Minotaur 4’s canceled commercial cubesat rideshares could spark policy changes

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WASHINGTON — Following a decision to pull eight Spire commercial cubesats from an Orbital ATK Minotaur 4 launch from Cape Canaveral Aug. 26 carrying a military payload, the U.S. Air Force says it and other government agencies are crafting clear procedures on how to handle such future rideshare agreements.

“The Air Force is working with DoD (Defense Department) policy staff and other U.S. government interagency stakeholders to ensure there is clear guidance for other potential commercial rideshare opportunities should they arise,” Capt. Christine Guthrie said in response to SpaceNews queries about the decision to remove the Spire cubesats from the launch.

There were 11 cubesats originally manifested on the Minotaur 4 carrying the Air Force’s 113-kilogram Operationally Responsive Space (ORS)-5 satellite, known as SensorSat, Air Force officials say.

“Three were ultimately flown for two government agencies,” Guthrie said. The remaining cubesats, the Air Force said, belonged to San Francisco-based Spire Global.

The removed cubesats were eight Lemur 2 satellites, used generally for global ship tracking and weather monitoring.

“Minotaur 4 was going to drop off in a very low inclination orbit that simply isn’t available to us anywhere else,” Spire Launch Director Jenny Barna said. “Rideshare launches are almost exclusively going to sun-synchronous orbits. That differentiation would have directly benefited our customers in terms of improved global coverage.”

“While we believe launching the Spire cubesats on the ORS-5 launch mission is legal and compliant with law and policy,” Col. Shahnaz Punjani, director of the Operationally Responsive Space Office, said, other agencies raised policy issues about the commercial cubesat rideshare payload on a military launch.

“Questions from our interagency partners about the intent of the National Space Transportation Policy regarding commercial rideshares could not be resolved in time to support our launch date,” Guthrie said. “The Air Force’s overarching interest was launching the ORS-5 satellite in a timely manner” to meet the service’s operational need.

The conflict with space transportation policy is the long-standing restriction on the use of excess ballistic missile assets for launch vehicles to U.S. government-sponsored payloads. The Minotaur 4 uses motors from decommissioned Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The “interagency partner” that appeared to raise objections was the Federal Aviation Administration, which issued the launch license for the mission. “The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did not approve Orbital ATK’s request for a license modification to include commercial cubesats on the upcoming ORS-5 launch mission,” Guthrie said. “As a result, Orbital ATK decided not to include commercial cubesats on the launch.”

Asked if the FAA placed any conditions or restrictions on the ORS-5 mission launched on the Minotaur 4, agency spokesman Hank Price said the FAA issued Orbital ATK a license Feb. 10 to launch government payloads on the Minotaur 4 from Cape Canaveral. The launch license contains any and all conditions on the license, Price said, and the FAA does not comment on the “existence or status of launch license applications or modifications until the FAA makes a final decision regarding those requests.”

Industry sources believe the FAA never formally rejected a proposed license modification for the cubesats because it did not go through the official process, but it was informally clear that the agency would have rejected such a modification had it been formally submitted.

Spire officials are trying to figure out why there was any issue at all about commercial cubesats on this launch.

“If Spire chose this launch in the place of another commercial offering, I would understand the industry’s concern about fair competition,” Barna said. “But no existing U.S. launch company or new entrant was offering a similar launch.  The fundamental intent of the policy is to keep competition fair, and competition just wasn’t a factor here.”

Air Force officials acknowledge U.S. policy needs to be clarified on this point, which is why they are working with other government agencies on developing guidelines in the aftermath of the Minotaur 4 launch.

For now, that concern regarding competition is causing problems for launching cubesats for companies like Spire.

“Access to U.S. launches is already an issue for commercial cubesats flying as secondaries. Outside of [International Space Station] resupply missions, there has never been a launch in the U.S. that accommodated commercial cubesats as rideshare,” Barna said. “ORS-5 would have been the first.”

The launch industry is unpredictable now, she noted, and Spire has to be prepared to find other launch vehicles when something like the Minotaur 4 scenario crops up.  “We’re always eyeing backup opportunities and working with our launch partners in case things like this happen. All satellites have been re-manifested and should launch within the next few months.”

“I believe we’ve lost five launches in two years,” Barna said of the company’s overall efforts to launch its cubesat constellation. “We’ve been bumped to other launches just as many times because of failures or delays, or just because the primary customer asked. If you haven’t consciously built an entire infrastructure around the flexibility to move launches, absorb delays and cancellations, and even adapt to geopolitical and regulatory challenges, then you just aren’t prepared to launch a satellite constellation.”