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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

Dion Rabouin, author of Markets
26 mins ago - Economy & Business

Biden's inflation danger

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

President-elect Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion stimulus proposal has economists and bullish market analysts revising their U.S. growth expectations higher, predicting a reflation of the economy in 2021 and possibly more booming returns for risk assets.

Yes, but: Others are warning that what's expected to be reflation could actually show up as inflation, a much less welcome phenomenon.

Ina Fried, author of Login
2 hours ago - Technology

CES was largely irrelevant this year

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Forced online by the pandemic and overshadowed by the attack on the Capitol, the 2021 edition of CES was mostly an afterthought as media's attention focused elsewhere.

Why it matters: The consumer electronics trade show is the cornerstone event for the Consumer Technology Association and Las Vegas has been the traditional early-January gathering place for the tech industry.

The FBI is tracing a digital trail to Capitol rioters

Illustration: Sarah Grillo

Capitol rioters, eager to share proof of their efforts with other extremists online, have so far left a digital footprint of at least 140,000 images that is making it easier for federal law enforcement officials to capture and arrest them.

The big picture: Law enforcement's use of digital tracing isn't new, and has long been at the center of fierce battles over privacy and civil liberties. The Capitol siege is opening a fresh front in that debate.

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