The rocket launch business is expensive and risky, and then there are the technical requirements: Launch providers have to ensure a customer's delicate and expensive spacecraft survives the trip to orbit.
But Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries is showing things can be done differently, according to Morgan Stanley analysts Adam Jonas and Armintas Sinkevicius. In a note to investors Friday, they said that the company "is disrupting this model entirely" by applying the ride sharing concept to satellites.
The company packed a record-breaking 64 satellites on a SpaceX rocket in December for a mission known as Spaceflight SSO-A. Morgan Stanley called it "a significant milestone for the company."
The practice of satellite "ridesharing" has become more commonplace, in part thanks to Spaceflight. As technological advancements have led to smaller satellites, that means more of them can be loaded onto rockets as secondary payloads – hitchhiking on launches like SpaceX's Falcon 9 as they bring larger satellites to orbit.
That makes it less expensive for satellite operators and fills space in what otherwise would have been empty payload for rocket launchers. "Spaceflight is significantly driving down the cost of launch with its ride sharing model, allowing smaller satellite companies to launch more cost efficiently and launch operators to fill excess capacity," Morgan Stanley said. "Spaceflight is able to provide customers with flexibility by virtue of having capacity with many different launch providers."
Curt Blake, the CEO of Spaceflight launch services, told CNBC, "Rideshare applies across the board and the whole idea of flexibility, and how crucial that is, as it brings the airline model to space. That is huge. We're moving rapidly toward a model where you're not buying a spot on a specific launch vehicle – you're buying the ability to get to a destination."
Blake said about Morgan Stanley's analysis, "I think it means that people, and Wall Street, are starting to see this industry as a valuable one and they've identified our company as … a disruptor, which is a great term."
The note is the latest in Morgan Stanley's "Space Disruptor Series," which features commentary on 90 companies by Morgan Stanley's "Space Team," which is led by Jonas.
Spaceflight Industries has two businesses: The all-in-one launch services unit, known as Spaceflight, and a satellite imagery unit called BlackSky. The former "has launched 210 satellites" to date, Morgan Stanley said. Spaceflight isn't slowing down, either, with contracts to launch about 100 satellites this year.
BlackSky represents the company's reach into satellite operations. The unit successfully launched two satellites at the end of last year, Global-1 and Global-2, and expects to launch six more this year. Spaceflight Industries aims to eventually have constellation of 60 satellites to provide high-resolution photos of Earth nearly on demand.
The company announced a $150 million fundraising round in March for the first 20 satellites of the BlackSky constellation.
Additionally, BlackSky is one of several companies working with Amazon Web Services for the recently-announced AWS Ground Station business. Amazon's cloud business is building a network of satellite connection facilities, representing the e-commerce giant's first public move into space-related hardware.
Ground stations are a vital link for transmitting data to-and-from satellites in orbit, used by companies engaged in a variety of activities like weather forecasting, communications and broadcasting. AWS Ground Station aims to remove the heavy capital costs for these companies of building their own ground station networks off of satellite operators.
Morgan Stanley hosted its first "Space Summit" in New York City in December and is telling clients to pay attention to space companies.