Multiple Small Satellite Launch Vehicles Under Development

LauncherOne stage separation. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
LauncherOne stage separation. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

There are at least 20 launch vehicles under development around the world designed to launch small satellite payloads weighing up to 1,000 kg (2,205 lb).

That was the conclusion of a recent survey by Carlos Niederstrasser and Warren Frick of Orbital ATK. They presented their results in a paper titled, “Small Launch Vehicles – A 2015 State of the Industry Survey,” during the Smallsat 2015 conference in Utah last month.

The authors identified active launcher programs according to a set of criteria. They did not attempt to assess the viability of any of the rockets being developed.  And there may be some projects they missed.

The tables below are adapted from the paper. I’ve combined several of their tables into single ones. I’ve also made some minor changes due to some developments that have occurred since the paper was written. For example, Virgin Galactic has increased the payload for LauncherOne. And the Kodiak Launch Complex has been renamed as the Pacific Spaceport Complex — Alaska.


Organization(s)Launch Vehicle Name
Country of Origin
Current First Launch Date
Projected Launch Cost
Estimated Cost Per Kg
Ventions LLCSALVOUSA20154 kgLEO
CubeCabCubeCabUSAJuly 20175 kg400 km$0.25 M$50 k
Lin IndustrialТаймырRussia9 kgLEO$0.18 M$20 k
XCOR AerospaceLynx Mark IIIUSA2017+15 kg400 km
Garvey Spacecraft CorporationNanosat Launch VehicleUSA20 kg450 km
Generation OrbitGO Launcher 2USAQ4 201630 kg425 km 300$2.5 M$56 k
Interorbital SystemsNEPTUNE N5USAQ4 201540 kg310 km SSO$0.25 M$13 k
Celestia AerospaceSagitarius Space ArrowSpainQ1 20164-16 nanosats600 km$0.24 MNo mass spec
BoeingALASAUSAQ1 201645 kgLEO$1 M$22 k
Open Space OrbitalNeutrino 1Canada50 kgLEO
zero2infinityBloostarSpain75 kg600 km SSO
Rocket LabElectronUSA/New Zealand2015100 kg500 km SSO$4.9 M$49 k
Scorpius Space Launch CompanyDemi-SpriteUSA160 kgLEO$3.6 M$23 k
Swiss Space SystemsSOARSwitzerland2017250 kgLEO<$10 M$40 k
 U. Hawaii, Aerojet Rocketdyne, Sandia National LabSuper StrypiUSAOctober 2015250 kg400 km SSO$12 M$48 k
Firefly Space SystemsFirefly αUSA2017200 kg SSO 400 kg LEOLEO/ SSO$8-9 M$20 k
Virgin GalacticLauncherOneUSAQ4 2016200 kg SSO 400+ kg LEOLEO/ High SSO<$10 M<$20 k
ARCA Space Corp.Haas 2CRomania/USA400 kgLEO
Orbital ATKPegasus XLUSA1990468 kg200 km 00
Orbital ATKMinotaur IUSA2000584 kg200 km 28.50
Lockheed MartinAthena IcUSAAfter contract award470 kg
760 kg
700 km SSO
500 km

As shown, the launch vehicles cover quite a range of orbits and payloads, ranging from 4 kg (8.8 lb) to 760 kg (1,676 lb). Most of the vehicles are being developed by small startups, although you will notice the presence of larger companies such as Orbital ATK, which has two active launch vehicles, and Lockheed Martin, which is upgrading the older Athena rocket family.

Another aerospace giant, Boeing, is developing its ALASA launch vehicle under a DARPA contract. Vention’s smaller SALVO air-launched rocket also was developed with defense funding under the ALASA program.

The majority of the launch vehicles are American; in two case, there is U.S. participation with partners in New Zealand and Romania. Spain, Switzerland, Russia and Canada are also represented.

The table below shows the different launch methods and locations used for the launch vehicles.


