An aerial view of prototypes for the Starship rocket and Super Heavy booster stacked at the company’s facility near Brownsville, Texas on January 9, 2023.
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Overview: Looking up in 2023
After ending on a bit of a downer (“A year to forget for space stocks”), I’m entering 2023 with what feels like contrarian optimism. The space industry is chock full of opportunities and milestones to look forward to over the next twelve months, as the market for 21st century space companies continues to evolve and mature.
Who’s going to seize the moment? Here are the top three space business news items I’m watching for and, shocker, all three are about getting to orbit.
1. Project Kuiper
Amazon’s satellite internet effort arguably makes it the tech giant with the most skin in the space game, and last year’s biggest-ever commercial launch deal showed the company is serious about its capital-intensive plan. But the satellite broadband landscape is quickly changing. If Project Kuiper is going to stake its place among the low Earth orbit networks – as SpaceX’s Starlink passes 1 million subscribers and OneWeb nears completion of its first-generation constellation – this is the year it needs to do it. The seminal moment will be Project Kuiper testing its first two prototype satellites in orbit, scheduled to fly on the debut launch of ULA’s Vulcan rocket.
We’re fast approaching two years since the dust cleared in south Texas, and Starship prototype SN15 stood tall on the landing pad. While SpaceX has clearly been busy at its development facility, leadership’s goal of getting Starship to orbit in 2021, and then 2022, came and went. There is a lot of understandable excitement about the rocket’s potential, given the scope of the company’s ambitions – but it needs to get to space first. We know how new rocket development goes, so maybe the fully-stacked Starship gets off the ground this spring, or maybe later. Doing so this calendar year, without a major setback, would be a major victory for SpaceX.
3. A breakout stock
This is a metaphorical “getting to orbit” (although some among the space pure-play stocks also need to do so literally). In my view, it’s time to stop grouping these as space “SPACs” and instead recognize their widely differing fundamentals. They’re all space companies, certainly, but the market has lumped them together as if their business models have similar revenue streams, operational risk — and potential. So who breaks out? Space companies that are beyond the development phase and are expanding could distinguish themselves with investors as a discounted opportunity in a shifting market.
- Private investment in space infrastructure companies dropped sharply in 2022, Space Capital Q4 report finds: While the year was still the third-highest on record, investment in what would be commonly considered space companies fell to $6.3 billion. The report emphasized that, “even with strong market headwinds, breakthrough technologies and exceptional teams continue to secure funding.” – Space Capital
- SpaceX launches pair of Space Force missions, as its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets carried satellites to orbit from Florida. The company continues to build the cadence of Falcon rocket launches, with missions lifting off about every four days so far this year. – SpaceX / SpaceX
- ABL says inaugural launch failure likely due to ‘unwanted fire’ in rocket: In a post just a week after its first launch got off the ground but suffered an anomaly shortly after liftoff, the company provided details and data around the attempt. ABL believes the fire spread to the rocket’s avionics and caused a “system-wide failure.” – ABL Space
- Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck asks Pentagon to reconsider national security launch contract requirements, saying in a briefing hosted by Canaccord Genuity that he would “love to see” the company’s coming Neutron rocket able to compete. – SpaceNews
- Astronauts make adjustments to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon: As NASA and Roscosmos navigate crew arrangements due to the damaged Soyuz capsule MS-22, the agency prepared the SpaceX craft in case of an emergency evacuation. – NASA
- Carnival expands agreement with SpaceX’s Starlink: The cruise line said it began rolling out Starlink to two fleets in December and plans to expand it to its other brands as well. – Carnival
- Phased array startup CesiumAstro acquires U.K.’s TXMission, for an undisclosed amount. – SpaceNews
- NASA names Shawn Quinn as new Exploration Ground Systems program manager, succeeding former manager Mike Bolger who retired in December after the Artemis I launch. – NASA
- Arianespace appoints Steven Rutgers as Chief Commercial Officer: The European launch company hired Rutgers from Hiber, where he was VP of sales. – Arianespace
On the horizon
- Jan. 23 – Rocket Lab’s Electron launching first U.S. based mission from Virginia.