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Rocket Lab's Electron rocket taking flight. Photo: Trevor Mahlmann/Rocket Lab

Dozens of companies around the world are looking to tap into the market for launching small payloads into orbit. If they succeed, it could reshape the space industry.

Why it matters: Historically, small satellites have hitched rides to space as secondary payloads on large rockets like SpaceX’s Falcon 9. But upstart rocket companies don’t think that small satellites, meant for beaming satellite internet to Earth, for example, should be forced to launch based on the readiness of a larger payload, like a communications satellite.

According to a survey released in 2018, there are 34 small launchers under development, but only a handful are starting to fly.

  • Virgin Orbit is working toward the first flight of its rocket, known as LauncherOne. The rocket is designed to launch from under the wing of a Boeing 747, boosting small satellites to orbit from thousands of feet above the Earth. That “mobile launch pad” allows for more flexibility in scheduling.
  • Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket has launched five times, lofting 25 satellites to space for government and private customers, making it a serious contender.
  • Other small launch companies like Firefly Aerospace, Vector and Stratolaunch are also in various stages of development and testing.

But, but, but: Launching small satellites using a small rocket may not actually be the best or cheapest way to get them to orbit.

  • If a company doesn’t need its satellite in orbit on a specific schedule, it could save money by waiting to hitch a ride, according to industry analyst Carissa Christensen, CEO of Bryce Space and Technology.
“There will be a lot of small satellites, but a lot of them don’t need to ride in a taxi,” Christensen told Axios. “A lot of them can take the bus.”
  • Even with the potential for huge constellations of internet beaming satellites from SpaceX, Amazon, OneWeb and others, small launchers may not have enough business to sustain them, creating a rocket bubble.
  • Still, some customers, such as governments, could be willing to pay a premium to make sure their wares make it to space on time and on a shorter timescale.

The bottom line: The small launch industry could soon see a shakeup, with only a few small launchers remaining while others fold or merge.

Go deeper

Updated 23 mins ago - World

German election: Social Democrats narrowly beat Angela Merkel's bloc

SPD leader Olaf Scholz. Photo: Alex Kraus/Bloomberg via Getty Images

BERLIN — The center-left Social Democratic Party (SDP) clinched a narrow victory in Germany's historic federal elections on Sunday, just four years after suffering its worst loss since World War II.

Why it matters: It's a stunning political comeback for the SPD, paving the way for its chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz to form a new governing coalition and lead Europe's largest economy into the post-Merkel era.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Liz Cheney: Americans deserve better than choice of Biden or Trump

Rep. Liz Cheney talks with Lesley Stahl on CBS' "60 Minutes." Photo: CBS News

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) told CBS' "60 Minutes" in an interview broadcast Sunday that Americans "deserve better than having to choose between" President Biden's "disastrous" policies and former President Trump, "who violated his oath of office."

Why it matters: Cheney made the remarks after CBS' Lesley Stahl put it to her in the interview that Republicans feel that her joining the House select committee in charge of investigating the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot helps "keep the focus on Trump instead of on the shortcomings of the Biden administration."

7 hours ago - Politics & Policy

First look: The LCV's $4M ad buy

A screenshot from a new League of Conservation Voters ad supporting Rep. Stephanie Murphy.

The League of Conservation Voters and Climate Power are aiming another $4 million worth of ads at centrist House Democrats, urging them to support the climate provisions in President Biden’s $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: Progressive groups are trying to counter the onslaught of conservative money pouring into swing districts. Both sides are trying to define Biden’s Build Back Better Agenda and pressure lawmakers to support — or oppose — the legislation scheduled for a vote in the House this week.

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