Organization(s)Launch Vehicle Name
Launch Method
Launch Location(s)
Current First Launch Date
Performance Orbit(s)
Projected Launch Cost
Ventions LLCSALVOAirCCAFS20154 kgLEO
CubeCabCubeCabAirInt’l WaterJuly 20175 kg400 km$0.25 M
Lin IndustrialТаймырLand9 kgLEO$0.18 M
XCOR AerospaceLynx Mark IIIAir/ Suborbital KSC or Mojave2017+15 kg400 km
Garvey Spacecraft CorporationNanosat Launch VehicleLandPSC-Alaska20 kg450 km
Generation OrbitGO Launcher 2AirUSA, PR, UKQ4 201630 kg425 km 300$2.5 M
Interorbital SystemsNEPTUNE N5LandQ4 201540 kg310 km SSO$0.25 M
Celestia AerospaceSagitarius Space ArrowAirInt’l WaterQ1 20164-16 nanosats600 km$0.24 M
BoeingALASAAirGlobalQ1 201645 kgLEO$1 M
Open Space OrbitalNeutrino 1Land50 kgLEO
zero2infinityBloostarBalloon Int’l Water75 kg600 km SSO
Rocket LabElectronLandBirdling’s Flat, NZ2015100 kg500 km SSO$4.9 M
Scorpius Space Launch CompanyDemi-SpriteLand160 kgLEO$3.6 M
Swiss Space SystemsSOARAir/ Suborbital2017250 kgLEO<$10 M
U. Hawaii, Aerojet Rocketdyne, Sandia National LabSuper StrypiLandPMRF Barking Sands — HawaiiOctober 2015250 kg400 km SSO$12 M
Firefly Space SystemsFirefly αLandPSC-Alaska preferred2017200 kg SSO 400 kg LEOLEO/ SSO$8-9 M
Virgin GalacticLauncherOneAirInt’l WaterQ4 2016200 kg SSO 400+ kg LEOLEO/ High SSO<$10 M
ARCA Space Corp.Haas 2CLand400 kgLEO
MISHAAL AerospaceM-OVLand454 kgLEO
Orbital ATKPegasus XLAirInt’l Water — Multiple locations demonstrated1990468 kg200 km 00
Orbital ATKMinotaur ILand CCAFS, PSC-Alaska, VAFB, WFF2000584 kg200 km 28.50
Lockheed MartinAthena IcLand4 US SpaceportsAfter contract award470 kg
760 kg
 700 km SSO
500 km

Ten of the vehicles use some form of air launch, including two using reusable suborbital system and a third using a high-altitude balloon. The rest are launched from the ground.

As mentioned, Virgin Galactic recently increased the payload capacity to 200 kg (441 lb) for sun synchronous orbit and 400+ kg (882+ lb) for LEO. This puts the company in direct competition with Firefly Space Systems, which is advertising a similar payload range for its ground-based launcher. Firefly is run by Tom Markusic, who used to Virgin Galactic’s vice president of propulsion.

  • Iain

    Not sure what the criteria was for their selection, but another one which I have been following is PLD space, They seem to be funded and are just starting engine testing. You’ll find most updates on their facebook or twitter.

  • Snofru Chufu

    Thank you Doug, that is a very interesting and a valid information, even if I am sure that the is not complete list.

  • savuporo

    Actually they still missed a few

  • DavidR2015

    Sounds to me like there will be too many launch providers for demand. It will still be cheaper to launch your small satellite as a co-passenger on a larger rocket, so long as you don’t need a specific orbit.
    It is likely that consolidation and competition will narrow the field over time to maybe half a dozen competitors or less. Hopefully these will be the strongest companies with the best services.
    I wonder if someone like Spacex would offer a launch for smallsats / cubesats on say an annual basis. So do something like “We’re going to launch to SSO in mid 2019, all the small sat’s that want to go to SSO, let us know”. Then the sat owners would get the benefit of bulk purchase. This kind of approach would really hurt these small rocket manufacturers.
    On the other hand, these small rocket manufacturers, may just be using these small rockets as a stepping stone to bigger things, like Spacex did with the Falcon 1.
    As demand for space launch increases, we should find that rockets get bigger and payloads get bigger. So I would expect that if satellites are shrinking, that they will start being bundled together in increasingly large numbers.
    This might even be a job for a tug. Launch a load of small sats into LEO on some sort of carrier, and then tug the carrier to different orbits to drop off the sats where required. That kind of technology would kill small sat launchers rapidly.

