The Startup Launcher Space has officially announced that it has signed a multi-launch agreement with SpaceX to launch at least three more ‘Orbiter’ space tugs, meaning that the company will have a payload on every dedicated SpaceX rideshare launch scheduled from Q4 2022 to the end of 2023.
The information was revealed in a Twitter post by Launcher, which reads:
After launching its third dedicated rideshare trip in January 2022, SpaceX plans to fly two more flights in the first part of the year, Transporter -4 and -5.
Launcher launched its Orbiter spacecraft program in October 2021, with plans to manifest the first vehicle on a SpaceX rideshare mission – most likely Transporter-6 – by October 2022.
For the past two and a half years, SpaceX’s Smallsat Rideshare Program, announced in the summer of 2019, has provided one of the simplest and most affordable ticket to space.
Following a few Starlink rideshare missions in 2020, SpaceX began launching dedicated Transporter missions in January 2021, delivering more than 320 client satellites and payloads to orbit since then.
SpaceX has been able to streamline the arduous process of coordinating large-scale ridesharing missions by treating each Transporter trip like public transportation and allowing third-party launch servicers to participate.
Most crucially, because of the Falcon 9 rocket’s exceptional affordability, SpaceX has made a significant portion of the benefits available to rideshare customers by charging just $1 million per 200-kilogram ‘slot’ and a flat $5,000 for each additional kilogram.
That may appear absurd to someone inexperienced with the expense of spaceflight, but it’s extremely economical and significantly less expensive than any promoted option.
The cheapest dedicated smallsat launch company, Astra Space, sells a Rocket 3 vehicle capable of launching around 50 kilograms (110 lb) to a comparable orbit for $3.5 million, or $70,000 per kilogram.
However, Rocket 3 has only completed one successful launch. The more affordable Electron rocket from Rocket Lab costs at least $7.5 million for 200 kilos to sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) – or $37,500 per kilogram.
Nonetheless, rideshares’ single most critical flaw – a one-size-fits-all orbit – persists. Every cargo launched on Transporter flights ends up in the same beginning orbit, barring a significantly more complicated and expensive route that would necessitate the upper stage of the Falcon 9 being re-ignited numerous times.
In recent years, many firms have been founded to produce competitive orbital transfer vehicles to overcome this challenge. Propulsive space tugs might theoretically provide rideshare payloads with the best of both worlds: ultra-low launch costs and, within reason, delivery to a precise orbit.
Perhaps the most promising of the bunch is Launcher’s Orbiter. The orbiter will use pressure-fed 3D-printed thrusters supplied by ethane and nitrous oxide propellant stored in 3D-printed tanks and is expected to launch no sooner than (NET) October 2022.
The firm has already started printing and hot-firing numerous thrusters have received the first set of Orbiter avionics and solar panels and appear to be extremely optimistic about the spacecraft’s launch timetable.
In all, Launcher is making the stage’s pricing public. Each Orbiter will cost around $400,000 if purchased outright. A Falcon 9 launch with Orbiter – enabling accurate orbital targeting – would cost a prospective customer roughly $3.5 million, or less than $9,000 per kilogram, if it used its full 400 kg (880 lb) payload margin.
A Falcon 9 + Orbiter launch for a 200 kg (440 lb) payload might cost less than $7,000/kg ($2.5M). The Launcher will price between $8,000 and $25,000 per kilogram for Orbiter rideshare flights, which is significantly less than alternatives at the low end and yet competitive at the high end.