The size of the global space industry, which combines satellite services and ground equipment, government space budgets, and global navigation satellite services (GNSS) equipment, is estimated to be about $324 billion. At $95 billion in revenues, or about 29 percent, satellite television represents the largest segment of activity. Following this is government space budgets at $76 billion, or 24 percent, and services enabled by GNSS represent, about $76 billion in revenues. Commercial satellite remote sensing companies generated on $1.6 billion in revenues, but the value added services enabled by these companies is believed to be magnitudes larger. Because remote sensing value added services includes imagery and data analytics from other sources beyond space-based platforms, only the satellite remote sensing component is included in the global space industry total.
All of this activity would not be possible without orbital launch services. Global launch services is estimated to account for $6 billion of the $324 billion total. Most of this launch activity is captive; that is, the majority of payload operators have existing agreements with launch service providers or do not otherwise “shop around” for a launch. About a third of this $6 billion represents internationally competed, or commercial, transactions.
In 2015, there were a total of 86 orbital launches conducted by service providers in seven countries. This figure is elaborated upon in greater detail later in this report, but there are some interesting events worthy of note. Since 2014, U.S. providers have begun to cut into the existing share of commercial launches occupied by Russian providers. This is mostly due to a combination of factors. First is the entrance of Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), which has been offering its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles to the global market at low prices, attracting significant business. In addition, launch failures, quality control problems, and supply chain issues have plagued the Russian space industry, causing some customers to seek alternatives like SpaceX. In the meantime, Europe’s Arianespace remains a steadfast provider, offering reliable services via the Ariane 5 ECA, Soyuz 2, and Vega. Sea Launch, for a time a key player but never a dominant one, has essentially ceased operations. Meanwhile, Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) Launch Services and India’s Antrix have become more aggressive at marketing their H-IIA/B and PSLV vehicles, respectively.
Since about 2004, the annual number of orbital launches conducted worldwide has steadily increased. This has been due to government activity. U.S. government launches remain steady. For example, retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011 decreased the number of U.S. launches per year relative to the previous three decades. However, commercial cargo missions to the International Space Station (ISS) have helped to fill the resulting gap, along with anticipated commercial crew missions beginning in two years.
Perhaps most notable in terms of government launch activity is China. The number of orbital launches conducted by China has steadily increased each year since 2010, with a peak of 19 launches in 2012. The China Great Wall Industry Corporation (CGWIC) has also been aggressively pursuing international clients via package deals that include satellite manufacturing and launch. These launches are not considered commercial since the launch contract is not internationally competed. In 2015, China introduced two new small-class launch vehicles, the Long March 6 and the Long March 11. The country continues to develop the Long March 5 and Long March 7, both of which are expected to be launched in 2016 from a new launch site on Hainan Island. Finally, China’s human spaceflight program continues in a deliberate fashion, while the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) implements its robotic investigations of the Moon. These signs point to a robust future in Chinese spaceflight, expanding the Chinese slice of the pie.
Meanwhile, the commercial launch pie has not grown significantly during the past decade; instead, the slices of the pie have changed size. There are some signs the commercial launch pie may be expanding, however. Several new launch vehicles are being developed specifically to address what some believe is latent demand among small satellite operators. These vehicles are designed to launch payloads with masses under 500 kg (1,102 lb) to low Earth orbit (LEO). Though the price per kilogram remains high relative to larger vehicles, the value is in scheduling; small satellite operators, especially those with constellations of many satellites, can have greater control over their business plans. Previously, these small satellites would routinely “piggyback” as a secondary payload on a launch carrying a much larger payload. That primary payload dictated the schedule and the orbital destination. Some of these new vehicles are in advanced states of development, like the Electron by Rocket Lab and LauncherOne from Virgin Galactic, with some expected to start launching payloads in 2016. One vehicle that was under development for several years is U.S.-built Super Strypi. The Super Strypi was launched in November 2015 from Hawaii (the first orbital launch from the state), but failed soon after lift off. There were hopes that the vehicle would be offered commercially, but indications are the system will not attempt to fly again.
In addition to the failed Super Strypi flight, there were two other failures. One featured a Proton M provided by International Launch Services (ILS) carrying Mexsat-1 (Centenario). In that case, the third stage failed and the satellite and the Breeze-M fourth stage reentered the atmosphere shortly thereafter. The Proton M returned to flight in August 2015 carrying an Inmarsat satellite. The second failure was that of a SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying a Dragon cargo capsule to the ISS (Spx-7). In this case, the second stage experienced a structural failure just before staging. The Dragon capsule remained intact and operational, but its software was not programmed to deploy a parachute in the event of a launch failure. SpaceX returned to flight with the successful deployment of 11 ORBCOMM satellites in late December 2015. Both accidents delayed several commercial launches, many of which were rescheduled for 2016. For this reason, the number of commercial launches in 2015 will be slightly lower than in 2014.
There were some notable activities in 2015 relating to suborbital reusable vehicles. Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle successfully flew twice, launching from the company’s site in western Texas. The second flight, which took place on November 23, 2015, featured the first time in history that a vehicle was launched vertically, entered space, then landed vertically. Of course, the vehicle was not designed to achieve orbital velocities, and its apogee was 100.5 km (62 mi). In 2015, The Spaceship Company pursued work on the second SpaceShipTwo vehicle as the accident investigation for the October 2014 accident of SpaceShipTwo continued. Virgin Galactic, the operator of the SpaceShipTwo vehicles, expects flight testing of the new vehicle to take place in 2016.
The year in space transportation represented activity similar to each of the previous five years. But it belies what is taking place behind the scenes. New vehicles are being developed to replace older ones or to augment capabilities, while new satellite operators stand poised to release large constellations of telecommunication and remote sensing satellites. Human spaceflight activities continue on both the orbital and suborbital front, with orbital test flights of commercial vehicles expected to take place by 2017 and suborbital tests scheduled for 2016.