SmallSat Launchers: How a Tech Revolution Gets to Orbit

Small satellites, or SmallSats, have typically been relegated to a secondary position when it comes to launching. But now that SmallSats have grown so numerous, they are changing the launch sector. Whereas previously unprofitable, launch providers are now eager to let SmallSat payloads ride first class.

At the start of the next decade, launches to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) could happen every week, multiple times a week. The number of launch providers developing and fielding new rockets between now and 2020 is such that if even a few reach their anticipated launch cadence, what counts as fast access to space today would seem pithy by tomorrow’s standards.

The groundswell behind this surge in launch activity is the unabated growth of small satellites, ranging from CubeSats with a mass of a few kilograms, to heftier SmallSats amounting to a few hundred kilograms. Miniaturization has made small satellites capable of very advanced missions, and their low cost is spurring on ideation, bringing new private capital, and creating a large demand for launch services.

Launch has often been referred to as the bottleneck for the space industry since, without a means to orbit, the industry would cease to exist. But as launch providers old and new bring forth ways to bound over the Karman Line, the path — to LEO at least — could start looking less like a tube and more like a highway.

Not Your Grandfather’s SmallSat Bubble

When asked about the new SmallSat market, the quick-witted will surely remind you that the entire industry started with the launch of a SmallSat called Sputnik. Satellites have gotten bigger, more capable and more diverse since then, but their evolution has splintered, with some satellites getting even larger while others pay homage to their original manifestation. The last big wave of SmallSat enthusiasm culminated in a return to tinier form factors back in the 1990s. This time period saw companies such as Iridium and Globalstar languish in an economic quandary, while others, like Teledesic and TRW’s Odyssey constellations, capsized completely. For the launch market, where developing a new product can take several years if not decades, short-term trends are no good for hedging new business ideas. That is what makes today’s push back into SmallSats more convincing.

“The fundamental difference between now and then is that there is real hardware in orbit now,” says Peter Beck, founder and CEO of Rocket Lab. “The technology improvements between now and then are just enormous.”

The applications for SmallSats today are legion, the cost of production is drastically lower, and by leveraging resources such as Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) technology, the barrier to entry is considerably reduced. As a result, the whole gamut of launch service providers are studying and investing in ways to serve this market with the confident expectation that it will prove a stable and lucrative venture.

Rocket Lab got its start in 2007, but truly entered the spotlight in the summer of 2014 with the revealing of its carbon-composite Electron launch vehicle, capable of delivering 150kg to a 500km Sun-Synchronous Orbit (SSO) for less than $5 million. With the reveal, the company concurrently announced more than 30 customers had already signed up to launch using Electron before the rocket had so much as a test flight. And more customers have signed up since then.

“There are literally hundreds of companies around the world who are planning to build business around small satellites,” adds Firefly Space Systems Senior Advisor Andy Bradford. “It’s possible that not all of them will survive, but the various markets they are serving are big enough and growing to an extent that we can definitely see the need for launch services dedicated to small satellites.”

Firefly's modular and multifunctional engine command, control and telemetry unit the size of a business card.Photo: Firefly Space Systems

Founded in 2014, Firefly is developing a scalable series of launch vehicles, starting with the Firefly Alpha, a two-stage rocket designed to carry 200Kg to SSO. Both Firefly and Rocket Lab have won contract from NASA for CubeSat launch missions, along with a third winner, Virgin Galactic. But it’s not just new players that are investing in SmallSat launch. Arianespace, which has been launching small satellites since the company formed more than three decades ago, is seeing growing interest in this subset of the market.

“In recent years, we have led the way with Globalstar and O3b constellation launches on Soyuz,” says Stephane Israel, chairman and CEO of Arianespace. “Now that Vega is in full operation, we can address even small-class payloads. The OneWeb and Google+SkyBox contracts this year show customers trust in Soyuz and Vega to orbit small satellite constellations. The Ariane System for Auxiliary Payloads - Soyuz (ASAP-S) and Vega Secondary Payload Adapter (VESPA) carrying structures are perfect for accommodating small payloads with masses from 200 kg all the way down to CubeSats.”

New Rockets for New Needs

Companies in the SmallSat domain value rapid iteration and the ability to produce new satellites in short amounts of time. Compared to larger spacecraft, this means there is typically no need to wait a year or years to put a satellite in orbit. Planet Labs demonstrated this in October 2014, when after losing 26 “Dove” spacecraft in the Antares Orb-3 mission, the company quickly built two satellites, had them tested and delivered to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 with a preliminary thumbs up from NASA in a mere nine days. Those satellites were successfully launched in January 2015 and stand as a testament to the rapid clip SmallSat companies can move at.

