket Companies Launching Small Satellites
A funny thing happened on the way to the public markets: A startup waiting to finalize a merger with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) made extensive financial disclosures before sealing the deal. Rocket Lab, a leading space rocket company primarily serving the small satellite market, released a 700-plus-page document that spelled out the risks (many) and losses (substantial) the company is facing. If and when the merger is completed, we’ll revisit the prospect of owning a pure-play rocket company stock. In the meantime, we’re staying busy trying to keep track of all the up-and-coming rocket companies that could knock Rocket Lab off course.
Not A Lot of Space in the Launch Market
SpaceFund, a venture capital firm that specializes in the NewSpace economy, is tracking about 165 rocket companies from around the world. Nearly 75% are focused on designing and developing small launch vehicles. The ability to shrink sensors and other components into more compact payloads has really helped change the game for commercial launch providers. Smaller satellites require smaller rockets, which require less fuel. The economics are even better if the company employs reusable rockets.
Bryce Space and Technology, an analytics and engineering firm, estimated the space economy to be worth about $371 billion last year. The satellite industry accounts for almost three-quarters of the market, though that number includes everything from manufacturing to television services and consumer satellite equipment. Rocket companies serving the satellite industry earned an estimated $5.3 billion in revenues across 94 commercial launches. That doesn’t sound too shabby until you consider that the global satellite industry is valued at about $271 billion. In other words, there is a very small piece of pie for way too many hungry companies.
Take the example of Rocket Lab, which after SpaceX is probably the most successful commercial rocket company in the launch market today. Based in Los Angeles after relocating its headquarters from New Zealand, Rocket Lab has launched 17 missions and deployed more than 100 satellites. The company was recently awarded a contract to design two spacecraft for a scientific mission to Mars. It has also lost about $85 million over the last two years and had a rocket fail in mid-May. Ars Technica, which examined the voluminous proxy document released by Rocket Lab, quoted an independent auditor in the report who expressed “substantial doubt” about the company’s “ability to continue as a going concern.” And that’s one of the most successful small satellite launch providers operating today.
Startup Funding Hits Warp Speed
The board for Vector Acquisition Corporation (VACQ), the SPAC proposing to merge with Rocket Lab, will vote later this month to decide whether it wants to help Rocket Lab remain a “going concern” for at least the near term. Chances are it will happen, provided everyone’s spam filters don’t eat all the requests to vote, and investors will go boldly where no one has gone before. Crunchbase recently reported that startups in space travel, satellite communication, and aerospace have raised more than $5 billion so far this year, a pace that would break last year’s $6 billion record.
We’ve covered plenty of rocket companies over the years, including many startups emerging out of China or startups designing rocket engines for traveling to Mars. In this article, we’ll focus on a cohort of seven small launch vehicle providers for the smallsat industry that we’ve never covered before. All have taken funding this year, according to Crunchbase.
The Newest Space Rocket Unicorn
We’ll start with the newest space rocket unicorn. Founded in 2017, ABL Space Systems is headquartered in the Los Angeles area and has raised $219 million with a valuation of $1.3 billion. The startup shot into serious contention this year after raising a $170 billion Series B in March that included high-profile investment firms T. Rowe Price (TROW) and Fidelity, along with defense contractor Lockheed Martin (LMT). Lockheed also figures to be the company’s major customer, after signing a contract to provide as many as 58 launches aboard its RS1 small launch vehicle over the next decade. ABL has also signed deals with the U.S. Air Force and a private company called L2 Aerospace that also has connections to the defense and aerospace industries, which seems to represent a key market for the company’s two-stage RS1 rocket.
Each launch is estimated to cost $12 million. The RS1 will be capable of carrying up to 1,350 kilograms into low Earth orbit (LEO) at a cost of about $9,000 per kilo. For comparison, a Rocket Lab mission aboard its Electron rocket costs $5 million, but it can only haul about 300 kilograms at a price of about $16,000 per kilo. That may sound like a lot until you learn that a kilo of cocaine in New Zealand or Australia can cost more than $200,000, while a gram in Saudi Arabia will set you back $2,400. It’s not cheap to get high in space or otherwise.
