“A Niche Part Of The Market”

Peter Beck explains the low flight rate of Electron.

There are many more small launchers than there is demand for them. And if my idea about equatorial LEO happens (and I think it’s inevitable), there will be no market for them at all.

[Tuesday-morning update]

I’m both fascinated and amused at the degree to which intelligent commenters are having difficulty wrapping their heads around the ELEO concept.

24 thoughts on ““A Niche Part Of The Market””

  1. I recall you mentioning your equatorial LEO idea some time ago but don’t remember the details. Please recap the idea.

      1. First, the mission dictates the orbit. Whatever savings you might achieve by launching into an equatorial orbit would be overwhelmed by the costs in time and money to change from an equatorial orbit to the one required by the mission, especially if you’re talking about electric thrusters.

        Here’s an example from my old military communications satellite operational days controlling DSCS-IIIs. In the late 1980s, we were required to keep ur satellites in a box 0.1 degrees east/west from out assigned longitude and 0.1 degrees inclination. Those were the hard limits. The soft limits were 0.08 degrees. The D3 had a series of 1 pound monopropellant thrusters to do all maneuvers and momentum wheel unloads. When the satellite was approaching a soft limit, our orbital analysts calculated the maneuver plan to push it to the opposite soft limit. To do an east/west stationkeeping maneuver, we typically fired our thrusters for 11-12 seconds. To do the same magnitude inclination change, we typically had to fire thrusters for 35 minutes. Even a small inclination change at GEO (where it’s much easier than LEO) took much more time and propellant than east/west maneuvers. The D3 was launched with 600 pounds of propellant for a planned 10 year operational life, so it was budgeted for 60 pounds per year. Of that 60 pounds, 57 were allocated for north/south inclination control. To change a LEO satellite from equatorial to sun-synchronous orbit using electric thrusters would likely take years. Time is money. No satellite operator would trade lower launch costs for a years long delay in being able to perform the mission.

          1. Go look at your 12th paragraph.

            “The second is solved by moving things that do require different orbit planes and altitudes there by alternate means to chemical propulsion (e.g., electric thrusters). This can take a long time, but if there’s no rush, that’s not a problem; we’re already doing it with GEO comsats.”

            Other than some science satellites like C/NOFS, there aren’t many uses for a satellite in a LEO equatorial orbit (even C/NOFS was in a 10 degree inclination orbit). You can’t use that for communications, imaging, weather, or much of anything else outside of the equatorial region. To reach the regions where you can make money, you need inclined orbits. The mission dictates the orbit, and delaying getting to the operational orbit to save on launch costs is a poor economy. Ask yourself this, why isn’t SpaceX launching Starlink satellites into minimum inclination orbits then using their ion thrusters to move to their final inclinations?

          2. SpaceX doesn’t do that because there is currently no reason for them to do that. They aren’t launching from the equator.

            There are in theory many ways to make money in space that can be performed in equatorial orbit, but to date, launch costs have been too high to make them practical (e.g., space manufacturing, space resorts, space assembly, propellant depots). That will change once there is a pipeline of low-cost mass to equatorial orbit on regularly scheduled flights. If I have a choice of delivering twenty tons to ISS on a Falcon 9 for sixty million (with a tight launch window), or catching a ride on today’s flight to ELEO and doing a plane change from there for ten million, which am I going to choose?

  2. The equatorial ocean is a vast region.
    Also at sea level it’s at higher elevation due to equatorial Bulge, wiki: “The Earth has a rather slight equatorial bulge: it is about 43 km (27 mi) wider at the equator than pole-to-pole”
    Which other than, say climate, has not much significant except if launching rockets.
    And being able to launch to any inclination including zero.
    SpaceX might not launch it’s Starship from the Equatorial ocean, but it seems eventually it will have launch from the ocean.
    What I have been wondering about is how high can LEO orbit at zero inclination can be, without having as much radiation that ISS gets from it’s 51 degree inclination which gets like 80% of total radiation from flying near the southern anomaly.
    Or would 500 km zero inclination orbit have less radiation than ISS at it’s less than 400 km orbit?