  • Snofru Chufu

    I am sure that many of them will fail.

  • Sam Moore

    There’s also a pair of Chinese vehicles; Kuaizhou/FT-1, being offered for commercial launches by CASIC and which has already flown, and CZ-11, which is likely to be offered commercially by China Great Wall and is due to fly in a few hours.

  • Hemingway

    ARCA Space Corporation is not a realistic developer. ARCA plans have been considered as a hoax in the past. In addition, ARCA has been criticized by the Romanian Space Agency, which says people from ARCA are some “amateurs” who “are making excessive publicity.”

    I read numerous articles on ARCA (Association of Romanian Cosmonautics and
    Aeronautics- now ARCA Space Corporation), and some of the Romanian stories raise serious concerns about ARCA and its product’s technical capability.

  • Aerospike

    I agree with you, ever since the original X-Prize days, ARCA has delivered not much beyond publicity stunts.

    They seem to be capable of some impressive composite work, but there isn’t really any serious rocketry to be found, as most stuff they build looks like it is for show only and not operational. Notice the complete lack on any credible hotfire pictures/videos.

    A few years ago people (even including armchair rocket scientists like myself) have debated with Dumitru Popescu online for days, trying to convince him that his “pendulum rocket” scheme will not work, but he just would not listen. I don’t know if anything has changed since then.

  • Sam86

    There is the brazilian vehicle VLM – Veículo Lançador de Microssatélite but its development is delayed.

  • Hemingway

    The Department of Economic Development of New Mexico will contribute $ 500,000 to build the new hangar and production space of 14,000 sq. ft. The initial City LEDA support for locating in Las Cruces is approximately $60,000, and includes waiver of first year rent at the 8960 Zia Blvd. facility for office and showroom space, and assistance in the first year’s rent of an assembly facility at the airport. The state will provide assistance for future expansion. ARCA will add 100 jobs in the process. $ 1.2 million was allocated for investment to start the business.

    In addition New Mexico has one of the most generous training incentive programs in the country. The Job Training Incentive Program (JTIP) funds classroom and on-the-job training for newly-created jobs in expanding or relocating businesses for up to 6 months. The program reimburses 50-75% of employee wages. Custom training at a New Mexico public educational institution may also be covered. ARCA will get all this extra money from New Mexico.

  • Larry J

    I agree that there’s a high probability of a shakeout happening within 10 years. There just doesn’t seem to be enough market to support that many launch providers. This might offer some interesting possibilities for some of these companies to combine the best aspects of their technology. For example, Firefly Space Systems is developing a rocket with an aerospike engine. At the same time, Rocket Lab’s Electron booster is implementing novel electric propellant pumps instead of expensive turbopumps. It might be possible to combine the two technologies to create a lower-cost, more efficient booster than either of their projects separately.

  • Hemingway

    There is no credible evidence that a HAAS rocket was launched in 2009.
    Here are photos of the balloon that carried a questionable rocket.

    Here is a discussion of the ARCA attempt.

  • windbourne

    Great article.
    It IS interesting to see how many companies are jumping on this. Most will never make it, BUT, if even if say half a dozen do, the competition will bring the price down lower. We are very likely going to see a new renascence on space adventure.

  • Douglas Messier

    Thanks. I haven’t been able to find anything on the Long March 11. Do you have any stats on payload, etc.

  • Douglas Messier

    Found another one today: SpaceLS. A company out of the UK. It’s hard to tell how much money they have backing them.

  • windbourne

    The reason is that it is actually an ICBM that is being pressed into use as a launcher.

  • Леонид Миронов

    Таймыр – is a URM (Universial Launch Modules) structure, there’s no only 9kg paylod to LEO type.

    Don’t forget to say, that it can carry 9 to 150 kg payload to LEO in 5 models.
    *Also, if there’s launchers, that can carry up to 700kg+ payload to LEO, so – where is such vessels as “Shavit”, “Saphir-2”, american’s wing-rocket launcher “Pegasus”, russian convertionised ICBM’s?

    They are all now in use! Bad post..

  • Sam Moore

    ‘About a ton to LEO maybe’ is the best I’ve got right now, we can probably expect a release after it flies like we got for CZ-6 last week. Only a few hours now.

