Launch woes diminish demand for small satellites

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WASHINGTON — Challenges finding launches for small satellites not only decreased the number of such spacecraft launched last year but also have depressed long-term demand, according to a new forecast.

The 2017 Nano/Microsatellite Market Forecast, published Feb. 1 by Atlanta-based SpaceWorks Enterprises Inc., projects that up to 2,400 satellites weighing between 1 and 50 kilograms will be seeking a launch from 2017 through 2023. That is 20 percent less than the projection for such satellites seeking launch from 2016 through 2022 in the company’s forecast last year.

A major reason for that decline is launch. Delays in launches in recent years, caused by launch vehicle failures and other setbacks, have reduced the number of smallsats launched in the last two years. After reaching a peak of 158 smallsats launched in 2014, that figure dropped to 131 in 2015 and 101 in 2016.

While SpaceWorks expects the market to rebound this year, with 182 satellites weighing between 1 and 50 kilograms projected to launch, long-term growth is forecast to be slower than in prior years “to reflect the chronic delays experienced by launch providers and satellite operators,” the company said in its report.

“Even though launch delays continued to have a strong impact on the small satellite market in 2016, this year should set a new record for the number of nano/microsatellites launched with multiple large dedicated rideshare missions,” Bill Doncaster, senior systems engineer at SpaceWorks and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “In the future, however, concentration on relatively few launch vehicles increases uncertainty in the launch schedule for small satellite operators and limits near-term growth.”

Many in the small satellite industry have been betting on the emergence of a new generation of dedicated small launch vehicles, intended to help end satellite operators’ reliance on secondary payload opportunities to launch their spacecraft. Several companies plan to attempt first launches of such vehicles this year, including Rocket Lab, Vector Space and Virgin Galactic.

Even if successful, though, such vehicles will not immediately end the launch bottleneck. “The small launch vehicle providers will offset this, but we expect it will take them time to reach the high flight rates they are targeting,” Doncaster said in an interview.

Several other factors also contribute to the decreased growth of smallsats in the forecast. Doncaster said some planned smallsat systems have grown in mass and are no longer in the 1-to-50-kilogram range covered by the report. This includes, he said, the wave of broadband communications satellite constellations being planned, whose spacecraft may weigh significantly more than 50 kilograms.

An additional factor, he said, is that the constellations of remote sensing smallsats being developed now will be entering a “sustainment” mode within a few years, requiring less frequent launches. In the company’s near-term forecast, covering the years 2017 through 2019, it predicts 64 percent of the smallsats planned for launch will be for remote sensing, compared to 43 percent of those launches from 2009 through 2016.

Two launches expected in the coming months could help return the smallsat sector to growth. An Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, expected to launch later in February, will carry a reported 103 satellites, nearly all of which weigh less than 50 kilograms. That mission, if successful, will set a record for the most satellites deployed on a single launch.

Also expected to launch later this year is Spaceflight’s SHERPA mission, a secondary payload on a Falcon 9 launch carrying nearly 90 smallsats. That launch was scheduled for late 2016 but postponed when the Falcon 9 was grounded after a Sept. 1 pad explosion.