Small Satellites & Small Launchers | Rocket Builders Scramble To Capture Growing Microsat Market

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SAN FRANCISCO — The increasing popularity of miniature satellites among government agencies, universities and commercial firms is prompting rocket builders to redouble their efforts to develop a variety of launch vehicles to address this market. 

In recent months, companies including Virgin Galactic Corp., Garvey Spacecraft Corp., Quantum Research International and Ventions LLC have announced progress in their efforts to develop and test small-satellite launchers and rocket engines. The firms are financing their initiatives with money from investors, customers and government organizations including NASA, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command.

For years, small-satellite developers were eager to obtain any ride into space even if that meant traveling as an auxiliary payload on flights years in the future to orbits that were far from ideal. As small satellites become more capable and sophisticated, however, their orbital requirements and schedule demands grow. NASA is discovering, for example, that the secondary payload opportunities aboard expendable rocket launches do not always meet the unique requirements of planned microsatellite science missions, said Garrett Skrobot, mission manager for NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites program at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. 

To begin remedying that situation, NASA is using its Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) program to identify promising nanosatellite launcher technologies. In April, the space agency awarded nearly $200,000 to Garvey Spacecraft of Long Beach, Calif.,  to design a two-stage liquid-fueled launch vehicle capable of sending a 10-kilogram payload into a 250-kilometer, circular low Earth orbit and for work to evolve that into one capable of carrying larger satellites to higher orbits. At the same time, NASA awarded $200,000 to San Francisco-based Ventions to develop a regeneratively cooled, pump-fed, two-stage launch vehicle for cubesat and nanosatellite rockets.

Ventions also is participating in DARPA’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program, an effort to develop an air-launched rocket capable of sending 45-kilogram satellites into low Earth orbit with only 24 hours notice at a cost of $1 million. Ventions announced on its website that it tested its pump-fed engine technology in July in a sounding rocket launch. 

DARPA also is funding ALASA work at Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Md.; Chicago-based Boeing Co.; Northrop Grumman Corp. of Falls Church, Va.; Space Information Laboratories LLC of Santa Maria, Calif.; and Virgin Galactic of Las Cruces, N.M. 

The Army, meanwhile, is pursuing its own nanosatellite launcher through the Soldier-Warfighter Operationally Responsive Deployer for Space initiative. The effort is aimed at developing a rocket that could be readied within 24 hours to send a 25-kilogram payload to a 750-kilometer orbit. 

In March, the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command awarded Quantum Research International of Huntsville, Ala., a $19 million development contract for the planned nanosatellite launcher. The first suborbital flight of the rocket is expected to occur in the summer of 2014 with an orbital flight scheduled to follow six months later, Don Faint, program manager for Quantum Research, said by email.   

Two operators of larger rockets designed to serve the small-satellite industry also are signing up customers. Virgin Galactic is developing a two-stage rocket, LauncherOne, which is designed to travel into the atmosphere on the company’s WhiteKnightTwo aircraft before separating and sending 225 kilograms of payload into low Earth orbit. That program remains on schedule to perform test flights in 2015 and begin commercial service in 2016, said William Pomerantz, Virgin Galactic’s special projects vice president. 

Lockheed Martin plans to accommodate small-satellite customers on a 2015 rideshare flight of its Athena 2 rocket departing from Alaska’s Kodiak Launch Complex. The Athena is based on a Lockheed Martin solid-fueled vehicle that flew several times in the 1990s and early 2000s before being shelved for lack of business.

Lockheed Martin originally hoped to conduct the Athena rideshare mission in 2014 for government customers interested in sending satellites weighing 50 to 180 kilograms to precise orbital locations. That mission now is likely to occur in 2015 due to the challenge of coordinating the schedules of multiple customers for the flight, which can lift 1,712 kilograms to low Earth orbit, said Gregory Kehrl, Lockheed Martin’s Athena Launch Services mission manager.