Rocket Report: A new estimate of Starship costs; Japan launches spy satellite

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Written By Sedoso Feb

Enlarge / An H-IIA rocket lifts off with the IGS Optical-8 spy satellite.
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries

Welcome to Edition 6.27 of the Rocket Report! This week, we discuss an intriguing new report looking at Starship. Most fascinating, the report covers SpaceX’s costs to build a Starship and how these costs will come down as the company ramps up its build and launch cadence. At the other end of the spectrum, former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has a plan to get astronauts back to the Moon that would wholly ignore the opportunities afforded by Starship.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets, as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

The problem at America’s military spaceports. The Biden administration is requesting $1.3 billion over the next five years to revamp infrastructure at the Space Force’s ranges in Florida and California, Ars reports. This will help address things like roads, bridges, utilities, and airfields that, in many cases, haven’t seen an update in decades. But it’s not enough, according to the Space Force. Last year, Cape Canaveral was the departure point for 72 orbital rocket launches, and officials anticipate more than 100 this year. The infrastructure and workforce at the Florida spaceport could support about 150 launches in a year without any major changes, but launch activity is likely to exceed that number within a few years.

Higher fees incoming … Commercial launch companies operating from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida, or Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, pay fees to the Space Force to reimburse for direct costs related to rocket launches. These cover expenses like weather forecast services, surveillance to ensure airplanes and boats stay out of restricted areas, and range safety support. “What that typically meant was anything we did that was specifically dedicated to that launch,” said Col. James Horne, deputy commander of the Space Force’s assured access to space directorate. This is about to change after legislation passed by Congress in December allows the Space Force to charge indirect fees to commercial providers. This money will go into a fund to pay for maintenance and upgrades to infrastructure used by all launch companies at the spaceports.

Momentus is running out of money. Momentus, a company that specializes in “last mile” satellite delivery services, announced on January 12 that it is running out of money and does not have a financial lifeline, CNBC reports. The company was once valued at more than $1 billion before going public via a Special Purpose Acquisition Company (SPAC) in 2021 but now has a market capitalization of less than $10 million. Momentus has developed a space tug called Vigoride, designed to place small satellites into bespoke orbits after deploying from a larger rocket on a rideshare mission, such as a SpaceX Falcon 9. Now, Momentus is abandoning plans for its next mission that was due for launch in March. In December, the company laid off about 20 percent of its workforce to reduce costs.

Fatal blow? … Momentus may have received a potentially fatal blow after losing the US Space Development Agency’s recent competition for 18 so-called Tranche 2 satellites, Aviation Week reports. Instead, the SDA made recent satellite manufacturing contract awards to Rocket Lab, L3Harris, Lockheed Martin, and Sierra Space. On Wednesday, Momentus announced it closed a $4 million stock sale. This should keep Momentus afloat for a while longer but won’t provide the level of capital needed to undertake any significant manufacturing or technical development work. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

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Orbex may go bigger. UK-based launch startup Orbex hasn’t yet flown its small satellite launcher, called Prime, but is already looking at what’s next, according to reports by European Spaceflight and the Financial Times. New Orbex CEO Phil Chambers, who was officially appointed earlier this month, told the Financial Times that the company was already discussing the possibility of developing a larger vehicle. Speaking to European Spaceflight, Chambers described the business model to deliver orbital launch services with Prime as “robust.” Despite this, he admitted that the small launch industry was only a small sliver of the overall launch market.

Learning to walk before running … While future growth is on Orbex’s radar, its near-term focus is completing construction of a spaceport in Scotland, launching a maiden flight of Prime, and delivering on the six flights the company has already sold. The two-stage Prime rocket, fueled by “bio-propane,” will be capable of hauling a payload of approximately 180 kilograms (nearly 400 pounds) into low-Earth orbit. But Orbex has been shy about releasing updates on the progress of the Prime rocket’s development since unveiling a full-scale mock-up of the launch vehicle in 2022. Last year, the CEO who led Orbex since its founding resigned. Its most recent significant funding round was valued at 40.4 million pounds in late 2022. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Hello, Helios. Impulse Space, a company founded by veteran SpaceX engineer Tom Mueller, flew its first small space tug to orbit last year. Now, Mueller’s company is eyeing a bigger prize, Ars reports. This week, Impulse Space announced plans to develop a much larger vehicle called Helios, a space tug that could essentially act as a third stage when launched on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket or a range of other vehicles, including Starship, ULA’s Vulcan, and Blue Origin’s New Glenn. For example, Helios could take over propulsion responsibilities after deploying from a Falcon 9 and then ferry a large satellite of up to 4 tons into geostationary orbit. Without Helios, the satellite would need to use its own propellant for orbit-raising or fly on a more expensive Falcon Heavy rocket.