  • Vladislaw

    Exactly what you would expect in the speculation phase, capital comes flooding in to every little tech startup with launch or rocket in it’s name. This creates over production. That starts off a chain of price cutting as companies fight for market share. This is also a time of peak innovation as companies are now faced with innovate or die. As we know, necessity is the mother of invention. Then the shake out phase as companies start going bankrupt and market leaders start buying up assets and innovations pennies on the dollar. Finally the new equilbrium prices with set in …

    going to be fun to watch.. can’t wait to see it happen for space based destinations, space based transportation. earth to LEO transportation… et cetera..

  • Sam Moore

    We’ve had releases from the motor manufacturer that the first stage motor for this project is the largest ever done in China, so it doesn’t seem to be from an announced missile. There is a chance one’ll show up in a later announcement though, like how the Kuaizhou 1st+2nd stages showed up as DF-26.

  • Douglas Messier

    There’s VLM and VLS. I was thinking of mentioning them, but the schedules keep slipping. It’s never clear if there’s an actual commitment to building them and what the schedules are for either one.

  • Kam Chuanhui

    First launch expected later today. Yes, seems like a repurposed military missile as it will be cold launch from a TEL. (have seen the photos)

  • windbourne

    I think it is one of their new sub missiles, but I have forgotten why I think that.

  • Sam86

    Unfortunally, Mr. Messier, these projects are under Planalto’s policy and Brazilian goverment is a complete disaster! It’s bolivarian, like Venezuela.

    They are leaving aside PEB (Brazilian Spacial Program) since they took power, 13 years ago….

    Despite the IAE’s efforts (IAE is a Institute under Air Force command), these programs are terrible delayed.

    The current estimate is that the first VLM flight to take place in 2018.

    But, it is a doubt, indeed.

  • TimR

    At the NEWSPACE conference in San Jose last month, one statement that stood out during the on stage discussions was a response to – is there still space in newspace for new startups. Yes but not with new launch vehicles was emphasized by one. That might have been self-serving. Given this list, probably not.

  • TimR

    Hey. There are six claiming first launch between now and EOY 2016. How many do you expect we’ll see happen?

  • Aerospike

    That’s the online discussion I was referring to, I participated in that thread 😉
    thanks for doing the search, I wasn’t sure where that discussion happened after all that time.

  • Sam Moore

    350 kg to 700 km SSO; 700 kg to unspecified LEO

  • Christopher James Huff

    Bloostar is bizarre. That toroidal stage structure makes an inefficient use of mass while being more difficult to manufacture. With the pancake-shaped vehicle, gimbaling is going to be really ineffective, so the main means of control would be differential throttling, which is likely to be slower and less reliable (poor throttle response being what made the last Falcon 9 landing attempt fail, and that wasn’t trying to balance multiple engines).

    And I really wonder about the added potential for propellant slosh. Apart from the instability it can add (remember Falcon 1 flight 2?), when the propellant levels get low, they’re going to have a hard time feeding it into those engines, and even a low level left remaining in those toroidal tanks is going to amount to a relatively large fraction of the capacity.

    And then they launch the whole thing from a balloon to avoid drag losses resulting from the goofy form factor, which are normally almost negligible for conventionally shaped rockets launched from the ground. So they add in a whole new batch of complexities and limitations there…

  • Sam Moore

    Another; Argentina’s Tronador II (200kg to 600km polar LEO), and the beefed-up Tronador III (750kg to 600km PLEO). Has seen some slippage, but is at the point of flying smaller demonstrators, unlike Brazil’s effort. Full-scale test planned for next year.

  • Christopher James Huff

    Hah. I hadn’t realized it was so questionable whether their test flights worked at all. I’d assumed their apparent success was just a combination of aerodynamic stabilization and a burn too short to show the instability of the vehicle.

  • Geoff T

    There’s also the rather optimistically named Spacefleet, also from the UK. Main page hasn’t been updated for a year but they post regular updates on their facebook page.

  • Aerospike

    This is not a bad post.

