Space: Faster, Cheaper, No Questions Asked


January 6, 2017: In late 2016 China announced that it had commercialized its 58 ton LM 11 quick launch satellite launcher as the 78 ton KZ 11 and offered it as a cheaper (less than $5,000 per pound put in orbit) service. That’s half the current price and the KZ 11 takes much less time to get ready. That’s because the KZ 11 uses three solid fuel rocket stages plus a small liquid fuel rocket in the fourth stage to place the payload of up to 1.5 tons into a 700 kilometer high orbit or one of up to a ton into SSO (Sun-synchronous orbit) of up to 800 kilometers high. SSO means the orbit keeps the satellite constantly in sunlight, which is optimal for photographic satellites. China has set up a separate company (Expace) for KZ 11 commercial launches that enable customers to get a satellite into orbit in less than 24 hours. The main competition of KZ 11 is the Italian Vega, which weighs twice as much and costs about twice as much per pound to put anything into orbit.

This all began with LM 11, which was designed for putting military satellites up in a hurry, as in some kind of emergency. An LM 11 can put a satellite of up to 700 kg (1,540 pounds) into LEO (low earth orbit) of under 1,000 kilometers high. LM 11 is considered the smallest member of the Long March family but is very different as it is the only one that does not rely exclusively on liquid fuel rocket engines. The Long March family of rockets has been very successful with few failures. That means since 1970 liquid fuel Long March rockets had 236 launches and a 95 percent success rate.

While military satellites get more media attention, the real business of space, and where the Chinese put most of their efforts, is in commercial satellites. The Chinese have noted that since the 1980s space satellites have gone from big business to huge business. By 2012 there were about 1,000 active satellites in orbit, and nearly half of them were American. The number of satellites has been going down a bit since then because individual satellites last longer and can do more. It is expected that the number of satellites will now start to rise rapidly because of the popularity of mini-satellites (under 100 kg/220 pounds). Some of these mini-sats are much smaller (under ten kg) and still useful. In some cases dozens of mini-sats are put into orbit by one launcher.

About 75 percent of all satellites are non-military. Most of them are commercial, the rest government non-military birds. Since 2001 satellite industry revenues more than doubled, from $86 billion (in 2014 dollars) a year to over $200 billion now. The cost of the satellites is less than ten percent of annual satellite revenues. About four percent of the money comes from launching all those satellites and 36 percent of those launches are military. The U.S. has about a third of the launch business, mainly because of the requirement that U.S. classified satellites be launched by American rockets. About half the satellite launches (and two-thirds of the satellites) were for communications, which generates the most income (mostly for TV, followed by data). The U.S. remains the major manufacturer of commercial satellites, with over half of the market. China sees opportunity in all this and has come a long way in a short time to take advantage of it.

Russia and the United States have both been using retired ICBMs as cheap satellite launchers and that started with older liquid fuel models. For example the Russian RS-18 is a 106 ton, 24.5 meter (76 foot) long ICBM that uses storable liquid fuel, meaning that the missile is inherently more complex to maintain than a solid fuel missile. Thus the older engines, and other components, of the first RS-18s to enter service are expensive to maintain but still in good shape to launch. Instead of nuclear warheads, the retired RS-18s are putting satellites into orbit before their engines become too old to be reliable. So far 94 percent of RS-18s used as satellite launchers have been. More importantly, liquid fuel rockets can lift a heavier load than solid fuel rockets so the last generation of Russian liquid fuel ICBMs (the RS-18 and RS-20) are superior as satellite launchers than American ICBMs (which since the 1980s have all been solid fuel). The last liquid fuel American ICBM, the Titan, was also converted to be a satellite launcher and many were later built just for that. The last of these was used in 2003.

The RS-18 entered service in 1975, and it wasn't until the 1980s that Russia began producing reliable solid fuel rocket motors large enough for ICBMs (the 45 ton RS-12M). The last RS-18s were manufactured in 1990, and Russia expects each of them to have a useful life of 30 years via the equipment improvements and careful maintenance. Older ones will often end up being used for satellite launches rather than scrap.

The RS-18 was developed as a "light" ICBM, in effect, a competitor for the U.S. Minuteman series. The RS-18 was the first Russian ICBM to carry MIRV (Multiple, Independent Reentry Vehicles, which means each of six warheads in the missile had its own guidance system). The SS-19 carries six warheads. The RS-18 ICBM had a range of 10,000 kilometers. The RS-18 is converted into a satellite launcher by adding a third stage. Such missiles can lift 1.8 tons into orbit. Current technology enables small satellites (as small as 100 kg/220 pounds or less) to do useful work, and some RS-18 satellite launchers have carried many of these at once. The heavier (217 ton) RS-20 ICBMs have a max satellite payload of nearly three tons.

China does not have many older liquid fuel ICBMs and has concentrated on developing more reliable and cheaper solid fuel rockets. This is paying off. Moreover China will sell launch service to just about anyone who can pay, no questions asked.


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