Describing Deneb … Helios will be powered by one of the most robust in-space engines ever built, named Deneb. It is on par with the venerable RL-10 engine manufactured by Aerojet and will have a thrust of 15,000 pounds (67 kN), and be powered by liquid oxygen and liquid methane. The fuel choice is partly a nod to the reusable future of spaceflight that Impulse Space hopes to tap into. Mueller said Helios could be refilled with propellant and then go on to other missions in orbit. He said the company is building components of the Deneb engine now and should start testing in March. The company plans to test a full engine build later this summer. The Helios spacecraft is intended to debut in 2026.

Japan launches spy satellite. Japan has launched a new optical reconnaissance satellite to boost the country’s remote sensing capabilities, Space News reports. The launch occurred on January 12, Japanese time, from the Tanegashima Space Center. An H-IIA rocket carried an optical Information Gathering Satellite—the way Japan describes its spy satellites—into a polar orbit. The IGS-Optical 8 is reported to be both for tracking North Korean military activities and for civilian purposes including monitoring natural disasters. This was Japan’s first launch of the year.

Phasing out the H-IIA … This was the 48th flight of an H-IIA rocket, which has been Japan’s workhorse launch vehicle since debuting in 2001. Just two more H-IIA rockets, built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, remain to fly. They will both launch later this year with another Japanese IGS spy satellite and the Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite-2 (GOSAT-2) for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. The new H3 rocket will replace the H-IIA. The first H3 test flight failed to reach orbit last year, and Japanese engineers are preparing for the second H3 test launch slated for February 15, Japanese time. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Another cargo delivery to Tiangong. Chinese astronauts on the Tiangong space station received another delivery of supplies and experiments Wednesday with the docking of the Tianzhou 7 automated cargo ship. Tianzhou 7 lifted off on top of a Long March 7 rocket about three hours before docking at the space station. The three Chinese astronauts living on Tiangong will unpack the newly arrived supply ship and use it as a garbage carrier to dispose of trash at the end of its mission.

What did it deliver? … Tianzhou 7 carries 260 cargo items, with a total mass of around 5.6 tons. Around 2.4 tons are supplies for the astronauts, including fresh fruit and vegetables and gift packages related to the incoming Year of the Dragon. Sixty science units include an experiment focused on human bone cells and another carrying anaerobic archaea, which will look at viability and methane production of early terrestrial life in a simulated cosmic environment, Space News reports. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Elon Musk’s newsy all-hands meeting. SpaceX’s founder and CEO recently briefed SpaceX employees on the company’s accomplishments in 2024 and goals for 2024, and the presentation was full of interesting news, Ars reports. Musk said the second full-scale Starship test flight in November ended when the Starship upper stage blew up during a planned vent of liquid oxygen propellant. “The reason that it actually didn’t quite make it to orbit was we vented the liquid oxygen, and the liquid oxygen ultimately led to a fire and an explosion,” Musk said. He also confirmed goals for the next Starship test flight, which could happen as soon as February. These goals include a restart of Starship’s Raptor engines in space to perform a de-orbit burn, a propellant transfer demonstration between tanks inside Starship, and a demonstration of Starship’s payload bay door.

There was some news on Falcon 9, too … Until Starship is fully operational, SpaceX will continue flying its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets to carry satellites, cargo, and astronauts into orbit. This means Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy will remain in service until at least the late 2020s, and perhaps beyond 2030 for certain missions. So SpaceX is motivated to improve Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, even though the company doesn’t plan any more major “block upgrades” to either vehicle. Musk said SpaceX is working to qualify Falcon first-stage boosters for up to 40 flights, four times the original goal, and reduce launch pad turnaround time to less than 24 hours.

