Repurposing Soviet-era ballistic missiles to serve as small-satellite launchers is turning out to be more costly than expected, leaving an opening for players in Europe and elsewhere to field vehicles that could take up the slack.

For months, Russia and Ukraine have been at odds over who should pay to convert and operate the Dnepr rocket, and how to divide revenue from the sale of launch services within ISC Kosmotras, which markets the former SS-18 Satan ICBM. In the meantime, with the promise of cheap, plentiful Russian and Ukrainian rockets slipping away, others are looking to capitalize on the burgeoning smallsat market.

The mostly Italian-built Vega light launcher debuted in February with a near-flawless maiden launch from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, giving the Arianespace consortium that manages it a leg up in the small-satellite market. Priced at $40 million per mission, the Vega rocket—Europe's first all-new launch vehicle development in more than 20 years—is a bit pricey for smallsat operators. Vega managers say the next challenge is to increase the launch rate to four from one per year to reduce per-launch prices and capture what they say is a booming market for small spacecraft.

“Vega addresses a segment of the market which is rapidly growing, and the main segment of this market is Earth-observation,” says Louis Laurent, director of programs for Arianespace. “Internally, we are working on at least 10 different missions for Vega, which is an indication of the interest the market has for this launch vehicle.”

Russia and Ukraine, for the moment, have at least two launchers competing in this same market: the Dnepr, the long-term future of which is now in doubt, and the Rokot, commercial launches of which have been managed since 2002 by a German-Russian joint venture, Eurockot Launch Services of Bremen. The three-stage liquid Rokot, powered by repurposed SS-19 ICBMs and a new Breeze KM upper stage developed by the Krunichev Space Center, has been used for Russian government launches since 2005.

Eurockot Sales Director Peter Freeborn says the Rokot is expected to remain in service through 2019, when Russia's new Angara 1 light launcher is expected to come online. “One often hears rumors that the life of ICBM-based former Soviet-type launchers is nearing its end, but not in our case,” Freeborn says. “Rokot is to stay in the market for a couple of years to come.”

Freeborn says Eurockot has a backlog of four launches for the European Space Agency (ESA), including the planned March launch of the Swarm mission. He says Russia has 75-80 flight-worthy boosters and that improvements to the Breeze KM upper stage have augmented the rocket's payload capacity by 200 kg (440 lb.), giving it the ability to loft 1,500 kg to sun-synchronous orbit (SSO).

“There is no other Russian-government small launcher,” Freeborn says. “There will be an interest by the Russian government to keep Rokot going,” he adds, until the next-generation light launcher enters service near decade-end.

In July, Vladmir Popovkin, head of Russian space agency Roscosmos, suggested that a next-generation light launcher could enter service before mid-decade. “We will launch the light version and the heavy version of Angara both next year, with probably an experimental payload because the launches are very risky,” he said on the sidelines of the Farnborough International Airshow.

The submarine-launched Volna, managed by Russia's Makeyev State Rocket Center, was never a major market force. It appears to be out of the game following a botched effort this year to make good on a contract with ESA to launch its European Experimental Reentry Testbed (Expert) technology demonstrator.

In India, meanwhile, the Polar Service Launch Vehicle (PSLV) is building an impressive track record in the smallsat arena. But the rocket is in high demand in India, and it remains unclear whether New Delhi can throttle up the PSLV's launch cadence.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) plans to introduce a next-generation solid-rocket launcher dubbed Epsilon that will launch from the Uchinoura Space Center in the summer of 2013, carrying the planetary observatory Sprint-A.

Epsilon Project Manager Yasuhiro Morita says modifications are under way at Uchinoura to make the site more efficient for small missions weighing 1,200 kg to low Earth orbit (LEO) and 450 kg to SSO. Morita says the three-stage Epsilon design includes an autonomous checkout system and mobile ground-tracking and control, along with more user-friendly characteristics that include lower acoustic vibration levels at ignition, a new vibration attenuator to improve the sinusoidal vibration environment, and accurate orbit injection using a liquid-propelled upper stage.

Japan approved development of the next-generation launcher in 2010 with a target cost of $271 million. Morita says launch costs are expected to be high initially, at ¥3.8 billion ($49 million) in 2013. But JAXA plans a two-step development process to improve Epsilon's cost and performance. A second flight of the rocket slated for 2015 will offer a payload-carrying capacity of 550 kg to SSO. By 2017, the agency will introduce a post-Epsilon rocket using lighter materials that can perform launches at the lower price of roughly $39 million.

For its part, China, which supports multiple Long March rocket variants with growing domestic demand, is now eyeing small satellites for LEO missions as a market niche. The Long March 6 and 7 rockets are being developed to deliver Earth-observation and other LEO payloads, and Beijing has already booked a launch slot for Venezuela's VRSS-1 satellite.

“Because of the proliferation of space technologies, more and more countries are developing their own satellites,” said Fu Zhiheng, vice president of China Great Wall Industry Corp. during a satellite finance conference in Paris last month. “I think there is a need for small-satellite launch services, and we are making efforts in that [area].”

Fu said the company has signed a contract with a Spanish company, Galactic Suite, which is competing for the $30-million Google Earth Lunar X Prize competition to put a small rover on the surface of the Moon by 2014.

“We have signed contracts with some other customers, so I think we'll be putting more effort in the LEO market,” he said. “We have heard customers complain there are not enough opportunities for LEO launchers, so this is an area for more attention.”

In the U.S., Lockheed Martin Space Systems is still toying with the idea of introducing a small-class launcher from the Athena rocket family. It expects the solid-fueled rocket to address U.S. Defense Department demand for small-spacecraft capabilities and take advantage of NASA's shift away from high-dollar flagship campaigns to medium and small missions.