“They have much shorter timeframes for building and deploying their satellite networks,” says Israel. “We need to adjust our launch models to try and accommodate payloads on a shorter timeline. The typical two/three year timeline from contract to launch used by big GEO operators will not work for most of these new players. I would add that we also need to find ways to standardize the adaptors, structures and separation systems for small payloads to shorter timelines to launch and reduce the amount of engineering work involved in each mission.”

Beck says the SmallSat industry is playing up its strength in rapid development, with less concern about heritage and extremely low risk. They also have significant access to talent. These are big benefits that launch providers are also seeing, he says.

Rocket Lab is planning its first test flight of Electron in 2016 once its New Zealand launch site completes construction, with commercial missions soon to follow.

“We have a multiple test launch campaign,” says Beck. “We have a minimum of three test flights during 2016. At the end of 2016 we are hoping to fly our first commercial mission.”

After 2016, Rocket Lab plans to launch roughly once every two months for the first quarter of 2017, then transitioning to one a month, and shifting up to two a month in 2018. The company’s goal is to launch regularly and often, eventually scaling up to once a week.

Firefly is also planning a series of test launches of its Alpha rocket, starting with suborbital missions in 2017 and leading into orbital launches in 2018. The company plans to produce as many as 50 Alpha vehicles a year. Its manifest is nearly filled for 2018, and the company is in discussions for its first launch of 2019.

And the momentum behind dedicated launches is not just for new entrants. Arianespace reaffirmed its commitment to SmallSat launches with Vega C — an evolution of the current lightweight Vega launcher that will double as the solid rocket booster for Ariane 6. This ensures mass production of Vega C and a healthy future of the rocket with the launch giant. Still, Arianespace is evaluating another way to serve this market.

A model Vega rocket. Vega has since flown six times and has many more missions on order.Photo: Arianespace

“Regarding the increased flexibility that the SmallSat industry requires, we may consider developing a dedicated ultra-light launcher, fully complementary to those of our current family — as well as the Ariane 6 and Vega C in the next decade — which could be used specifically for this market segment. But the economics of such a system need to be examined closely before we take this path any further,” explains Israel.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) is also gauging ways to serve the SmallSat launch market. The company is developing a new rocket, the H3, to be more commercially aggressive than the H2A and H2B rockets the company currently fields mostly for Japanese government missions. With the H3 MHI plans to conflate the strengths of the H2A and H2B into one rocket, and create opportunity for more international missions.

“[The] SmallSat market is surely growing up and I'm looking very carefully whether ground systems will be workable with appropriate cost,” says Ko Ogasawara, VP and general manager of MHI Launch Services. “As a launch service provider, to support such a small satellite constellation program, we are planning to make considerations in our design of H3 and are planning to be prepared for the clustered launch as an option.”

Bullish Expectations

The climbing demand for SmallSat launch has spilled over beyond just rideshare and secondary payload opportunities. Rideshare remains popular — as evidenced by Spaceflight Inc.’s purchase of an entire Falcon 9 for this purpose — but the pent up demand for dedicated missions is on the verge of breakthrough and shows no signs of stopping.

“We weren’t expecting to see the level of interest that we have in the Electron launch vehicle,” says Beck. “We thought we would create the capability and then drag the market along with us. It’s been quite the opposite … we don’t have a sales department here at Rocket Lab. We don’t have teams of people that try and go out and look for launches. What has been surprising is the demand for the vehicle in the timeframe that we have been developing it.”

Rocket Lab's Electron launch vehicle.Photo: Rocket Lab

Beck describes the interest from companies such as Google, Samsung, and other tech giants as surprising and validating. He points to these examples and others as evidence that space is becoming a commercially dominated domain.

“Many small satellite operators are attracting private equity investment to build and launch their systems,” adds Israel. “That is a positive thing for our industry. If those companies can execute on their business plans, you will see continued interest in the sector.”

For Firefly, the demand for SmallSat launch is such that the company has envisioned a whole family of launchers, which will eventually introduce reusability as a way to further lower costs. Firefly currently advertises a price tag of $8 million for its expandable launcher, but is already thinking long term about dedicated SmallSat launches with reusable systems.

“Reusability tends to cost a lot up front (in building the system) but, if there are enough flights, it will pay for itself many times over. The key is the frequency of launch, which needs to be high to make the economics work out, and designing for reliability and reusability,” says Bradford, adding that the drivers for the market today are robust. “Today the growth is in a number of application markets (not just communications), the technology is much more advanced, the financing models are different (capital based) and the demand for the services being offered is much clearer, I think.”

Satellites, as long-term assets hold the almost contradictory position of being incredibly high tech and incredibly dated. Yet with SmallSats, the industry is learning how to put fresh tech in orbit at a faster pace, and the launch industry is ready to step up and meet that demand.

“Moore’s law is applicable to a lot of things,” says Beck. “It’s certainly proven applicable to small satellites.” VS

Caleb Henry is Via Satellite's assitant editor.

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