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The precise cost of launching last week’s SES-10 satellite into orbit is rumoured to have been in the $30 million-$40 million range, or about half the $60 million-$70 million normal fee. SpaceX performed a flawless launch using a ‘pre-flown’ first stage, and in a later briefing, SpaceX founder Elon Musk also said that the satellite’s protective pair of fairings were also recovered. The fairing, which shields the satellite on its way to space, costs $6 million, he said. “The fairing has its own thruster control system and a steerable parachute,” he added. “It’s like its own little spacecraft.”
But then came the amazing message, when Musk said that SpaceX’s launch costs could fall 100-fold. “I am highly confident,” Musk stressed.
He added that his team were also working on recovering the second ‘booster’ stage, which currently burns up in the atmosphere.
That promised 100-fold drop won’t translate immediately to low-cost launches, Musk said, because SpaceX needs to recoup research and development costs for reusability. “But it will certainly be less than the current price of our rockets, obviously, and it will be far lower than any other rocket in the world,” Musk claimed.
SpaceX has plans to re-fly up to six rockets during 2017, and will now be refurbishing this latest first stage for future use. But current work-in-progress on the first stage Falcon 9 rocket is being done so that each vehicle is designed for 10 or more launches, and this iteration will be flying later this year.
Martin Halliwell, SES’s CTO, speaking after the launch of SES-10, said that within 24 months [reusing rockets] will be so normal it will no longer matter if the launch is with a new rocket or a flight-proven booster.
And that is the threat for SpaceX’s rivals. Arianespace’s costs are already much higher than SpaceX, and Russia’s Proton rocket system has been plagued with reliability problems. SeaLaunch, which can operate from a floating ship, is effectively recovering from bankruptcy. India’s rocket industry is capable of lighter payloads but is busy fulfilling its own demands, and China’s launchers are wholly able to handle ‘western’ satellites but generally fall foul of America’s regulations, which forbid their use.