    1) The list is not by Mr. Messier, as is clearly stated in the text:
    “That was the conclusion of a recent survey by Carlos Niederstrasser
    and Warren Frick of Orbital ATK. They presented their results in a paper
    titled, “Small Launch Vehicles – A 2015 State of the Industry Survey,”
    during the Smallsat 2015 conference in Utah last month.”

    2) The list isn’t supposed to be complete, the projects got selected on some kind of criteria for a study, again clearly stated in the text:
    “The authors identified active launcher programs according to a set of criteria. They did not attempt to assess the viability of any of the rockets being developed. And there may be some projects they missed.”

    3) Regarding the launchers that you think are missing from this list:
    a) Shavit: due to launch site restrictions, it is currently of pretty much zero use for the commercial market.
    b) Safir (Block II): due to political reasons, Iranian rockets had no relevance on the global market – this may change with improving relationships between Iran and USA/Europe
    c) Pegasus (XL) is on the list, look again 😉

  • Ian1102

    This list also seems to be missing Bagaveev which has Silicon Valley funding I believe.

  • Snofru Chufu

    Thanks, that is interesting.

  • Snofru Chufu

    Mr. Messier, may you update the complete list in some days? Thank you!

  • Carlos G. Niederstrasser

    Our criteria for selection was fairly simple. They had to 1) Have a stated goal of developing a commercial LV 2) Have had some activity in the last three years, 3) Nothing public indicating they were cancelled or stopped working 4) the development is for an entire launch vehicle (not just pathfinder tech) and 5) be aiming to put up less than 1000 kg to “LEO” (however they defined it). Thank you for the link, my immediate glance at it is that PLD qualifies for the list. I will look into it in more detail and add them, if appropriate.

  • Carlos G. Niederstrasser

    Thank you for the link, my immediate glance at it is that Bagaveev qualifies
    for the list (see criteria in a different comment). I will look into it in more detail and add them, if

  • Carlos G. Niederstrasser

    Thank you for the information. I will do some more research into this project. Do you know if these will be commercial vehicles, or solely for use by the Argentinian government?

  • Carlos G. Niederstrasser

    Our criteria for selection was fairly simple. They had to 1) Have a
    stated goal of developing a commercial LV 2) Have had some activity in
    the last three years, 3) Nothing public indicating they were cancelled
    or stopped working 4) the development is for an entire launch vehicle
    (not just pathfinder tech) and 5) be aiming to put up less than 1000 kg
    to “LEO” (however they defined it).

    When a entrant was part of a family of vehicles, we only included the smallest one. That was the case with Таймы. The thrust of the paper was to focus on small launch vehicles, which is why we did this.

    We did include Pegasus (it is made by our company, after all)! Shavit and Saphir-2, to the best of our knowledge are not available commercially, which is why we didn’t include them. If you have information to the contrary, we would welcome that so we can update the list.

  • Carlos G. Niederstrasser

    It wasn’t clear to me that these rockets were planned to be available commercially. Delayed development is not an issue – many of the other entrants have seen delays, and likely will never fly. Do you have any further information on the current status of the VLM and whether it will be sold commercially or just used by the government of Brazil?

  • Carlos G. Niederstrasser

    Thank you, I wasn’t even aware of this vehicle. I will have to do some more research, and see if the recent launch brings up any additional information.

  • Carlos G. Niederstrasser

    I am sure we did! Please feel free to contact me if you have additional vehicles we should include.

  • Carlos G. Niederstrasser

    Thanks. I will have to do some more research to see if we should add them to the list (or at least our watch list).

  • savuporo
    Of course, Russian/Ukrainian active converted ICBMs like Strela-1 and Rokot are missing from the list, that are not much different in heritage from Pegasus or Minotaur or even CZ-11, but that doesnt really fall in the spirit of the presentation

  • savuporo

    Also, ex-Armadillo team at Exos Aerospace tried and failed to raise funding on Kickstarter
    Not sure if they packed up or not

  • Sam Moore

    No idea, sorry. The information about the program is vary scanty, at least in english.

  • We would like to be added to list.
    Douglas, if you require any more information please feel to free to contact us.

  • spacebryan

    Carlos, were you able to find launch costs or $/kg for PLD?

  • Carlos G. Niederstrasser

    I have not.