SpaceX is expanding its launch offerings with a new, more affordable and consistent option for small satellite operators looking to put lighter payloads into orbit. The new service offering is designed to work for customers who can take advantage of a “rideshare” launch, sharing space on a Falcon 9 with other small satellites being sent up.
The rideshare option will be offered on a regular, defined schedule, and SpaceX says that it’s designed for flexibility, offering customers the ability to pre-book a spot, and ensuring that if they’re ready to launch when their rideshare comes up, the rocket will indeed go up — with or without other payloads also booked that may not be ready in time.
One of the biggest issues with rideshare missions today is being reliant on the timing and readiness of the main payload customer. Typically, one or two big-ticket payloads cover most of the bill for the launch, even if there are smaller satellites also going up on the same ride. The issue is that if that large customer has to delay for any reason, the smallsat ridealongs are basically at their whims.
SpaceX’s new service is designed somewhat like rideshare programs here on Earth: Passengers who are ready get to ride, and the company looks to fill seats by offering bookings both in advance (12 or more months out) and much closer to launch time (between 12 and 6 months out) with a possibility of even tighter turnaround, though SpaceX hasn’t publicly posted pricing for that option, which means it’ll probably be costly.
As for those with plenty of notice, they get the biggest price break: Launches start at just $2.25 million for payloads of up to 150 kg (330 lbs), or $4.5 million for those weighing up to 300 kg (660 lbs). That sounds like a lot, but consider that the lowest cost for a current SpaceX launch is currently somewhere around $57 million.
The customers are responsible for providing the deployer, which must be compatible with an ESPA adapter (pretty standard for payload launches on spacecraft) and they also could be responsible for a rebooking fee, should they cancel their launch close to its intended take-off date. Delays don’t mean you lose the whole cost of launch, however — because SpaceX is looking to employ a flexible model, it says that anyone who is delayed “can apply 100 percent of monies paid towards the cost of rebooking on a subsequent mission.”
This is a clever way to drum up more business for SpaceX. Based on all the conversations I’ve had with space tech startups and people working in the industry, the main cap right now on activities is securing launch services. By addressing this bottleneck, and doing so in a way that offers as much flexibility as you can when dealing with rocket launches, the company could potentially capture a lot more of the commercial space business revenue it’s currently leaving on the table.