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Starship Adding to Market Share?

SpaceX's Satellite Launch Dominance Not Seen Ebbing Soon

SpaceX already dominates the U.S. commercial space launch market and many commercial space industry experts expect that trend will continue for the next few years. Its under-development Starship rocket -- able to carry upward of 100 tons of cargo per launch and potentially put satellites in orbit for a fraction of the cost on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket -- could further cement that dominance, launch experts told us.

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SpaceX "has pretty much monopoly power," accounting for the vast majority of launches, said Wilson Sonsini space lawyer Curt Blake, who previously was CEO of Spaceflight, a space rideshare firm. Future competition and Falcon 9 alternatives like Blue Origin's New Glenn, Relativity Space and Rocket Lab's Neutron denting that market share will depend on how Starship performs, he predicted. All those competitors will have a lot of reusability, but Starship is promising pricing that is "incredibly lower" than Falcon 9, he said.

New Glenn and United Launch Alliance's Vulcan rockets expect to begin operation this year.

SpaceX was responsible for 43% of all launch attempts worldwide last year, with 96 successful Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches and two failed test launches of the 33-engine Starship, according to the Space Foundation. The company projects 144 launches this year (see 2401020004). In February alone, SpaceX had six U.S. launches -- four for its Starlinks, one Intuitive Machines-1 satellite launch and one for TelkomSat-113BT, according to FAA data.

The next Starship test flight could come Thursday, SpaceX posted earlier this month on X. The company said the test will include attempts at opening and closing Starship's payload door, the first reignition of a Raptor engine in space and a controlled reentry.

SpaceX probably will remain a launch leader for years, with Starship being "transformative" for what can be done in low earth orbit and cislunar, Space Foundation Research Director Lesley Conn said in an interview. In the small and medium lift vehicle marketplace, a variety of national programs are emerging, she said, pointing to the U.K.'s intense focus on filling a niche in the European market for putting small satellites in orbit. More nations "are recognizing the opportunity of space and the need to be in space," she said. Some African and Latin American nations are exploring the opportunity, too, she added.

A challenge with taking on SpaceX is that it has demonstrated reliability in medium to heavy lift as well as a pricing advantage, Conn said. But there are niches that startups could exploit, such as launches of small satellites, she said.

A dedicated Falcon 9 launch costs around $3,000 per kilogram, and is the cheapest option available, according to Payload Research. Starship payload costs could drop to $200 per kilogram it said, though it added that customer costs aren't likely to fall dramatically in the near term.

SpaceX's success in part is because its competitors have struggled mightily to challenge the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, said Maxime Puteaux, head of Euroconsult's space industry consulting practice. It was expected that New Glenn and Vulcan would be operational before Starship started launching, though that seems in strong doubt now, he said.

Starship exists for crewed missions like Mars travel as well as launching Starlinks, Puteaux said. The commercial demand for Starship remains to be seen, he said. At the same time, there's an inexorable move in the launch industry to larger rockets, he added. However, launch missions typically proceed with some unfilled capacity, except when SpaceX is launching Starlinks, he said. Most of the time Starship heads skyward with a low fill rate, he said.

The microsatellite launcher marketplace will likely see many failures in coming years, with demand supporting probably one or two launchers, Puteaux said. All Rocket Lab's competitors in that tranche "are being blown away," he said. The proliferation of launch startups in recent years was often funded outside market realities, he said.

Whether SpaceX's launch business is profitable is hard to discern, given it's a private company, Blake said. He said it clearly benefits from having an anchor customer launching SpaceX's Starlink broadband satellites. The launch business relies on volume because of the large fixed costs to amortize, he said. Competing with SpaceX's launch business "is a hard road" because of that Starlink anchor, he said.

SpaceX "is moving fast" and has a lot of planned activities, making competition with it challenging, consultant George Nield said. Competition will exist in niche markets, from suborbital space tourism missions to small launchers putting up cubesats.

A huge opportunity will come in point-to-point transportation -- launches that go through space while heading from one spot on earth to another, such as an ultrafast New York/Bangkok flight, Nield said. While Starship has that capability, it's not the only way to achieve point-to-point missions, Nield said. Nearly a dozen companies in the U.S. are engaged in designs and studies and subsystem testing for point-to-point vehicles, he said.

Though Starship could have a big impact on launch market competition, one company cannot expect to operate in all aspects of the space economy, Nield said, pointing to emerging novel activities such as space tugs for satellite servicing or active debris removal.