Launch Failures Dent Growth in Small Satellites

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LOGAN, Utah — The number of small satellites launched in 2015 is likely to fall short of the growth predicted in recent forecasts because of launch failures that have reduced the number of launches available for such spacecraft.

“We think 2015 is going to be a little bit of a tough year,” said Elizabeth Buchen, director of the engineering economics group of Atlanta-based SpaceWorks Engineering, during an Aug. 12 presentation at the Conference on Small Satellites here.

A study released in early 2014 by SpaceWorks forecast launches of “nano/microsatellites,” which the company defines as those spacecraft weighing between 1 and 50 kilograms. That study estimated 140 to 143 such spacecraft would launch in 2014; the actual total was 158.

That same study forecast more than 200 nano/microsatellites would launch in 2015. However, Buchen noted that, so far this year, fewer than 50 have launched. “We’re probably not going to hit the number of satellites we got last year,” she said.

Buchen said the decline in satellites is primarily due to failures of Orbital ATK’s Antares and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch vehicles in October 2014 and June 2015, respectively. The Falcon 9 is expected to resume flights no earlier than September, while Antares will resume launches in the spring of 2016.

The two vehicles accounted for a significant fraction of small satellites launched, primarily in the form of cubesats carried inside cargo missions destined for the International Space Station for later deployment from there. The loss of Antares is particularly critical, she said, since those launches have accounted for about one third of the nano/microsatellites launched since the beginning of 2013.

Buchen said that one solution to the current launch problem is for more launches to carry small satellites as secondary payloads. Only about 15 percent of launches in recent years have included small satellites, she said.

She also advocated for more investment in emerging smallsat launch ventures. “There’s not a lot of venture capital going into launch,” she said. “There’s a ton going into the satellite industry, but not as much into the launch side.”