Q&A | Spaceflight’s Curt Blake defends PSLV access, talks GEO smallsat missions

by

PARIS — Several startups offering dedicated launches for small satellites say they are on the verge of carrying their first customers, but none so far have progressed beyond test launches.

Finding a ride to space remains a challenge for the ever-growing number of small satellite operators; for Spaceflight Inc., this is a good problem. The Seattle-based company is now regularly booking launch slots for other companies’ smallsats on U.S. cargo missions to the International Space Station, Russian Soyuz missions and, despite protectionist U.S. policies, India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV).

Spaceflight booked a dedicated Falcon 9 launch, dubbed SSO-A, that Curt Blake, Spaceflight’s president, said is now planned for spring. A second dedicated launch, this one with startup Rocket Lab’s Electron vehicle, is in final scheduling, he said.

PSLV is still a mainstay vehicle for many small satellite operators seeking access to space, so much so that those operators routinely tackle the U.S. waiver process to ensure use of the vehicle. Even the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has a PSLV payload planned after delays with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 led Spaceflight to rebook around 90 customers for what was supposed to be the company’s inaugural Sherpa mission. All that amounts to clear evidence, by Spaceflight’s logic, of the necessity of PSLV for American smallsats.

“I think that we need to be careful that we don’t protect the U.S. launch vehicle industry at the expense of the U.S. small satellite industry,” Blake said.

Blake said Spaceflight’s customer base — which ranges from cubesats weighing just a few kilograms to satellites nearing 1,000 kilograms — is changing to include small satellite operators who want access to geostationary transfer orbits, not just low-Earth orbit. Lower mass geostationary satellites that save on weight by opting for electric propulsion over chemical are providing excess capacity on rockets, and Spaceflight wants to fill that capacity with smallsats needing a ride, he said.

Blake spoke to SpaceNews at Euronconsult’s World Satellite Business Week in September about the evolution of Spaceflight.

Spaceflight started by finding rides before there were options for dedicated launches. Now that such vehicles are starting to actually come online, how does that change your business?

I think it’s good for our business because what it does is offer a real range of different vehicles that our customers can choose from. What I’ve found over the last few years is that nobody wants to put all their launch eggs in any given vehicle basket. Everyone wants to spread out and diversify their risk because you never know if any individual launch service provider is going to encounter a problem.

There will be times when small dedicated vehicles really make sense for a customer, and there will be other times when it’s important that a customer get the very lowest per kilogram price possible. We offer both of ends of the spectrum.

If you think about low-inclination orbits, it’s hard to find a lot of customers that want those. We are finding increasing numbers, but right now it would be really hard to fill a Falcon 9 with customers that want to go to low-inclination. What would be smart is to go out and aggregate two or three customers onto a Rocket Lab vehicle.

For sun-synchronous, where a lot of people want to go, it absolutely makes sense to get a big vehicle and really lower the per-kilogram rate. Then if you are going to mid-inclination or 45 degrees, that’s where an in-between and a mid-sized launcher like PSLV makes sense.

How late can someone move between launchers?

It depends on the contracts with the launch providers. That’s something we’ve tried to encourage flexibility in that regard.

What we are trying to move towards is booking a virtual payload that you can then move between rockets, perhaps by booking a slightly larger mass than you would normally, so that you have some flexibility.

Have you launched anything to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) yet?

We haven’t launched anything to that orbit yet. We do have some missions that are sketched out. We have the customers and the launch vehicle capacity that we need, so we are moving forward with proposals. It should be happening in the latter part of 2018.

Preserving the cleanliness of the GEO arc is very important to satellite operators. Do all those GEO smallsats have propulsion on them?

Yes, they do.

How big will GEO be for your business?

I’m thinking we’ll do them once a year. I would not be surprised if it moved to twice a year. We are getting quite a lot of traction on it.

Has the regulatory difficulty of using India’s PSLV changed at all?

I don’t think it’s easy for U.S. companies to get there. We now understand pretty well what the State Department is looking for when we seek a waiver, so we know the process and what to do. I think until some of the U.S. small launch vehicle companies come online — more than one — and are up and running and have become commercially viable, then we will need to continue to use PSLV to launch small satellites.

I think that we need to be careful that we don’t protect the U.S. launch vehicle industry at the expense of the U.S. small satellite industry. I think that a lot of times people focus on the launch industry and worry about the viability of the different small launch vehicles, but we also need to worry about the viability of small satellite companies. Everybody says launch is the bottleneck. We should be worried about how those small satellites and small satellite companies can get on orbit so they can execute their business plans, hire people and make money — and right now PSLV plays a role in enabling that smallsat industry to be viable. It certainly has over the last few years while there hasn’t been much U.S. small satellite launch capacity available.

What fraction of spaceflight launch customers are from the U.S.?

About 55 to 60 percent. The rest are coming for all over.

Can you envision a world where Spaceflight would be able to book satellites, international satellites potentially, on Chinese rockets?

I can see a world like that. I think a lot of things would have to change to get there, but I’m optimistic. I would love it if everyone could fly on different rockets and it was a freer economic system. I think the trade barriers simply don’t help the small satellite industry. They artificially hold prices up.

DARPA is launching on a PSLV, which came as a surprise given the U.S. government’s resistance to PSLV. How did that work for you, rebooking a U.S. government customer on a rocket that they don’t want industry to use?

I think that there are situations where it makes sense. There’s an application process you have to go through if you want to manifest a U.S. government satellite on a foreign launch vehicle. [DARPA] went through that process. As far as we are concerned, there was approval that the customer got in order to do that. There is a presumption, though, that you should go on a U.S. launch vehicle if you are a U.S. government-funded enterprise. But there is a methodology to let you go on a foreign launcher in certain circumstances.

Has Spaceflight launched U.S. government satellites on international rockets before?

We’ve made applications before, and are sometimes successful. To clarify, we don’t actually don’t make applications, the customer makes the applications. We point them to the process.

The Sherpa mission with DARPA’s mission was split between PSLV and what else?

A couple different PSLVs, some on an Orbital ATK flight and one or two on SSO-A.

That was supposed to be Sherpa’s debut. When does that happen now?

There is a Sherpa on the SSO-A mission.

How many satellites will be on that?

It’s not final quite yet. Not a record though.

Do you have additional Sherpa missions planned?

Yes, we do. We have various ones in various states of development. We have the one in the spring of 2018. The next after that is likely early to mid-2019.

Orbcomm raised space situational awareness concerns over Sherpa. Have those been assuaged?

It’s a question of orbit — we won’t be near the Orbcomm orbit.