  3. Looks like we might be entering a time when space takes a back seat to other developments. I hope we make it through this intact but things are looking grim.

    1. The oligarchs and totalitarians of the world seem all a-flutter these days as their iron dreams of empire crumble to scale around them. Putin in Russia, Xi in the PRC and the various powers-that-be behind the drooling puppet Biden are making more noise than ever because they suspect – correctly, in my view – that their day is nearly done.

      1. I don’t believe in fate but I am optimistic about the future in the long term. Things don’t just happen. They happen because people take action with intent and the people you believe are fated to fail also get to act with intent.

        Musk has talked about the risks to his plans and we are in an uncertain time with the economy and society that could lead to the things Musk fears.

        It doesn’t look like the DOJ is worried. The rise of Progressive Marxism hasn’t been halted. There are glimmers of hope but much uncertainty.

        There are no guarantees about the future and people who want different things than you, or me, get a vote.

        1. Yes, the black hats do get a vote. Sometimes, they even get to print extra votes and stuff ballot boxes. For now, they also get to pull banana republic crap like the DOJ/FBI did in FL – at least for awhile.

          But there is a point past which a populace with both the recent memory of constitutional government, and the means of self-defense ready to-hand, places sharp upper limits on the ability of our would-be overlords to continue cranking the crazy up to – and past – 11.

          Right now, they think they’re going to find some plausibly constitutional way to keep Trump from running again in 2024. Nothing they have tried to this point, including the Jan. 6 show trial circus, has yielded any useful pretext, so they’re now ratcheting up the fishing expeditions and attempts at intimidation.

          That isn’t going to work. If they keep going down this road, in fact, they’re going to turn Trump into an American Walesa or Havel or Navalny. Their fear of him reeks and fills our nostrils.

  4. Beck was not explaining Electron’s “low flight rate,” he was explaining its rising flight rate. He wouldn’t be working on Electron reusability and development of Neutron if he thought the launch market was stalled or contracting.

    Tim Ferris of Relativity Space agrees. On NSF’s Sunday show yesterday, he said that, even if every small launch provider now near launch succeeds – plus Starship, New Glenn and Vulcan – that demand will still exceed capacity by a factor of roughly three for at least the rest of the decade. Given that Starlink (SpaceX), Kuiper (ULA, Blue Origin, Arianespace) and OneWeb (Relativity) in combination represent a huge increase in launch demand that is already ongoing – and that those three projects have gobbled up most of the medium-to-heavy-lift capacity available or becoming available for the next 5 – 10 years, the new, smaller, vehicles will have no shortage of business from less Olympian players than the LEO broadband constellations.

    All-equatorial is a pipedream for geometric reasons. The LEO megaconstellations require mid- and high-inclination orbits in order to provide global coverage. Most imaging constellations want to be in SSO, though some also want to be in other non-equatorial orbits as well. Axiom Station will be in the same orbit as ISS. Future tourism-oriented stations will almost certainly be as well. People will want to see their hometowns from space. They will also want to see other peoples’ hometowns from space. And they will want to get to such stations directly and quickly, not spend weeks doing so under electric drive after ascending to equatorial orbit.

    This Equatorial Uber Alles idea is just – frankly – bonkers.

    1. The issue with ELEO is not where people will want themselves and satellites, but how they will get there. Calculate how much less it will cost to do the plane change from ELEO (by various methods) at ten bucks a pound in ELEO. Then compare to the best that dedicated launches can do from higher-latitude sites. Start with the simple case of Falcon 9 to ISS.

      [hint] You can do it with cryos impulsively for about the tenth of the cost. A lot kess if you do a bi-elliptic and are willing to wait a few days.

