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Look Out, Northrop and Rocket Lab: Jeff Bezos Has a Space Tug, Too

Motley Fool - Sat Oct 28, 2023

First there was Northop Grumman(NYSE: NOC), first out of the gate with a Mission Extension Vehicle capable of providing propulsion and guidance to satellites in Earth orbit that had run out of fuel. Next came Rocket Lab(NASDAQ: RKLB), with a "Photon" spacecraft able to provide similar services to smaller satellites. Finally, earlier this year we learned that privately owned Firefly Aerospace was rounding out the list of companies preparing to offer "space tug" services with its new family of Elytra orbital vehicles.

But wait! What's that I see on the horizon? Could it be yet another space company developing an orbital tug boat to haul defunct satellites hither and thither?

Yes, indeed it is. And the name of this company is Blue Origin -- Amazon(NASDAQ: AMZN) founder Jeff Bezos's personal space company.

Artist's conception of Blue Ring spacecraft.

Image source: Blue Origin.

Introducing Blue Ring

For several years now, Bezos's Blue Origin has been making waves in space circles -- first beating SpaceX to the punch by successfully landing a rocket back on Earth after sending it to space, then vying with Virgin Galactic for dominance in the new market for rocket flights for space tourists, then winning a NASA contract to land astronauts on the moon, and most recently launching a pair of test satellites preparatory to building an orbiting satellite internet system.

Blue Origin's latest venture has most in common with that last one. As the company described in a press release earlier this month, "Blue Ring" is a spacecraft platform "focused on providing in-space logistics and delivery," and, specifically, giving space customers "the ability to easily access and maneuver through a variety of orbits cost-effectively." And as an indicator of how serious Blue Origin is about this project, it chose this event to inaugurate a whole new business division for the private space company: "In-Space Systems."

But with whom will this new business compete?

Designed to service payloads of up to three tons, and to operate for about five years' lifespan, Blue Ring is more of a competitor to Firefly's Elytra (payload: 1 ton) and Northrop's MEV and larger MRV ("Mission Robotic Vehicle," itself a 3-ton spacecraft) than to Rocket Lab's smaller Photon, which can move about 170 kg.

That being said, Blue Ring will not be able to itself launch payloads that big. For that, Blue Ring will require a ride.

First things first

Blue Origin has ambitious plans for Blue Ring, ranging from carrying and deploying payloads launched with it atop New Glenn rockets, to shifting other satellites around from orbit to orbit, to refueling "empty" satellites so they can move on their own. However, Blue Ring itself is only a spaceship that can perform these functions in orbit.

To get to orbit itself in the first place, Blue Ring is being built of a size that will permit it to launch atop Blue Origin's New Glenn rocket (currently still in development), or one of several other companies' rockets. The company notes that United Launch Alliance's Vulcan Centaur (also still in development) is also big enough to carry the spacecraft. SpaceX's Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy reusable rockets are also potential carriers of the spacecraft.

Be careful around SpaceX

If you read that last bit carefully, you may have noticed that the only rockets currently able to launch Blue Ring (i.e., Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy) are owned by another company: SpaceX. And this sets up an interesting situation for Blue Origin.

Already dominant in space launch, SpaceX has shown a marked inclination to helping other companies do things in space, and then taking over those business niches. SpaceX first helped satellite communications companies launch comsats into orbit. Then SpaceX developed its own orbital satellite internet system: Starlink.

SpaceX first sold slots aboard its rockets to companies that aggregated lots of small satellites to launch jointly on "rideshare" missions. Then SpaceX began selling rideshare missions of its own.

Most recently, SpaceX competed with United Launch Alliance for the right to launch U.S. military satellites into orbit. Then SpaceX announced it was building a Starshield military satellite business of its own.

Now, I don't know for certain that the same thing will happen with space tugs. But when I see Northrop Grumman build a space tug business, and then Rocket Lab and Firefly Aerospace -- and now Blue Origin -- all rush to follow suit, I kind of wonder if there might be a "there" here. If this many companies, all betting on the birth of a new industry in on-orbit services, caught my interest, I would not be one bit surprised to learn that SpaceX has noticed the trend as well -- and might design and build its own space tug next.

By the time Blue Origin has its Blue Ring ready for launch atop a Falcon rocket (Blue says this might happen in 2025), it may be surprised to find a shiny new SpaceX space tug sitting right next to it in the nosecone.

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John Mackey, former CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Rich Smith has positions in Rocket Lab USA. The Motley Fool has positions in and recommends Amazon. The Motley Fool recommends Rocket Lab USA. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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