Mike Griffin turns back the clock. Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin told lawmakers Wednesday that NASA’s plan to return astronauts to the Moon on the Artemis program “is excessively complex, unrealistically priced, compromises crew safety, poses very high mission risk of completion, and is highly unlikely to be completed in a timely manner even if successful.” Griffin criticized NASA’s choice to partner with commercial companies—SpaceX and Blue Origin—and proposed an alternative path that would see the agency return to its traditional way of developing spacecraft. Instead, Griffin said NASA should start development of a storable propellant lunar lander, and terminate contracts with SpaceX and Blue Origin, which are working on reusable, more capable landers relying on more efficient cryogenic propellants.

Constellation redux … One of Griffin’s charts in his presentation to a House committee shows an architecture that would involve two launches of NASA’s Space Launch System Block II rocket, which is not far along in development. One would launch a lunar lander, and the other would launch a crew on NASA’s Orion spacecraft. This plan closely resembles the Constellation program, the failed, unsustainable effort to return astronauts to the Moon that Griffin oversaw as NASA’s administrator. Griffin said this plan could put humans on the Moon by 2029, ahead of China’s goal of landing its own citizens on the Moon by 2030. But in his testimony, Griffin doesn’t discuss how much all this would cost, but undoubtedly it put taxpayers on the hook for tens of billions of dollars more than NASA’s current approach. Eric Berger, my colleague at Ars, concludes a reasonable estimate of Griffin’s plan, based on contractor performance with Orion and the SLS rocket, is that if NASA’s budget roughly doubled, humans might land on the Moon by the late 2030s.

Taking a look at Starship’s costs. A report from the space media and research company Payload analyzes SpaceX’s costs in building and developing Starship. This is an important angle that isn’t reported often enough, as SpaceX and media outlets tend to focus on technical and schedule aspects of the Starship program. Payload calls Starship’s low-cost manufacturing a “breakthrough in rocketry,” with SpaceX on a path to eventually reduce the cost of a single flight of a fully reusable Starship rocket to less than $10 million. However, Starship is still very much a development program, and Payload estimates it currently costs around $90 million for SpaceX to build a fully stacked Starship rocket. The vast majority of this cost goes toward the rocket’s 39 Raptor engines and labor expenses.

Recouping R&D costs … The higher the Starship flight rate, the more SpaceX can reduce the cost of a single launch by spreading the program’s fixed costs across numerous missions. “On a fully reusable basis, the economics of Starship flights begin to look closer to those of an airline,” Payload reports. Reducing the cost of Raptor engine manufacturing will be a major factor in decreasing the cost of each Starship rocket. Payload estimates the total research and development costs for Starship will total about $10 billion, with about $5 billion already spent by the end of 2023. This report focuses on cost, not price, as SpaceX is expected to charge customers more than the potential marginal cost of $10 million per flight to recoup money invested to build up the Starship program.

RS-25 engine testing continues in Mississippi. NASA test-fired an Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 engine Wednesday at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. This was the first RS-25 engine test of the year, but it continues a test series that started last year to certify the engine for production to support NASA’s Space Launch System rocket launches. NASA kept 16 flight-ready RS-25 engines from the space shuttle program, enough to power four SLS rockets launching Artemis missions to the Moon. Starting with Artemis V, SLS rockets will need new RS-25 engines built by Aerojet Rocketdyne, which was acquired last year by L3Harris. The test-firing Wednesday ran for 500 seconds and fluctuated between 80 percent and 113 percent power settings, simulating a profile it would see during an SLS launch. Engineers are evaluating several new components, including a nozzle, hydraulic actuators, flex ducts, and turbopumps.

Costly engines … If NASA continues using the SLS rocket, it needs these new RS-25 engines. They consume liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants and remain among the world’s highest-performing rocket engines some 50 years after they were designed for the space shuttle. But they are quite expensive. NASA’s inspector general last year reported the current cost of manufacturing a new RS-25 engine is about $100 million. Managers plan to reduce that cost to $70 million by the end of the decade. Blue Origin manufactures engines of comparable power and size, the BE-4, for less than $20 million. And SpaceX is seeking to push the similarly powerful Raptor rocket engine costs even lower, to less than $1 million per engine.

Next three launches

January 19: Falcon 9 | Starship 7-11 | Vandenberg Space Force Base, California | 04:04 UTC

January 23: Kinetica 1 | Unknown Payload | Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, China | 03:00 UTC

January 27: Electron | Four Spire SSA Satellites | Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand | 06:15 UTC

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