      1. If time was no object, you might have a point. But time is very much an object. The “cost” you refer to is just cheap propellant for completely reusable vehicles. Reusability, itself, is purchased at even greater such “cost.” A bit more is unimportant.

        As Elon says, “The worst mistake an engineer can make is to optimize the wrong thing.”

        1. You can do it impulsively, immediately, for far lower cost than launching directly, if propellant costs are that low. Run the numbers. I am proposing to optimize for cost to destination.

          1. If I read your post correctly, it isn’t that launchers and launches as they exist today won’t exist but they will be a smaller part of the overall market.

            Time might be the most important consideration for some but not for others. A lot of missions already compromise on taking longer to reach their intended destinations. But it isn’t an either or proposition as both options will exist.

            It is an interesting concept and discussion and the numbers are more realistic now than just a few years ago. To my untrained eye, ELEO mimics nature. Perhaps it is another blessing we don’t have rings like some other notable planets.

          2. If you were correct about this, the busiest spaceport on the planet would be Alcantara and tumbleweeds would be blowing through the rusting remnants of Wallops, Canaveral and Vandy.

      2. A few thoughts on plane changes from equatorial to other.

        A horizontal tether can sling tough smallish satellites to roughly a 3,000 m/s plane change.

        Jon Goffs’ three burn change is relatively quick at a week or less and can hit other orbits fairly economically.

        And a high DeltaV vehicle for plane change can be a very different beast from a normal launch vehicle. 0.1 gee acceleration will get the job done in under an hour. The structure can be very light and utilitarian without aerodynamics and high accelerations.

        Getting from the surface to the equatorial orbit can also cut a few corners.

        Forget who had the original idea that a series of seaborne launch/landing platforms can ring the Earth with each launch landing the first stage downrange on the platform that it then launches from.

        A rotovator tether can cut both DeltaV requirements of the upper stage and lower reentry velocity.

        Much of the rendezvous and docking complexity can be offloaded to tugs and the other vehicles in permanent orbit.

  5. I think that Rand’s argument is that when fuel, launchers, in-space manufacturing and servicing are all in a nice, cheap location from where you can go anywhere, that will be your first stop on your journey. It’s sort of like Crewe in the UK. It’s where you always change trains. Nobody actually goes there.

  6. “I’m both fascinated and amused at the degree to which intelligent commenters are having difficulty wrapping their heads around the ELEO concept.”

    Hmm, well if Earth spun 10 times faster and you launched from equator, you go to any inclination.
    but you get most of spin rate addition if it’s at zero degree inclination. Or you go to 28 degree inclination at same cost as launching from 28 degree latitude.
    Or if 28 degree go to 80 degree inclination, one go from equator to 80 inclination.
    But if go in opposite direction from equator one paid more to get to orbit due to spin [and 10 times spin of Earth would a lot to pay.
    Likewise if increase “spin rate” by going to orbit you likewise have same advantage of zero inclination launch..

    1. With mass driver adding surface speed velocity [just like increasing spin rate of earth]. And say mass driver added 1000 mph [doubling earth spin], At equator the direction of mass points would be along the zero degree latitude.
      With mass driver at 28 degree, it also go due east, but kind of limited to only putting stuff in 28 degree inclination orbit. But if mass driver add 1000 mph it’s more than the Earth spin is adding at the latitude.
      If wanted to go to 51 inclination, you could add another track going in that direction.
      With equator launch, it doesn’t seem make much sense add tracks going in different directions.

  7. If you’re putting propellant depots in orbit, equatorial orbits have lots of advantages. Launchers can launch at any time. Ships in that orbit can refuel and then go to any orbit.

  8. Interesting that Elon has had some talks with the Prime Minister of Indonesia recently. He seems interested in attracting SpaceX there.

    1. Small wonder. Having significant Musk operations in Indonesia would be as much or more a shot in the arm for the place as having the PRC there in a big way – but without the subversive, debt peonage and totalitarian baggage.

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