A Rocket Company from Europe
Another well-funded rocket company designing a small launch vehicle is Isar Aerospace, a German startup founded in 2018. It has raised about $182 million, with a $165 million extended Series B that ended just last month with an additional $75 million. Among the investors is Porsche (PAH3.DE), which we assume wants to send its own roadster into outer space after seeing Elon Musk pull off the stunt. The company is developing Spectrum, a two-stage launch vehicle that is specifically designed for deploying satellite constellations, such as those intended for broadband internet or IoT networks. It can lift up to 1,000 kilograms into LEO.
SpaceNews reported that Isar plans to launch its first rocket by the end of next year, as Europe tries to find its own homegrown SpaceX.
Blasting Off from Down Under
Australia is also in the space rocket race, and one of the older companies with staying power has been Brisbane-based Gilmour Space Technologies, which was founded in 2012. The company has raised about $65 million following a $47 million Series C in June. Its small launch vehicle, Eris, will be capable of putting up to 215 kilograms into sun synchronous orbit (SSO), a type of orbit that travels north-south to keep a fixed position relative to the sun. That means satellites deployed in SSO always visit the same spot at the same local time each day, which is desirable for tracking changes over time for geospatial applications or to see if your spouse really is working late at the office each night. The rocket also features hybrid engines to cut down on the use of chemical fuels.
Gilmour has inked a few deals in recent months, including with fellow Australian space startup Fleet Space Technologies, which wants to deploy a smallsat constellation for IoT applications, and U.S.-based Momentus, which has been fined by the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission for misleading investors, while the CEO faces further charges.
India Enters the Commercial Space Race
India has boasted its own space program for more than 50 years, and is only one of a handful of countries to have sent a successful mission to Mars. A couple of startup rocket companies, part of India’s nascent commercial space economy, recently took in funding.
Founded in 2018 by two former scientists who worked for Indian’s national space program, Skyroot Aerospace took in $11 million in a Series A back in May, bringing total funding to $14.9 million. The company is developing a series of rockets it calls Vikram. The first will be able to carry up to 315 kilograms to LEO or 225 kilos to SSO. Aerospace claims to be the first private Indian space rocket company to successfully test-fire an upper-stage rocket engine, so presumably, that gives the startup an edge over its closest competitor.
Founded in 2017, Agnikul also raised an $11 million Series A in May, bringing total funding to about $14.5 million. The company calls its small launch vehicle Agnibaan, a two-stage rocket that can be customized based on the customers’ needs, including adding or subtracting engines and even deploying a mini third stage. Agnikul is also 3D printing the rocket engines, though probably not at the scale of Relativity Space, which boasts the world’s largest metal 3D printer.
More U.S.-Based Space Rocket Companies
New York-based Launcher is also betting on 3D printing for its rocket engine technology. Founded in 2017, the startup raised $11.7 million earlier this year, with $14.9 million raised so far. Launcher’s E-2 engines are 3D printed in high-performance copper alloy, which theoretically requires less propellant to get to orbit. Just one E-2 engine will be needed to get the Launcher Light rocket into orbit with payloads of up to 150 kilos. Its third stage, Orbiter, is a rocket-agnostic orbital transfer vehicle and satellite platform, compatible with SpaceX Falcon 9 rideshare missions.
Founded in 2020, Phantom Space Corporation out of Tucson, Arizona has raised about $5.9 million, with most coming from a $5 million Seed round in April. The small startup has big plans to be a vertically integrated space company that does everything from launch services to satellite manufacturing. In fact, Phantom just acquired fellow Tucson space company StratSpace, a 20-year-old firm that develops space systems and flight hardware, as well as provides space market forecasts. Phantom’s flagship small launch vehicle is Daytona, a two-stage rocket that will carry up to 450 kilos to LEO at $4 million per mission.
Most of these companies are realistically years away (or never) from an actual commercial launch, except for maybe ABL and Isar. However, we can glean some valuable insights from this list in terms of where the launch industry is heading (aside to outer space). Launch systems are becoming more modular and mobile, with less need for dedicated infrastructure, which should keep costs down. The widespread adoption of 3D printing is another trend to watch and a validation of the manufacturing technology in general. Leading rocket companies like Rocket Lab probably have little to fear from these upstart startups for now, but will need to adapt to stay competitive in the long run.
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